While the RAV4 no longer offers the V-6 engine option it used to, the latest version handles better than ever and offers a more on-road-focused all-wheel-drive system since, let's face it, these small utility vehicles rarely leave pavement.
While most others in the segment offer stronger acceleration from optional engines, the RAV4 makes the best of its sole four-cylinder powertrain. The 176-horsepower engine is mated to a slick six-speed automatic that offers a sport-shift mode; the two bring the RAV4 up to 60 mph in less than nine seconds. Anyone who needs better performance will have to look elsewhere. The engine and transmission are quiet and smooth in operation, which is to be expected from Toyota.
The RAV4's transmission is definitely tuned for efficiency, shifting to third or fourth as soon as it can when driving around town and dropping into a low-rpm lull just as soon as it can when speeds allow. It's a little better in Sport mode, where the transmission smooths out downshifts by blipping the throttle.
The fundamentals of good, responsive handling are here, with a reasonably low ride height for a crossover, combined with electric power steering that has good weighting and centering feel. And if you'd like the steering a little heavier, Sport mode delivers that as well. It adds more weight, with good on-center tracking and stability and less resistance to returning to center, but unfortunately does nothing to increase feel.
The RAV4's front-strut and rear control-arm suspension doesn't have as much travel as, say, the bigger Chevy Equinox or Hyundai Santa Fe, and it shows when the RAV4 goes for limited excursions on gravel roads, where uneven surfaces are the rule, not the exception. And ground clearance is just 6.3 inches—that's a couple of inches less than you'd get in a Subaru Outback.
One of the key choices for RAV4 buyers is whether or not to spring for the $1,400 all-wheel-drive system, which is now more sophisticated. It uses electronic control to send power rearward when slippage in front is detected, and offers a true 50/50 fixed power split at up to 25 mph in 4WD Lock mode. A new electromagnetic coupling sends torque to the rear wheels when slip is detected; when you select Sport mode it sends 10-50 percent of torque to the rear wheels to help improve handling. And now, the system also does a good job on dry pavement in hard cornering.
For foul weather, the Lock feature gives predictable levels of traction—enabling the RAV4 to power through snowy driveways or muddy trails.