2013 Toyota RAV4: First Drive and Video Road Test

December 19, 2012

It's been a rough year for fans of white bread. The last oven timer's gone off at Hostess. Justin Bieber's sprouted chin hair number two. Mitt Romney is just Mitt Romney, no President prefix.

The Mayans may as well be right--could any river of lava be worse?

All hope is not lost. For proof, here we have the 2013 Toyota RAV4, a crossover that so resolutely occupies the middle of the road, it's as if the double yellow never existed. It's back for the new model year, with no V-6, no turbochargers even, and no third-row seat. There's less acceleration, not much more or less space, and more safety equipment--all the better to conform to the basic contours of the compact crossover class.

Now, crossovers in general are no one's idea of everyone's idea of a good time, but we came away from our first drive of the 2013 RAV4 out in Scottsdale, convinced that the RAV4 is every bit the equal of the Honda CR-V. It does a better job of showing up for work with a smile on its face than before, despite the downgrade in power. And while you'd never outrun the top turbo Escape or Santa Fe Sport from a dead stop, the switch to a single four-cylinder drivetrain throws the spotlight over the RAV4's improved handling.

It doesn't hurt, or help matters either, that the RAV4 now looks a lot like the direct competition that's angling for every one of the 200,000 sales Toyota wants to snare for itself with the new crossover. The RAV4 favors the Ford Escape the most from the rear quarters (there's no rear-mounted spare tire), which in turn trends toward the Santa Fe Sport, or even the CX-5. It's not quite as slinky as the Mazda--the tautly pulled taillamps are a disjointed touch--but the sheetmetal does it many favors, otherwise. We'd say the same of the multi-generation-themed interior, if we could come to grips with some of the many textures and plastics used to finish it off. Especially on the Limited, it gets a bit tense, with faux leather fighting fake carbon fiber for your attention.

It'll take almost nine seconds to hit 60 mph--a 2.0-liter Ford or Hyundai will be several car lengths away by that time--but the RAV4 hasn't suffered much bloat. There's a Sport mode we encourage you to seek out, since it sharpens the throttle and gearbox responses, but avoid the Eco button at all costs. (It's labeled Eco because "buzzkill" wouldn't fit.) No lightweight, the RAV4 still is smooth enough to overcome its adequate performance, with good ride quality in base or mid-grade trim that gets a little choppy with the Limited's 18-inch wheels.

Where it transcends the Escape, and rivals the CR-V most directly, is in space and packaging. The mid-grade cloth front seats are the best of the lineup, with good bolstering and upholstery. The base versions give up on the former, the Limited on the latter (it's more of the faux leather there). The rear seats feel flat, but there's more than enough head and leg room for adults, and the seats recline or fold away altogether, for those who need a big cargo bin.

Now that a rearview camera and Bluetooth are standard, there's not much reason to spend more than the $24,145 RAV4 LE. You won't get satellite radio or a navigation system--not even as an option--but that's why smartphones were invented. Move into the $25,135 XLE and the RAV4 wears better interior trim and gets those more shapely front seats, along with a sunroof and automatic air conditioning. Unless you really need the $27,855 Limited's power driver seat and 18-inch wheels, keep it cheap--and consider the $1400 all-wheel-drive option, which sends some torque to the rear wheels not just in bad weather, but in corners to help it steer more quickly to true.

That's a single detail that reveals much about where the new RAV4 is headed. Ground clearance may have shrunk, and power may be down, but Toyota's mass-market crossover at least has an unerring sense for the middle of the road.

For more information, including pricing with options and specifications, see our full review of the 2013 Toyota RAV4.

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