Four-wheel drive comes no more fashionably than Toyota's latest RAV4. June Neary checks it out
Will It Suit Me?
It's intriguing to consider that Toyota's upwardly mobile statement of urban chic might well be the finest mud-plugging tool yet invented and we wouldn't know it. The trendy townies who snap up the company's latest RAV4 models are no more likely to take them to the sludge than the GTi `hot hatches` and small sportscars they probably traded in as part exchange. I thought I'd try the latest facelifted MK4 version with its freshly-installed Hybrid engine.
Both my other half and I enjoyed the high up driving position which gives a super view of the road (as well as enabling you to look down on other road users). Our nephew has been a four-wheel drive fan since the first time he came out with me on a test drive and was impressed with the Toyota's huge boot space which had room to spare for his bicycle, small friend's pushchair - and me - as we went to the park with some friends. It also fits the bill nicely if, like we do, you keep bottles, newspapers and aluminium cans for recycling. There's loads of room to load up the monthly collection (light on the bottles, I hasten to add) with sacks of fallen leaves, to take to the dump. That's because this latest five-door RAV4 is a very different beast to the original Nineties version. Across each successive iteration, the RAV4 has got bigger and better equipped. This third generation model represented the most radical change yet. Cute and chunky was replaced with bold and aggressive. The new vehicle is a whole lot more angular and a good deal more spacious than RAV4s past. The latest facelifted cars tweak the front-end styling with changes to the bumper, grille and headlight design. There's also a redesigned taillight cluster treatment at the rear. The RAV4 remains at the more practical and family-orientated end of the compact 4x4 market. What it lacks in funky, urban styling it makes up for in capacity and user-friendliness. Rear seats that fold flat to the floor with one pull of a lever are one reason why the RAV4's load capacity is as big as it is and it also helps that the middle row of seats can reclined. The seat folding action is particularly slick. Whereas some rivals may also claim flat folding rear seats, the reality is that you will often have to spend time dismantling the head restraints or risk a hernia from flipping seat bases up before the operation can be completed. There's none of that palaver in the RAV4, a one-handed operation seeing the seat vanish flush with the load bay floor. You get 1,633-litres of space with the hybrid version - or 1,735-litres from a conventional model.
Behind the Wheel
On the move, the RAV4 is surprisingly comfortable. Perhaps Toyota have decided to acknowledge that most owners don't buy an off-roader to drive off the road and have adjusted the suspension accordingly. Certainly, the 149bhp 16 valve 2.0-litre petrol engine should suit those who favour frantic lifestyles. There's also a 141bhp D-4D diesel - and the Hybrid variant I tried that mates a 2.5-litre petrol engine with an electric motor at the front in the 2WD version and a second electric motor at the rear in the 4WD derivative. As with the original RAV4, the handling is impressive. No, it isn't as sharp as the GTi my other half used to drive in his carefree younger days (he said), but the RAV4 came surprisingly close. Cornering roll in some other SUVs is such that they require an entirely different driving technique. That isn't the case here. "It's just like driving a car," was his verdict. It's less manoeuvrable in the supermarket car park, even with power steering, than a car would be, but given the size and weight of the vehicle, this is a very minor point.
Value For Money
RAV4 pricing sits in the £24,000 to £30,000 bracket and though you still only get the one five-door, five-seat SUV bodystyle, there's otherwise a wide range of choice, with Toyota believing that over half of buyers are going to end up buying the petrol/electric hybrid engine we tried with its CVT automatic transmission. Look in detail at the make-up of the RAV4 range and you can see why that might be. After all, you can't have a diesel version of this car with 4WD. Or a conventional petrol version with manual transmission. So, you've got the message: Toyota really wants you to buy this car in hybrid form. If you're going to do that, then bear in mind that though the 2WD version of the hybrid variant is relatively affordable at just over £26,000, the 4WD hybrid derivative is only available with plusher trim that pushes its minimum asking price up to at least around £30,000. If that's not tempting and you're minded to stick with 2WD, manual transmission and the more predictable returns of diesel power, then prices start at just under £25,000. As for conventional petrol power, well that's still provided by the 2.0 V-matic derivative that's been carried forward from the previous RAV4 line-up, a car only offered with conventional mechanical 4WD and Multidrive S automatic transmission at asking prices that'll set you back the best part of £30,000.
Could I Live With One?
The fact that the man in my life could quite happily live with a RAV4 certainly makes it a viable option for me. Where the previous version was very much a second - or third - car, in my view, this larger model could feasibly be the main family car.