As the great Hollywood screen writer William Goldman said, nobody knows anything. By which he meant you never know until it’s too late whether you have a hit or a miss on your hands. You can hire the greatest actors, the most talented director and the best script writer and still end up with a total flop.
And that’s just how Toyota must have felt when it launched the original RAV4 in Ireland back in 1995 to a whopping sales performance of… 55. Fifty-five RAVs sold in the whole of its first year!
But, while the RAV4 has gone on to somewhat stronger performances since then, one could have been forgiven for underestimating the performance of the outgoing RAV4. Allowed to wither on the vine somewhat (Toyota normally replaces its passenger cars on a five year cycle) by the time of its replacement, the RAV4 had become crude, noisy, a touch cheap in feel and, worst of all, it had utterly lost the sparky dynamic feel that had been such a selling point of the 1995 original.
For this new model, Toyota went, in the grand tradition of such things, right back to the drawing board. Although its styling is clearly influenced by the Auris hatchback, mechanically it owes much more to the Avensis saloon, and that means it’s longer, lower and wider than the old RAV4, with vastly better cabin space and a big 547-litre boot. So, it’s got the ‘U’ of SUV down pat then, and the vast acreage of rear legroom will be a welcome sight to any prospective RAV4 purchasers who come to the dealership with growing children in tow.
But of the sportiness that so distinguished the original RAV4, there is precious little. That should make the new car a disappointment, but actually, it is rather better than that. Rather a lot better.
Climb aboard and you are faced with a multi-layered fascia which can look a little hard and unwelcoming in this base Aura model. That said, the sense of space is some compensation and, as ever with Toyota, there’s no doubting the quality. The seats are exceptionally comfortable and the driving position well thought out, so perhaps one shouldn’t be complaining about a bit of hard plastic here and there.
The 2.0-litre 125bhp engine is smooth and reasonably refined. At a cruise on the motorway, it’s hushed and relaxed, although ask it to perform with vim and it does get a bit shouty and breathless as you approach its 4,500rpm redline. Better to work the six-speed manual gearbox, with its slightly vague shift quality, and surf the 310Nm torque wave.
It’s then you’ll notice what a refined and controllable thing the RAV4 is. Yes, like almost all SUVs, it will under-steer when pushed, but the steering feels noticeably sharper than the norm, not just for the SUV class in general, but for Toyota in particular. It’s closer to the GT86 end of the spectrum than the mute, distant helm of the Auris.
That the RAV4 corners mostly flat and eagerly is welcome, but all of that is overlaid with a grown-up sense of decorum and refinement. This truly is an all-rounder of a car, and even the standard 2WD version has been engineered to cope with at least some mild off-roading. Thumb the traction control switch and you activate an electronic limited slip differential, which not only brakes a spinning wheel but actively diverts power to the wheel with grip. Why it couldn’t be made a fully automatic system (RAV4 buyers are not known for their off-roading prowess after all) was a question that was left hanging.
And, it’s usefully cheaper than the outgoing model. By replacing the 2.2-litre diesel (which continues to be available in range-topping 4WD models), the new 2.0-litre’s 125g/km Co2 emissions figure has helped to drop the price of the entry-level RAV4 by a staggering €5k to €27,995. And it’s well equipped even at that level, with standard Bluetooth phone, 17” alloys, LED lights, seven airbags, air conditioning and a tyre pressure warning system. That’s a price that dramatically undercuts the likes of Ford’s new Kuga and puts the RAV4 into competition with the Hyundai ix35, Kia Sportage and even ritzier versions of the Nissan Qashqai. Fine cars all, but they can’t match the Toyota for cabin space. Teasingly, Toyota Ireland is saying that price won’t be around for ever, without caring to add exactly how long it is expected to last for. A bit of cynical sales-drumming-up? Doubtless, but hey, if you’re in a position to buy at that price, you’re bagging a bargain.
While it’s something of a shame that the original RAV4’s styling and sense of fun have been lost, the fact that this new model brings with it new-found refinement, space and practicality is definitely to be welcomed. At that entry price, it will give the Korean twins a shock and it’s talented (and roomy) enough to potentially steal sales from the class above. To return to the Hollywood analogy, it’s not quite got the block-busting, star-studded power of some of its rivals, but this is a solid performer. It should do well at the Oscars!