The new Rav4 will give Toyota's competitors something to think about
Modernised and bolder-styled SUV is a big improvement on its predecessors
The new Toyota Rav4 is aimed at people who've severed ties with the Corolla but seek something that's practical for families and has almost limitless access to remote areas.
It first appeared in 1994 as an imaginative, never-before-seen, compact SUV and, in true Toyota style, the company was not merely dipping a toe in. The Rav4 is the inventor of the niche that has not only spawned various splinter crossover ideas, but is currently seeing nothing short of a meteoric rise in both sales and alternatives, at the expense of sedans and hatchbacks.
It has ruled over the mid-sized SUV segment ever since.
The more aggressive-looking, advanced fifth-generation has just gone on sale in SA.
Anyone who has spent time in any of the previous models will recognise that Toyota has had a proper go at glamming up the new Rav4, inside and out. Differences quickly start to accumulate - its body shell being more Lexus in hexagonal flame-surfacing and American "truck" design in boldness.
Built on a completely new stiffer but lighter platform, it's been trimmed 5mm upfront and 30mm at the rear, effectively making the new car 35mm shorter than the model it replaces. The results are shorter overhangs and a design that hides its large size very well, while unlocking an increase in wheelbase by some 30mm over the old car to open up more interior space.
In a nutshell, this compact SUV ditches the old-hat dourness through a lower roofline, but it's wider and stands 15mm higher off the ground than the old car. Its chassis has also been stiffened by 57%.
Once ensconced within the cabin, the first apparent change is the dash layout, switch-gear and binnacle graphics, which are equally close to latter-day Lexus products in soft touches and brushed aluminium.
The range-topping 2.5 VX 8AT AWD model boasts powered and leather-clad seats with bum warmers, shift lever and steering wheel in leather, keyless entry and start, wireless cellphone charger, three USB ports, automatic climate control and high beams, active cruise control, Toyota Safety Sense, Blind Spot Monitor, rear cross-traffic alert, panoramic sunroof, and front and back reverse cameras as standard fitment.
The generously specified VX grade walk can be had in 2WD or AWD.
On the move there is a palpable sharpness in steering and nimbleness. The chassis feels well matched to the normally aspirated 2.5l motor, with 152kW/243Nm and an eight-speed automatic transmission that's only found in this model.
It has good enough poke and poise, and a deeply satisfying and cushy ride quality. In the corners it's well balanced, turns in keenly and also rides nicely on both smooth and bad surfaces.
The same can be said for my follow-up drive experience in the 2.0 GX-R CVT AWD model; a funkier, less expensive, rugged urban-stormer take on the Rav4. It uses a smaller 2.0l, four-cylinder engine, with 127kW and 203Nm driving all wheels through a 10-step CVT gearbox.
Unfortunately, there was no real opportunity to check out its off-road driving ability, the most we ventured on to being a short gravel track. Regardless, proper mud-plugging remains something of a rarity in this segment anyway and that dirt road served to reaffirm the top-drawer damping on bad surfaces and to show off Toyota's new drive mode selector, which incorporates five "terrain" modes, including normal, sand & mud, and rock & dirt.
There is no doubt the new car is a vast improvement on its predecessors. Toyota has shifted the goal posts so far in build quality, specification and design that, once more, it will please its profiled customers who are predisposed towards the brand's famous peace-of-mind motoring, while also giving rival brands something to think long and hard about.
RAV4 2.0 GX MT 2WD — R416,400
RAV4 2.0 GX CVT 2WD — R 427,600
RAV4 2.0 GX-R CVT AWD — R508,100
RAV4 2.0 VX CVT 2WD — R505,400
RAV4 2.5 VX 8AT AWD — R577,900
All models carry a six-year/90,000km service plan and three-year/100,000km warranty.