More than a little dismissively – and unfairly – the Toyota RAV4 was in its early years referred to as a hairdresser’s car.
Quite what that label was down to is lost in the mists of time but was probably because it was the first of the so-called soft-roaders. It had the raised ride height and look of a scaled-down SUV but was unlikely to be called upon to do anything more challenging than dodge the trolleys at the local supermarket.
It was the first crossover when it arrived here in 1994 and introduced us to a new kind of car, aiming to combine the rugged stance of an SUV with compact dimensions and the handling ability of a hatchback.
Toyota RAV4 Hybrid Design 2WD
Engine: 2.5-litre, four-cylinder petrol plus electric motor
Top speed 112mph
0-62 mph 8.4 secs
CO2 emissions: 105 g/km
25 years on Toyota have decided the time has come for some big changes in their hugely successful crossover, the first, and still the world’s best-seller in spite of competition from almost every other manufacturer.
The latest fifth generation bears the same name, but is a completely different beast.
In typical Japanese style the name was based on the role it was to play in its owners’ lives. The Recreational Activity Vehicle with the option of four-wheel- drive has been modified over the years to meet different customer demands but according to the marketing people it now stands for Robust – with great handling and ability in rough road conditions; Accurate – improved visibility and storage with great efficiency, range and safety in a Vehicle which has the option of even more advanced four-wheel-drive.
At its heart is an all-new platform with core strengths of a low centre of gravity and a lightweight and strong balanced chassis that gives its driver big rewards in exceptional handling and stability.
Every component has been made lighter and positioned lower down in the vehicle – everything from the engine to the seats. The fuel tank now lies in front of the rear axle so that its load is spread evenly between the wheels which helps achieve flat, stable performance.
It’s lower, longer, wider with a higher ride height and it’s faster, quieter and more fuel efficient.
It is one of two cars in its class with its self-charging, hybrid powertrain – in the previous model the choice of almost all customers in Western Europe and even more so in the UK. Just three years ago 88 per cent of RAV4 owners opted for a diesel engine. By last year that had plummeted to just 4 per cent with 91 per cent choosing a hybrid version, which is why the latest hybrid is the only model on offer.
Key components, including the power control unit and the nickel-metal hybrid battery are more compact and lighter, and the transaxle and transmission have been engineered to reduce electrical and mechanical losses.
On the road, the car feels confident and happy to provide exactly the power – either conventional petrol or electric – whenever needed although there is a noticeable contrast in sound when alternating between the two. The CVT auto transmission is less whiny than before and is superbly smooth in its delivery.
I spent most of my time in a two-wheel-drive version but managed to squeeze in some off-roading in a four-wheel-drive model with a new automatic limited-slip differential control called Trail Mode designed to ensure the best possible grip on poor surfaces.
If it detects that a driven wheel has lost contact with the ground on uneven surfaces, it automatically brakes that wheel and sends torque direct to the one which has grip. It is impressive and provides greater security for adventurous types who’ll know they should still be able to keep going no matter how tough the going gets.
The new version also looks pretty good with a powerful, beefy front end which emphasises its increased width. On the inside too it feels very spacious.
Rear seat passengers have an extra 40mm width, larger footwells and because of the bigger opening angle of the back doors, getting in and out and seeing to little ones in child seats has been made easier.
The load space behind the rear seats is larger with a reversible double-deck, fully-flat longer floor. 60/40 split seating means the space can be adapted for more cargo room. With the rear seats folded down you can even get in a 29-inch mountain bike – without having to take off any wheels.
There’s a good quality feel to the cabin with soft-touch surfaces on the dashboard and door panels and the switches and controls come easily to hand. A lot of work has been done to improve visibility. The low-set instrument panel helps to give the driver a clearer view of the road ahead and by moving the door mirrors further back, vision to the side is better too.
A powered tailgate is standard across the range except for the entry level Icon grade but the hands-free foot operation is not as yet an option for UK models. Also not coming to us, for the moment at least, is the smart camera-operated rear-view mirror which still gives a clear picture of what’s behind even if the loadspace is crammed full or if the back window is obscured by road dirt.
The RAV4’s role may have changed but it is still an impressive machine with lower emissions, more power, greater tax savings and higher residual values than its rivals including the VW Tiguan, the Ford Kuga or Honda’s CR-V.