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April 20, 2009

Review: 2009 Toyota RAV4

Go ahead. Stare as much as you like. What you’re seeing on these pages is the 2009 Toyota RAV4. We’re not kidding! That’s how “subtle” the changes are, considering the nips and tucks done here we supposed to keep the RAV4 fresh against the slew of its newer competitors including the exemplary Subaru Forester. We’re not saying that the RAV4 is a terrible car though. In fact, despite being one of the first to arrive among the current crop of compact crossovers, this “cute-ute” remains fairly commendable, though it has truly fallen from our graces.

Before you get cross-eyed trying to “spot the difference”, we’ll make it easy and nail them down for you: the front and rear bumpers are new and so is the grille, the turn signal repeaters on the side mirrors and the alloy wheels. Err…that’s about it. One can argue that the RAV4’s already handsome looks don’t need much messing around, and we can agree with that. But the hefty price jump (P 1,825,000 versus P 1,785,000) for new dental work sounds insane. This is especially true considering nothing mechanical has changed and the Philippine Peso/Japanese Yen exchange rate has swung to our favor. Sure, the freshened RAV4 looks better proportioned with the bigger, chrome-ringed fog lamps compared to the miniscule ones from before, but I’m sure they wouldn’t cost P 20,000 a piece. If the RAV4’s new 17-inch alloy wheel design looks strikingly familiar, we’re not surprised. With the Fortuner taking on the old design, the freshened one takes a page off the Land Cruiser Prado design book. It makes the RAV4 much more macho, but less sleek than before. Perhaps, the most welcome but most overlooked change, is the use of a “bee-sting” type radio antenna as opposed to old one’s rod-type one. This makes parking into vertically-challenged parking spaces much easier (and boy is the RAV4 a challenge, since it easily breaks the 1,700 mm height barrier).

Inside, this facelifted RAV4 is supposed to integrate new materials which should improve on the pre-facelift’s biggest Achilles’ heel: a plasticky interior. But, alas, we couldn’t find any of this so-called new material. It looks and feels the same as the previous one. And yes, it’s still plasticky. The quirky stuff is still there like the dual-tier glove box with the push button mechanism and the uncoordinated interior lighting scheme (the radio is backlit in green, the gauges in white and the rest of the controls in orange). This is a big shame really considering the RAV4 does an excellent job of imitating a Lexus interior. In that respect, there are still stuff to love like the chronograph-style gauges, the wing motif center console. Even the audio system pumps out commendable sound, but you’ll have to stick with silvery round discs here as there’s no aux jack to be found.

The growth spurt of the RAV4 between the second- and third-generation models still reaps benefits in terms of interior space. In fact, this one’s still the king of ‘em. There’s excellent head, shoulder and leg room for every passenger. Upfront, there’s a commanding feel thanks to a high seating position. The dashboard’s high-mount and two-tier design emphasizes that feeling even more. An electronic adjustment for the driver’s seat allows for excellent minute adjustment for the best driving position, though the seat’s lateral and hip support could be better. In other countries, the RAV4 is available as a 7-seater, but since it’s strictly a 5-seater for our market, rear occupants will revel in the comfortably large space. Aside from the usual tilt and tumble function, the rear seats also slide in a 60/40 split allowing for the fitment of long objects in the already generous cargo bay. Aside from accommodating the cup holders, the center portion of the rear seat can also be folded forward allowing long objects such as skis to be accommodated.

However, the biggest crime committed by the new RAV4 is its sedate driving characteristics. The large hefty body taxes the 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine (the only drivetrain available). Though it does push out 170 horsepower and 224 Nm of torque, it struggles to move 1,585 kilograms in a rushed manner. If you’re not pushing it, the RAV4 feels alright: the shifts are unobtrusive and steady pace is possible. However, once you nail the throttle (say when merging on the highway), you will feel that the engine’s not up to the challenge. In other countries, this problem has been rectified by increasing the engine displacement to 2.5-liters boosting the horsepower to 190. Toyota could have chosen to do that here, but they didn’t. Shame.

The RAV4’s fall from SUV grace continues with its cumbersome handling. As its increased mass and size suggests, this car feels cumbersome. Yes, it still goes through corners well, but it doesn’t offer good road feel. Plus, the steering is pretty numb. Though that’s the trade-off switching to an electric power steering system, Toyota could have tuned things a little towards the spirited side. On a good note, the brakes are good: grabby with a firm pedal feel.

It’s funny how in a short span of three years has caused this once great SUV to fall into the pit of mediocrity, but that’s the fact of life in the automotive industry. Toyota should have taken the cue and come out with an outstanding re-vitalization of the RAV4. Instead, they played it too safe. With more than a half-dozen small SUV choices out there, it’s hard to pick the RAV4 as the first choice unless you really need the large interior room. If only the price were more affordable or the standard kit better (HIDs aren’t even standard for crying out loud!), then it could have been a different ball game. As it stands though, we just hope Toyota would radicalize its thinking (it has done so before) and pour more ingenuity in future RAV4s.

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