In 1996, Toyota was among the first to offer a compact crossover – a segment of vehicles that is now one of the most popular on the road from entry-level up to luxury. Toyota called its little crossover the RAV4. Currently, the RAV4 is in its third generation and continues to be one of Toyota’s top-selling vehicles in the United States. Starting MSRP for the base RAV4 is $21,500, but the model we tested was the 2009 Toyota RAV4 Sport 4x2 that came with a price of $30,369 thanks to a few big-ticket options. Competing in one of the fastest-growing segments, the RAV4 goes up against the likes of the Honda CR-V, Chevrolet Equinox, Ford Escape and Hyundai Santa Fe.
Toyota’s third-generation RAV4 was already an attractive competitor in the segment after receiving a major redesign in 2005, but the 2009 model year brought a minor, yet significant mid-cycle enhancement. Among the most noticeable changes, the RAV4 received a new front fascia with a larger grille inspired by the Toyota Tundra pickup and new fog light bezels in addition to redesigned, LED taillights and black protective molding on the top edge of the rear bumper. The RAV4 Sport also gets a unique rear spoiler and five-spoke, 18-inch alloy wheels with a stylish two-tone finish.
The overall styling of the 2009 RAV4 makes this little crossover look not so little. From the truck-like appearance of the front end to the unique shape of the D-pillar, the RAV4 is a stylish vehicle. One aspect we don’t like on any vehicle (except for the Jeep Wrangler) is the mounting of the spare tire on the rear door. This makes it necessary to have the rear door open to the side instead of lifting up and out of the way like with other crossovers and SUVs. In the RAV4’s defense, the swinging door does have the advantage of allowing for a lower load height into the cargo area. For those, like us, who don’t want a spare tire hanging on the back of the vehicle, Toyota offers an optional Sport Appearance Package is available on RAV4 Sport V-6 two-wheel drive models. This package replaces the cumbersome spare with a unique rear door and run-flat tires as well as adding unique badges and chrome trim, stainless steel exhaust tip and an exclusive new color, Elusive Blue Metallic.
With its cabin decked out in surprising technology, the RAV4 we tested offered quite a bit more than most would expect from a compact crossover. Our test vehicle came with added options such as Premium Package ($1,930), a touch-screen navigation system ($1,550), a back-up camera with a rearview mirror monitor ($475) and “RAV4” embroidered floor mats and cargo mat ($269). The Premium Package added Dark Charcoal leather seats with heat for the front passengers and eight-way power adjustments and power lumbar support for the driver’s seat. While most of the interior was shaded in dark gray, the center stack, steering wheel and door panels received stylish brushed aluminum accents. For optimal rear-seat comfort, the 60/40 split bench seats slide fore and aft as well as recline or the can be folded completely flat to allow up to 73 cubic feet of cargo capacity.
The DVD-based navigation system was easy to use and the controls and buttons were all well sized and laid out neatly. One thing we really liked about this system was the existence of dual CD slots behind the large screen – one for the navigation DVD, but the other is for playing CDs including WMA and MP3. No USB port is used with the system, but a useful auxiliary jack is located on the center console. The only part of the sound system we didn’t like is that for XM Satellite Radio users, an additional tuner is required. For this price, we feel, the package should be XM ready with only service required for its use.
An interesting side not about the RAV4 is that when it was redesigned in 2005, the RAV4 became the only compact crossover to offer a third-row seat and is still among only a few to offer seating for more than five. The fold-flat third-row seat available on the RAV4 is only big enough for kids, so thankfully our test model was devoid of said option in lieu of a good sized storage compartment hidden under the rear cargo area mat. Nifty storage areas are one place that Toyota is good at incorporating into its designs and the RAV4 is a testament to that. Besides the numerous little compartments throughout and the aforementioned rear cargo compartment, the RAV4 also gets a second glove box just under the passenger side airbag.
Another key feature added to the RAV4 for 2009 is a new inline-4 engine that improves fuel economy, but luckily we were able to test the Sport model equipped Toyota’s 3.5-liter V-6 under the hood. With 269 horsepower and 246 lb-ft of torque, the V-6-powered RAV4 still gets relatively good fuel economy (19 miles per gallon city and 27 mpg highway) and is one of the most powerful vehicles in its class. This engine also receives dual Variable Valve Timing with Intelligence (VVT-i) for an even balance between performance and fuel economy. All RAV4 V-6 models use a smooth-shifting and responsive five-speed automatic with a gated shifter.
Electronic power steering is getting to be one of our favorite features on cars these days as this system allows for more precise turning and improved fuel economy. Another useful drivetrain feature offered on the 2009 RAV4 is the electronic hill-start/downhill assist control that holds the brakes momentarily when ascending a hill to prevent rolling backward and uses the engine to help slow down the vehicle when descending steep inclines. The RAV4’s size and design should give it sufficient skills off road, but it also provides a more rugged design thanks to impressive approach and departure angles. Unfortunately, our test model was not equipped with Toyota’s four-wheel drive system, and, as such, we almost got this front-wheel drive RAV4 Sport stuck in some loose sand during its photo shoot.
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