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I’m only reading this because I want a hassle-free family SUV.
And that’s the right approach because if you care about driving, reading about the new Toyota RAV4 will bring you little satisfaction. But then what mid-size family SUVs are fun to drive? I can barely think of one. The Mazda CX-5 – that’s quietly satisfying. The Alfa Stelvio? But that’s 37 grand. The Dacia Duster, for all the right/wrong reasons. The SEAT Ateca’s crisp enough. And I’m done.
Much has changed since the RAV4 first appeared back in 1994. Then it was semi-revolutionary, the first ever cool, urban-focused SUV. And it was fun to drive. Successive generations – and we’re now on the fifth – stepped quickly away from frivolity into family seriousness. And as far as Toyota is concerned, it’s a move that has served it well – globally they sell not far short of a million a year.
But is that a million people getting it wrong?
No, because not everyone cares about cars in the way we do. Toyota builds RAV4s for people that need a family SUV. It gives them hybrid powerplants because it lowers the running costs. It makes sure they’re reliable. And so people buy them in droves.
Nevertheless, the last couple of generations have been very underwhelming. Toyota going through the motions. This one is better. The new GA-K platform has improved body stiffness by 57 per cent. Why does that matter? Because the extra shell strength lowers cabin noise and allows for improved ride quality. The centre of gravity has been lowered, and so body control is better. As a car to just pop about the place in, it’s now class competitive.
But no more than that?
Toyota’s key strengths lie in the less tangible stuff: reliability, robustness and so on. The kind of stuff that’s hard to assess. But this new one does ride quietly and well. The response to throttle and steering inputs is linear and predictable – it gives you the reactions you expect.
But there are problems. The hybrid system. Toyota terms it self-charging. This is clever marketing. And also borderline deceitful. After all, every hybrid is self-charging when it coasts or brakes, this one just can’t be plugged into a wall for extra charging. As a result it has a smaller battery (just 4.2kwh, and using nickel metal-hydride chemistry rather than more modern lithium ion) than the plug-in Mitsubishi Outlander (13.8kwh). All-electric cars such as the Hyundai Kona have ten times the battery capacity of the RAV.
The Toyota can’t hold much charge, so has to be careful how it deploys it. On paper the electric motor is quite powerful (118bhp), but in practice it’s only used to assist the internal combustion engine rather than power the car itself. I know Toyota claims it can be electric only at up to 40mph, but in reality no matter how gently you pull away, the petrol fires up after a couple of metres.