Modern Maturity for the Original Cute Ute

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It's hard for an elder statesman to get respect anymore, even in auto showrooms. Take the Toyota RAV4, which created an entirely new vehicle segment when it arrived on the scene in January 1996 as the original "cute ute."

The RAV4 formula -- a small vehicle with a carlike unibody and a dose of sport utility attitude -- was right for the time. Honda, which was simultaneously distilling its own secret sauce, brought out the CR-V later in the year.

After 17 years, the compact crossover class continues to grow, and almost every automaker has an entry. Toyota considers the RAV4's main competitors to be a more select group: the Chevrolet Equinox, Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, Hyundai Tucson, Kia Sportage, Mazda CX-5 and Nissan Rogue.

But as competition has intensified, the RAV4 -- though now a larger, more capable, family-friendly wagon -- has lost its distinctiveness. By last year, it had settled into fourth place, with sales of about 166,000, far behind the CR-V and trailing the Escape and Equinox as well.

The entries from Honda and Ford have been recently redesigned. Now it's Toyota's turn with this fourth-generation RAV4, which went on sale in February.

Shoppers will find that while something has been lost, something has been gained.

Gone is the V-6, and the sole remaining engine, a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder, now gets better gas mileage.

Also gone are the side-hinged rear door and the outside-mounted spare tire, replaced with a more practical, conventional top-hinged liftgate and a spare tire beneath the cargo floor.

I doubt that many RAV4 owners will miss the tiny, impractical third row of the previous generation. If they do, they will be mollified by more cargo space.

Toyota offers the RAV4 in LE, XLE and Limited trim levels at base prices from $24,145 to $27,855 with front-wheel drive. All-wheel drive costs $1,400 more.

A rear camera is standard on all versions. Blind-spot monitors with rear cross-traffic alert -- it lets you know if a car approaches from the side while you're backing up -- is an option on only the Limited.

I tested the midgrade XLE with all-wheel drive and a price of $27,565, including $1,030 for the only option available on the XLE. Called Display Audio, it includes a 6.1-inch screen, navigation system and the Entune infotainment features.

While the wheelbase remains the same as last year, the RAV4 has shrunk two inches in overall length and about an inch in height. And, as happens when you've been around for a while, the Toyota has gained an inch in width. The exterior redesign is an improvement, with a more modern, aerodynamic look.

The in-line 4 is carried over and is now rated at 176 horsepower, 3 less than before, with 172 pound-feet of torque. A new 6-speed automatic brings the 4-cylinder RAV4 out of the transmission Dark Ages. The 4-speed is finally banished.

The engine and gearbox work together smoothly with quick first-to-second shifts that provide better acceleration around town. Fifth and sixth have taller gear ratios aimed at improving highway mileage.

Despite this, the fuel economy figures don't blow away the competition. The front-wheel-drive CX-5 does better than the front-drive RAV4, and the Forester with a 2.5-liter engine and a variable transmission beats the all-wheel-drive Toyota.

The front-drive RAV4 is rated at 24 miles per gallon in town (2 more than before), and 31 on the highway (a gain of 3). With all-wheel drive, the RAV4 is rated 22 in the city (up 1) and 29 on the highway (up 2).

Both front-wheel and all-wheel-drive versions can be driven in three modes: Auto, Sport and ECO. The default setting, Auto, is intended to offer decent fuel economy with good acceleration.

ECO mode regulates the engine output and the climate controls to improve fuel economy.

In ECO, the engine response seemed a bit more leisurely because, in the quest for fuel efficiency, the transmission did not downshift to a lower gear as quickly as in Sport mode. Toyota does not have an official estimate of the fuel savings. But when I switched from Auto to ECO mode, the needle of the tachometer routinely dropped by 400 to 500 r.p.m.

In Sport mode, the transmission downshifts quicker and holds gears longer, providing more get-up-and-go. And the Sport setting improves the steering feel, which in other modes I found a bit light. By reducing the amount of electric assist by about 20 percent, Sport mode gives the steering more weight and a sense, at least, of a better connection to the road.

The suspension doesn't change, however, and I found the ride a bit stiff for a vehicle that tries to appeal to everyone.

My all-wheel-drive test car handled reasonably well, whether in Auto or Sport mode, on winding roads in northern New Hampshire.

But with the improved all-wheel-drive system, Sport mode offers an advantage. As soon as the driver turns the steering wheel, 10 percent of the torque transfers to the rear wheels.

This offers improved agility and stability over the previous system, which according to Mario Apodaca, Toyota's product education administrator, did not use the steering wheel angle to start a torque transfer.

In any mode, the torque distribution in all-wheel drive can vary from 100 percent to the front wheels -- under normal driving conditions, for the best fuel economy -- to a 50-50 split. And the system automatically shifts from front wheels to all wheels during acceleration or when the wheels start to slip.

While the interior feels airy, it is not a particularly Zen space. First, there is a fair amount of tire and road noise, despite added sound-suppressing materials. Still, many rival crossovers are noisy as well.

As for aesthetics, there's a nicely padded scalloped dash panel, but it seems an attempt to distract from all the other hard plastic bits. There are at least three different plastic finishes in the cabin, which may be why it seems rather busy.

With their side bolsters, the XLE's front buckets have a cradling effect even though the seatbacks feel thin. Perhaps it's because the backs are carved out to increase rear knee room by 1.6 inches. (Rear legroom was reduced by about an inch.)

Yet all but the very tall will find enough room in the back seat. And as an aid for comfort, the rake of the rear seatback can be adjusted.

The RAV4 has 38.4 cubic feet of cargo space, 2 more than the previous model. If you fold the second row, you create a spacious cargo hold of 73.4 cubic feet, virtually the same as in the 2012 model.

When it comes to making everything inside the vehicle work, you can either use old-fashioned knobs or the Display Audio touch screen. That system works everything from audio to navigation to the heating and air-conditioning.

As someone who isn't all that tech-savvy, I found Display Audio, and the voice controls, easy and intuitive to navigate.

The RAV4 is well equipped with safety features and has eight air bags instead of the usual six. One is for the driver's knees and another is in the front passenger's seat cushion to help keep the passenger from sliding under the seat belt in very severe front collisions. The front seats are also designed to help protect against whiplash.

The RAV4 received four stars (out of five) in the federal government's New Car Assessment Program crash-test regimen. The Toyota is rated a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which means it has a Good rating in four of that group's crash tests, though it has not been tested in the newest, more severe small-overlap front test. The institute said Toyota asked for a delay so it could make changes to improve the RAV4's test performance. The RAV4 is therefore not eligible for the institute's new Top Safety Pick+ award.

Toyota is aiming for 200,000 sales this year, which is many fewer than the record 281,652 CR-Vs that Honda sold last year and fewer than the Escape and Equinox.

With all the changes, the RAV4 is a sensible and pleasant choice for someone shopping for a compact crossover. And certainly Toyota's reputation for reliability is reassuring to many consumers.

But there is one hurdle that keeps the RAV4 from becoming the supreme leader of compact crossovers: despite all the changes and upgrades, it still doesn't stand out from the crowd.

autonews

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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