road test; Toyota RAV4

The signs are that we are falling out of love with the off-roader as a fashion accessory. Thank heavens: few automotive acts are more pretentious than driving a square-rigged, hunky-tyred 4x4 when the only off-roading it will ever do is drive up the kerb.

Why, then, do I like the Toyota RAV4? Because it hits exactly the right spot, without pretending to be something grand, tough and unnecessary. And I like it even more now there is a five-door version.

Its concept grew out of a car, not a truck. So it has a one-piece bodyshell instead of an off-roader's usual heavyweight chassis frame, and a lively 2.0-litre engine with 16 valves and 129bhp. It also has car-like independent suspension, and permanent four-wheel drive so you do not have to mess with extra levers. This is the intelligent face of four-wheel drive, used to improve roadholding as well as to haul a horse trailer through a muddy field.

The RAV4 sits lower than its rivals and leans less in corners. This, along with its relatively low weight and sophisticated suspension, makes it as precise to steer and as smooth to ride in as many a good car, and it also has a fair turn of speed. Combine this with a light, precise gear change, and you have a first-class town car able to exploit every traffic opportunity.

Dislikes? Some might laugh at the toy-town styling, and the interior could disguise its plastic construction more convincingly, but then the RAV4 is well equipped and not outrageously expensive. The new five-door is 16in longer than the three-door, half of this going towards extra rear legroom, the other half towards a bigger boot, so it is more family hold-all than young bloods' plaything.

A product of fashion, the RAV4 is the compact 4x4 that most deserves to live on when the fad fades away.


Toyota RAV4 GX five-door, pounds 15,945

Engine: 1998cc, four cylinders, 129bhp at 5,900rpm. Five-speed gearbox, four-wheel drive. Top speed 105mph. Fuel consumption 26-31mpg


Daihatsu Sportrak ELXi, pounds 13,395 Stodgy handling, soggy ride

Suzuki Vitara JLX SE five-door, pounds 13,500 Fashionable; bouncy drive

Vauxhall Frontera 2.01 Sport S, pounds 15,175 Less sophisticated than Toyota

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