Toyota RAV4

Once a nippy three-door 4x4 aimed at active couples, Toyota's latest RAV4 has grown into a full-size SUV with five doors as standard. John Simister struggles to understand why

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Model: Toyota RAV4 XT4 2.0
Price: £21,495 (range spans £18,995-£26,995). On sale now
Engine: 1,998cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, 152bhp at 6,000rpm, 143lb ft at 4,000rpm
Transmission: five-speed gearbox, four-wheel drive
Performance: 115mph, 0-60 in 10.3sec, 32.8mpg official average
CO2: 202g/km

Why do people buy SUVs? We've questioned the psychology often enough in these pages, but the fact is that a curiously large number of people are in love with the idea, and carmakers keep bringing us new ones. That's why we report on them.

It's not as if people are even buying authentic off-roaders, and living out some sort of fantasy. The head of Toyota's ED2 design studio in the south of France, Takuo Fukuichi, admits that SUVs nowadays have moved from practical tool to urban fashion accessory. "For the customer, the SUV feeling has changed," he said. "Most SUV customers drive in the city and want some kind of secure feeling."

Toyota's RAV4, launched in 1994, was the first "soft roader", a car with visual hints of a proper 4x4 but softened and civilised. That's how it felt, too; comfortable, refined and car-like with quite limited off-road ability, despite a simple four-wheel drive system. It was a huge success because it extended perfectly the personality of its buyers - people who lived the prototype of the (I can hardly bear to utter the loaded words) "active lifestyle" marketing dream. Indeed, RAV stands, for Recreational Active Vehicle.

One of its virtues was compactnesss. The second-generation RAV4, or "Rava" as my erstwhile and short-sighted neighbour used to call it, was bigger; cars always seem to grow through the generations. And now there's a brand new one, longer and wider again and no longer available in a neat three-door form. That's because, last time, nearly all buyers went for the five-door, family-friendly version. So much for the dream of young couples heading off for a bit of windsurfing in their cute little three-door, short-wheelbase RAV4. History.

The RAV4 has been enough of a success to forge its own, strong identity. So the new one is instantly recognisable for what it is, with a familiar face and the big-shouldered, reverse-slope-rear-side-window look typical of current Toyota SUVs and MPVs. Inside, the aura is of more expensive textures and higher quality; leather upholstery is found in the mid-range XT4 version as well as the posh XT5. There's a 2.0-litre petrol engine, as before, but the diesels are now of 2.2 litres and produce either 136bhp (pretty good) or, for the top-end, unique-engined XT180, 177bhp (impressive).

There's also a revised version of the four-wheel drive system which uses an electromagnetic clutch to meter torque to the rear wheels (up to 45 per cent of the total) instead of a simple viscous coupling. The dominant state remains front-wheel drive, but the new system can alter the front-rear torque split as soon as sensors detect the need, instead of waiting for the front wheels to lose their traction. This is useful in keeping the RAV4 well-balanced when cornering quickly on a slippery road.

My test car is a 2.0-litre petrol XT4: 152bhp, leather trim and an "Active Drive System". This marries the function of the electromagnetic clutch transmission (called Active Torque Control, and fitted to all new RAV4s) with those of the stability system. It even applies helpful forces to the steering, via the electric power steering motor, to help you correct a skid.

So here's the RAV4 on my driveway, looming incongruously large for a so-called compact SUV. Cars are getting ever larger, to the extent that they no longer fit easily past each other on country lanes where opposing traffic once met without thrombosis.

Time for a drive. Let's head to Bicester Shopping Village. The RAV4 should be right at home there.

First impression. Where has all that 152bhp gone? This feels an unwilling vehicle, even allowing for the tightness of its very new, as yet little-driven engine.

Second impression. It just took that roundabout and slip road very tidily, staying flat and taut despite the lofty stance, and steering with surprising precision.

Third impression? This RAV4 may have a new suspension system with the former rear struts replaced by a so-called multilink arrangement rather like that of a Ford Focus, but the ride is not at all pleasant. The RAV4 is constantly fidgeting in a tiresome vertical bounce where most cars, even sporty ones, manage to flatten the contour lines. Maybe this is the price paid for tidy handling in a car whose architecture - height especially - says to the suspension engineer in search of sportiness, "I really wouldn't start from here, if I were you."

Meanwhile, the engine is toiling away, I've stalled it and jerked it a couple of times because the clutch is both violent and anaesthetised so you can't quite feel when it bites, and I'm really wondering what the point is of this car. Why carry all that extra four-wheel drive weight around with you, all that over-engineered tough stuff for an off-road ability you'll never use, all that air-blocking, fuel-wasting frontal area, when you don't need any of it? Two inches of snow in the Home Counties do not mean you need a 4x4; all you need, although none of us have them, is a set of winter tyres like they have in Alpine Europe.

I shouldn't single out the RAV4 for this, of course. But in this car is crystallised the absurdity of today's 4x4 obsession in which people buy cars they not only don't need (except maybe psychologically) but which actually make a less good, less efficient job of the tasks asked of them. True, the RAV4 is quite roomy, it has a simple and elegant system for folding the rear seats called EasyFlat, and you sit nice and high for a commanding view, but a good compact MPV can do all of that while riding better, being easier to park and using less fuel. It will be cheaper, too.

OK, I haven't tried the diesel RAV4s. They will make more sense, because they will be more economical and their engines' torque will make for a livelier drive with less driver effort. But the fact remains that the RAV4 is expensive for what it does.

A couple of weeks ago we tested a Vauxhall Meriva VXR, a compact MPV with an incongruous but entirely successful hot-hatchback personality transplant, which has virtually as much room, is both faster and more economical, and is more fun to drive. And it costs a massive £5,000 less.

So much for the RAV4, then. Maybe it's a fashion car. But do you want to be a fashion victim?

The rivals

HONDA CR-V, 2.0 SPORT, £18,900

Cheaper than the Toyota, livelier and more supple in the suspension, the CR-V is fair value but short on personality. Four-wheel drive uses clever hydraulic pumps, diesel version has an impressive engine.

KIA SPORTAGE, 2.0 XS, £16,795

A surprisingly good-looking SUV from a company on a steep ascendant. Rides better at speed than the RAV4, and a speedy but thirsty V6 is the price of a basic RAV4. The diesel is capable, too.

NISSAN X-TRAIL 2.5 COLUMBIA, £20,000

This compact SUV outsells the Nissan Primera family car. It's good to drive, with a gutsy petrol engine or a Renault-sourced 2.2-litre diesel, and is roomy and versatile. If you want a compact SUV, it's the best.

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