Toyota reintroduced a front-wheel-drive version of its RAV4 compact crossover for 2009 that offers virtually all the other benefits of its AWD compatriot, but lists for $24,295, a significant $2,658 less, and gets better fuel economy to boot.
Okay, sounds good, but with another winter in the offing wouldn't you be putting the family's security at risk by forgoing the benefits of much-touted all-wheel-drive?
There are obvious benefits to AWD, but the false sense of security often created by a lack of understanding of its advantages and capabilities often leads to false expectations, with often with dire results. And front-wheel-drive didn't get to be the predominant drivetrain choice by being inherently dangerous.
Front-engine/front-drive vehicles work just fine in adverse conditions, certainly better than rear drivers - even when equipped with traction control. Having more of their weight over the drive wheels helps generate traction that can pull you through deep snow and other mucky stuff, such as slushy ruts.
Their main handling trait, under-steer or front-end push, is familiar and generally considered the easiest "out of control" situation for most drivers to deal with. And, incidentally, it is also the how AWD vehicles react when you enter a corner too fast.
AWD is undeniably a very good thing to have going for you when a Canadian winter works itself up into a nasty mood. But as all too many have found out, it isn't a magic charm guaranteeing immunity from the immutable laws of physics or the less-well-defined rules of common sense.
AWD systems, such as the RAV4's, deliver engine torque to four wheels and tires instead of just two, cleverly varying it based on the traction that's available at the front and rear axles. This helps you get going on slippery slopes and bull through deep snow, as well as providing additional stability in rutted road conditions.
But the reality is that, in every kind of winter driving conditions you'll experience, your safety depends more on the capabilities of your tires than the drive system. How your vehicle behaves in slippery conditions while travelling in a straight line (subject to such things as crosswinds), cornering or braking is really more important than just its ability to accelerate.
So, yes, while AWD is generally better when the sleet hits the wiper blades, and certainly in some extreme circumstances, a FWD RAV4 (which also benefits from being 50 kg lighter than an AWD and has a traction-enhancing, limited slip differential), fitted with proper tires for the conditions, needn't really be considered any less safe.
The base FWD RAV4 is also equipped with the same safety kit as the base AWD model, features that include vehicle stability and traction controls, antilock brakes, front/side/side-curtain airbag systems, seatbelt pre-tensioners, active head restraints and structural crash-related components.
The third-generation RAV4 arrived in 2006 and received a mainly cosmetic makeover for 2009. The only major mechanical revisions were to the engine and the reappearance of FWD. The range now includes four-cylinder FWD base, Sport and Unlimited models plus Sport and Unlimited's with V-6 engines. The AWD versions are offered in four-banger base, Sport and Unlimited offerings and the same again with V-6 power.
The RAV4, like all compact utes, has become larger over the years and the current model now puts 4,600 mm between its bumpers, which creates a quite roomy cabin space that can comfortably accommodate four people, five if necessary. Or with the seats folded, 2,074 litres of cargo. Towing capacity is the same for FWD and AWD models, at 680 kg with the four-cylinder engine and 1,587 kg with the V-6.
The basic RAV4 is well equipped, as you'd expect with a mid-20K price tag and includes air conditioning, multi-featured CD audio system, power windows, mirrors, locks, a fully adjustable driver's seat, decent cloth upholstery, 60/40-split rear seat, tilt/telescope wheel and outside a colour-keyed spare tire cover and - whoo-hoo - just what every utility vehicle needs, a rear spoiler.
The interior isn't particularly fancy, but nicely done in typical Toyota fashion, with quality materials and an attractive and functional layout.
Noise levels are commendably low at cruising speeds, headlights okay, mirrors fine, the steering wheel grip is pleasant, cup holders reachable, the front seats aren't great (worth spending a little time in if you're looking to buy a RAV4), but the rear bench is okay.
The new four-cylinder engine is a mostly unobtrusive, 2.5-litre, double-overhead-cam unit with variable valve timing that's rated at 179 hp at 6,000 rpm and 172 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm.
The only transmission is a four-speed automatic, which works well enough, although performance would be improved with the addition of another ratio. But acceleration is fine off the line and the engine/transmission combination delivers good around-town drivability and safe-enough levels of passing and merging performance.
Fuel economy ratings are 9.6 L/100 km city and 6.9 highway, which are a few tenths better than with the AWD model. The readout at the end of my test period revealed an 8.3 L/100 km average, in mainly highway driving.
The RAV4 has an independent suspension system, P215/70 R16 all-season tires mounted on steel wheels (with covers), electric power steering and disc brakes on each corner.
The steering offers enough resistance to feel like it's actually attached to something and, with the firm springs and excellent damping, response is surprisingly good for a vehicle of this type, and it leans rather than rolls into corners. Ride isn't bad either, hard at times but with no harshness, although you will be muscled about a bit over lumpy surfaces.
If you live in an area with lots of snow, an AWD RAV4 could make more sense, it does offer positive benefits, but a front-driver will suit most people's needs for a versatile family vehicle just fine.
2009 TOYOTA RAV4
Type: Compact SUV
Base Price: $24,295; as tested, $25/785
Engine: 2.5-litre, DOHC, inline-four
Horsepower/torque: 179 hp/ 172 lb-ft
Transmission: Four-speed automatic
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 9.6 city/6.9 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Honda CR-V, Ford Escape, Saturn Vue, Subaru Forester, Nissan X-Trail, Mazda Tribute, Jeep Liberty, Chevrolet Equinox, Hyundai Tucson
- Styling is attractive outside and the interior pleasant
- Good level of equipment
- Decent power and good handling
- Front-seat comfort could be improved