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The neighbours must have thought they were seeing double when they peered into the driveway of my parents' cottage.

There was my parents' car – a 2013 Toyota RAV4 – and parked beside it was my test vehicle – a 2013 Toyota RAV4 in the same colour.

Coincidence? Nope.

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My folks had purchased their top-of-the-line AWD LTD model a few months before and were happy with it. Curious to see how the RAV4 would stand up as a family hauler, I arranged to test Toyota's popular compact SUV for a week with my wife and two kids.

Since the redesigned RAV4 went on sale in February, it has been setting new sales records for Toyota. Through June, sales were up about 36 per cent from a year earlier. A lower starting MSRP of $23,790 for the base FWD LE model has presumably helped get buyers into showrooms. Perhaps more important, the 2013 version features significant changes that improved both styling and performance.

Gone is the tire that used to sit on the vehicle's rear door; the spare is now tucked beneath the cargo floor and out of sight. The awkward swinging rear door has also been replaced by a more convenient roof-hinged lift-gate with a lower loading height, making it easier to pack and unpack your stuff.

And make no mistake: The RAV4 can hold a lot of stuff. Here's a sample of what we were able to cram into the cargo area: three overnight bags, one large hockey bag (with my son's clothes and supplies for a week at camp), two boxes of food, two small coolers, two skateboards, one scooter, one bag of dog food and one folding dog crate.

Inside the spacious cabin, passengers have plenty of leg and head room and there are ample storage bins and cup holders. Even the dog was comfortable, thanks to the flat floor that allowed her to stretch out without encountering the dreaded middle hump found in many vehicles.

One of the RAV4's best features is its car-like handling – something you don't always get with an SUV. According to Toyota, the vehicle body was given a stronger and stiffer structure and the suspension was retuned to improve the ride quality.

The optional V-6 is no longer available, but the 2.5-litre four cylinder – rated at 176 hp and standard on all models – provided more than enough giddy-up for highway passing.

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"The car handles very well. It's very nimble and fun to drive," my dad said. "And the six-speed transmission shifts smoothly."

I agree on all counts. I also think the RAV4 offers decent value.

Our front-wheel drive XLE model has a base price of $27,000, which includes an upgraded dual-zone automatic climate control system, backup camera, heated front seats,17-inch aluminum alloy wheels, six-speaker stereo, fog lights and power moonroof – in addition to the class-leading eight air bags, cruise control and power side mirrors standard on all RAV4s.

Including a navigation package, the MSRP on our test vehicle came to $29,940.20.

There were a few things I didn't particularly like. The lack of a lumbar support on the front seats contributed to lower back fatigue when driving for several hours at a time. That issue can be remedied by buying the AWD LTD, which for a starting MSRP of $31,700, offers extras such as an eight-way power-adjustable driver seat. Or you spend 20 bucks on a lumbar support cushion.

I also found the cabin a bit noisy, particularly during acceleration. The on-screen stereo controls were also frustrating, at least at first. Whoever drove the car before me had cranked the bass to the max, ruining the sound. For 15 minutes, I fumbled with the dials and on-screen menus in a fruitless effort to adjust the tone settings, but eventually gave up and opened the sound system manual to find the answer. The good news is that the stereo sounded great when the bass and treble were adjusted properly.

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My dad also wished that the sound controls were more intuitive. "The audio system is too complex and hard to operate. The audio manual has 231 pages," he said. Once I sat down with him to enter all of his radio station presets and walk him through the navigation system, however, he was good to go.

Another thing to keep in mind, if you have small children, is that installing child safety seats on the RAV4 is less than straightforward. The RAV4's reclining rear seats have to be in a specific position, and when there is a child seat installed behind the driver, the centre rear seat must be left vacant. What's more, the rear head restraints must be removed in order to use the top-tether anchors.

These are not deal breakers by any means – just issues to be aware of.

Another plus with the RAV4 – especially if you take a lot of family road trips – is fuel economy. The FWD XLE is rated at 8.7 litres/100 km in the city and 6.4 on the highway (the numbers are higher for all-wheel-drive models). For our test, which included a mix of city and highway driving, we used the fuel-saving "eco" mode and achieved 7.1 litres/100 km.

On the whole, the RAV4 offers an attractive package of practicality, roominess and a fun driving experience – all without breaking the family budget.

Tech specs

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2013 Toyota RAV4 FWD XLE

Type: Crossover SUV

Base Price: $27,000; as tested, $29,940.20

Engine: 2.5-litre, four-cylinder

Horsepower/Torque: 176 hp/172 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

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Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 8.7 city/6.4 highway; regular gas

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