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car review

2013 Toyota Rav4

It is rare that attention to a new vehicle is concentrated on the rear end, but that is the case with the fourth-generation RAV4 that is rolling into Toyota stores across the country without a big spare-tire carrier on the back.

There is a spare tire with the 2013 RAV4 – a temporary one lying beneath the cargo floor. And removing it from the back has resulted in a sleeker look and allowed a top-hinged tailgate that is so much more useful than the side-hinged door of old, one that opened the wrong way – into traffic – and could not be opened at all in most crowded spaces, like parking lots and garages. RAV4 owners quickly learned to drive into parking spaces so they could access the cargo area.

Also new is that the 2013 RAV4 costs $1,000-$1,500 less, depending on trim, has more room inside, gets better mileage and goes faster.

The front now looks more aggressive, including a black under-tray that hints at a rugged nature. The roof line slopes down as it goes rearward, the front fenders have sharp creases and the tail lights are a styling element, protruding as they do, from the body. The overall effect is a sharper, more modern vehicle. While the wheelbase remains the same as the outgoing model, the new RAV4 is 50 mm shorter, 10 mm narrower and 25 mm lower.

Change is equally evident on the inside where everything except the number of seating positions is new. The cockpit is driver-centric in that it wraps around that position. It is divided into sections with the primary information and controls straight ahead and secondary stuff such as audio and HVAC up high in the centre. The latter gets three big, round, easy-to-use knobs – one to select temperature, one for direction of air flow and one for fan speed – much appreciated in an age when you often have to scroll through pages on a screen or decipher a complex array of tiny buttons just to warm things up a bit.

The front seats are broad and supportive and visibility is excellent in all directions. Shamefully, on a car built in Canada for Canadians, heated seats are not standard equipment, an obvious cost-cutting method.

The new RAV4 is bigger on the inside, with the gains coming in the rear seat and cargo areas. There is ample head and shoulder room in back for really big folks, but a third would be a squeeze. Toyota claims best-in-class cargo space of 1,078 litres with the second seat in place and 2,090 with it folded down. Not only is it easier to get at the cargo area thanks to the new lift gate, the floor is lower so you don't have to lift things as high.

The big news in the mechanical department is that the four-speed transmission has been relegated to a museum, replaced by a six-speed unit that gets credit for improving both mileage and performance. The new transmission includes three driver-selectable modes – ECO, normal and sport.

The RAV4 comes in front- or all-wheel-drive configurations. The all-wheel-drive system has been upgraded and it too has three modes. In "automatic," it sends all of the available torque to the front wheels. If slippage occurs, it can divert as much as 50 per cent to the rears. In lock mode, it goes to 50/50 until speeds reach a predetermined rate. In sport mode, at least 10 per cent of the power goes to the rear wheels at all times.

The optional V-6 has been dropped and the 2.5-litre four-cylinder soldiers on, unchanged. It's good for 176 horsepower and 172 lb-ft of torque, both reasonable if not impressive numbers in this class. Mileage has improved by about one-half litre per 100 km in both city and highway driving, but still trails several competitors. Similarly, while 0-100 km/h acceleration times have dropped by more than a full second, thanks to the new transmission, they are middle of the pack.

Both ride quality and handling have been bumped up a notch by tuning springs, shocks and bushings. The electric power steering is light at low speeds and resistance goes up with speed.

Toyota is determined to move the RAV4 up a couple of slots on the sales charts in this crowded, highly competitive segment. The $23,750 base price is less than competition from Ford, GM, Honda, Hyundai, Mazda and Nissan. The 2013 RAV4 comes in two FWD models – LE and XLE – and three AWD trims – LE, XLE and Limited.

The RAV4 continues to be a well-made, well-finished, top-quality vehicle promising years and hundreds of thousands of kilometres of trouble-free use. It is now more stylish, less expensive, roomier and uses less fuel. One rolls off the Woodstock, Ont., assembly line every 60 seconds.

Tech specs

2013 Toyota RAV4

Type: Compact SUV/CUV

Base price: $23,790; as tested, $31,700

Engine: 2.5-litre, DOHC, four-cylinder

Horsepower/torque: 176 hp/172-lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Drive: Front- or all-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 8.7 city/6.4 highway (FWD)

Alternatives: Chevrolet Equinox, Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, Hyundai Tucson, Kia Sportage, Mazda CX-5, Subaru Forester, Volkswagen Tiguan