By Jim Bray
There's mid-cycle refreshing and, as evidenced by the 2016 Toyota RAV4 SE AWD, there's mid-cycle REFRESHING.
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Hot off a new generation of Toyota's great little "cute ute" for 2013, a model I liked a lot but criticized for the added boxiness that Toyota added to its exterior for this generation (just like it has for the 4Runner and Highlander, so at least they're consistent) comes a RAV that feels new. That boxiness is still there, but it's more interesting now, more chiseled and, dare I say it, more buff.
And if you're into such things, there's now a hybrid version offered, in a couple of trim levels.
The new front end seems tighter, with squinty new headlights in a face that's more aggressive than you might expect from a so-called cute ute, but it works.
The RAV4 has generally been a pretty generic entry into this market niche - a typically Toyota vehicle that's designed and built extremely well and will probably outlive its owners. This new SE edition, however, ups the enjoyment ante substantially and drives like a much sportier model. The suspension is a delight - you won't mistake this for a Porsche Macan but you might be very surprised that it's a Toyota.
Opt for the hybrid and you'll be saddled with a continuously variable transmission, a type of beast that's definitely not aimed at people who love to drive because they tend to suck the joy out of the experience with their "sliding elastic band" feel and lack of shifting. Toyota's sample wasn't the hybrid, so I can't really comment on this particular CVT - but I've driven enough for them to raise a red flag every time I learn of one.
If you stick with the gas RAV4, however, you'll find a little SUV/Crossover that's actually a lot of fun to drive. Heck, after a week with this RAV I was thinking it might be as much fun as the Mazda CX-5, my current "fun to drive cute ute" favourite in that category. I wish I could have driven them back to back.
The driving fun is enhanced by a decent sport mode - though I wished the six speed automatic transmission also came with paddle shifters. Still, the 2.5 litre four cylinder engine (generating a "peak" of 176 horsepower) pulls well and will accelerate nicely for on ramps or passing. You can choose from Normal, Sport and Eco driving modes. Normal and Sport, especially Sport, give you a nicely responding drive; Eco, not surprisingly, makes it feel as if you've halved the horsepower.
Toyota Canada's sample wore the SE trim level and featured all-wheel drive - a front-biased system you can see sending its torque to each corner thanks to a display in the middle of the instrument panel. This trim level starts at $34,620 Canadian and you get a lot of nice vehicle for that.
Toyota says the SE AWD model is "reminiscent of the former, wildly popular RAV4 Sport," but offers a lot more than that model did. Examples of that include its unique sport grille, 18-inch aluminum alloy wheels, Softex leather seats, a seven inch Display Audio system with navigation, heated leather steering wheel, a 4.2-inch multi-information display (where the torque display, along with other display choices, resides), and more. It also crams in dual zone automatic climate control, a power adjustable driver's seat (the front seats are heated, too), back-up camera, auto-dimming rear view mirror with integrated garage door opener, a power tailgate, Blind Spot Monitor and Rear Cross Traffic Alert systems.
That's a lot of stuff for the price. Are these Toyota people paying attention to the South Korean threat? It seems so.
The interior is laid out well and for the most part is quite comfortable. For some weird reason, however, I found that myleft leg kept wanting to go to sleep on highway trips. I had to keep yelling at it to wake up or it would start snoring.
My only real complaint, and this is a common one I have with Toyotas, is the weak audio system. On the other hand, I suppose it could be argued that this is one reason there are still aftermarket audio manufacturers - and if you don't care about extreme volume or audio fidelity then chances are you'll find this easy-to-operate system just fine. The Bluetooth pairing went off without a hitch and the RAV interacted well with my phone for calls and tunes.
All RAVs4 get a hill-start assist control for 2016 and Toyota also offers more colour choices this year as well as upgraded interior materials.
Base RAVs (the entry level model start at about $25,000) get front wheel drive and electric power steering as well as the usual traction control and ABS brakes (on discs, all around).
Toyota is doing a good job of making their vehicle line more compelling for those who enjoy the driving experience as much as they value, well, value, and this new RAV4 (at least in its SE AWD incarnation, the only version I've driven so far) is a major step up in driving enjoyment from the previous years.
Ah, but the RAV is in a tough market niche, going head to head with the VW Tiguan, Kia Sportage and the brand new (and excellent) Hyundai Tucson. Add to the mix the Ford Escape, the Nissan Rogue and the rest of the competitors in this segment and you have a crowded dance card.
Judging by the number of RAVs 4 you see on the road, however, it doesn't look like Toyota has to worry excessively about sales in this niche and the upgraded fun quotient for 2016 may even bring the brand more customers, including some who wouldn't have considered it before now.
If you must drive the hybrid version, it comes in either XLE or Limited trim levels with the price for the XLE starting at $34,465 while the Limited adds nearly four grand to that price but ups the content ante by adding stuff like a better audio system, power and leather driver's seat with memory, LED headlights (and DRL's and taillights) and more.
Copyright 2016 Jim Bray
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