_ THE _ RAV4 pretty much had the compact SUV segment to itself when it first arrived on the Australian scene in 1994.
Of course, things have since changed and that segment is now as jam-packed as a Tokyo subway train as Australians flock to SUVs of all sizes in rapidly increasing numbers. As such, Toyota has tried to create a medium SUV for a range of buyer needs with its fourth-generation model, with an array of engine, transmission and spec-level choices amounting to a whopping 16 variants.
Prices start at $28,490 for a two-wheel drive 2.0-litre petrol power plant, while the all-wheel- drive options consist of a 2.5-litre petrol engine - the same as seen in the latest Camry - and a 2.2-litre turbo-diesel which is making its debut in Australia after appearing in select European models.
The V6 and three-door RAV4 incarnations are, at this stage, a thing of the past. All models come with a six-speed manual option, with the AWD versions also offering a six-speed automatic (up from the previous four-speed) while somewhat bizarrely the 2WD instead has CVT.
It is available in three specification levels, the entry-level GX, mid-range GXL and top-of-the-range Cruiser which is only available in AWD configuration. Bluetooth connectivity, daytime LED headlamps, seven airbags, stability and traction control, roof rails, rear spoiler, and a cargo net all come as standard, while the GXL gains a reverse camera, dual zone climate control, rain-sensing wipers, keyless entry and push-button start.
Satellite navigation, blind-spot monitoring and an electric tailgate are among the perks of the top-spec Cruiser but it does cost $7000 more than the GXL.
At the national launch on the Sapphire Coast in NSW, chief engineer Makoto Arimoto said he aimed for a complete redesign for the RAV4, without referencing the vehicles which came before.
It now has a sleek, modern feel in keeping with other recent Toyota releases such as the new Corolla hatch. It's a theme which is continued in the interior but perks such as easy-access baby-seat anchors show the minimalist slant isn't at the expense of detail and the leather-accented trim finish in the Cruiser adds a level of prestige.
Toyota went out and listened to 250 SUV owners to find out just what they wanted from their vehicle, and enhanced space was high on buyers' wish lists. As such, rear legroom has been increased by 41mm which allows for a good ride for any taller passengers stuck in the back.
Cargo space is also improved, even with the spare tyre now taken off the rear tailgate and put under the cargo space. A full-size spare will allow for 507 litres, while a space-saver spare will provide 577 litres. A single, top-hinged tailgate and a low loading deck means objects are easy to put into the back and then unload. Despite all the extra interior space, the new RAV4 is, in fact, narrower, lower and shorter than previous models, making it easy to manoeuvre.
On the road, Toyota has aimed to make the RAV4 "waku-doki", or fun to drive.
Many buyers may go for the manual option purely to save dollars but they're certainly not missing out on anything should they opt for the stick; the manual gearbox is great whether in the petrol or diesel. The diesel option is arguably the pick of the power plants, though it should be pointed out Toyota has yet to fully test its towing capability. The company's ultra-conservative estimate is around 500kg yet considering the 2.5-litre petrol model can pull around 1500kg, one could expect the oil-burner to be very capable.
Around town and on the open road the RAV4 gets the job done with aplomb. Road noise is minimal even at high speeds, while there have been upgrades to the suspension and new torque distribution system in the all-wheel-drive cars which detects understeer and allocates more torque to the necessary wheels.
A new sports mode improves throttle and steering response and the car now has a lower centre of gravity, with the cumulative result of these tweaks resulting in a car that's nimble around corners.
For those looking to save pennies, a new ECO mode modifies engine and air-conditioning output to improve fuel economy.
There's no doubt the RAV4 has evolved a long way from the fun and bubbly three-door which first appeared but Toyota has, remarkably, kept pricing relatively stable over the last 19 or so years.
An AWD 2013 RAV4 starts at $31,990, up just $3090 from its original price tag in 1994, despite the abundance of modern features.
Australians have certainly loved previous incarnations of the sporty SUV - we've bought the fifth most RAV4s out of any country in the world - and the 200,000th RAV is expected to be sold this year. With a superior car now out there, it's a love affair likely to continue.
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