Supersize Me

By Hannah Wallace January 31, 2009

When I saw the test vehicle in my driveway, I thought there’d been a mistake. This wasn't the 2009 Toyota RAV4 the delivery company said I would receive. This was what? A Highlander? It was too big to be Toyota's compact sport utility.

Wrong. Like so many other vehicles, the RAV4 has grown over the past decade. We’ve all watched as the Corolla became Camry-sized, the Civic moved to Accord proportions. The evolution of the popular little RAV4 followed a similar path. It supersized!

The RAV4 began life in the U.S. in 1996 as a compact, most often with two passenger doors and a tail door. It promptly began winning awards. Motor Week magazine named it “Best Mini-SUV.” Popular Science dubbed it “Best of What's New.” The next year, Consumer Reports awarded it "Best Small SUV" honors, and Automobile magazine went further, naming it "Automobile of the Year." The RAV4 enjoyed better-than-expected sales, which did not go unnoticed by competitors. In 1997, arch rival Honda offered Americans the Honda CR-V, and the battle was engaged.

For 2009, Toyota offers three RAV4 models: base, sport and limited. The base gets a new 4-cylinder engine that develops a respectable 179 horsepower (up from 166 last year) and a four-speed automatic transmission. The sport offers a V6 with 269 horsepower and a five-speed automatic. The limited offers a choice between the two engines. Standard safety features are plentiful, including anti-lock brakes, skid control, traction control, side curtain air bags and front side bags.

The exterior of the 2009 RAV4 has been “freshened,” in Toyota's words, but the interior has enjoyed a nice upgrade. Our sport model had luxurious charcoal leather seats—but then, the window sticker read $30,369. It included a navigation system (no voice control), rear view camera that displays its image on the left side of the rear view mirror, roof rails, power everything and a superb sound system with satellite radio.

On the road, the RAV4 proved a good handler. Gone is the imprecise steering I remember from models years ago. And the rpm drops to a low level at interstate speeds, helping the V6 to return 27 mpg on the highway (19 in the city).

But putting 269 horsepower to the front wheels proved not a good move. Under full acceleration, the RAV4 experiences severe torque steer, the tendency of a front-wheel drive vehicle to move left or right. Our tester jerked left rather severely toward oncoming traffic and frightened my wife. All RAV4s need to be all-wheel drive, all the time.

The rear camera display proved troublesome, too. The view from the camera becomes a matchbook-sized video image to the extreme left of the rear view mirror. My eyes had trouble taking in details in that tiny image from my upright position in the driver's seat. And that’s a shame, since the RAV4 has a splendid display screen low on the center dash as part of its navigation system. That’s where a rear view display is usually shown. That’s where it should be in the RAV4.

On the Internet, many complaints about the RAV4 concern its rear door, a huge, curbside swinging door to access its cargo bay. This, of course, blocks loading if the RAV4 is parallel parked on the right, as we park in America. It also provides no protection from rain when groceries are being loaded, as a hatch does.

The spare tire continues to be mounted on that rear door, and it protrudes beyond the bumper, meaning the metal tire holder will be the first part of the vehicle to strike an object if accidentally backed into something. The Insurance Institute of America warns about the excessive damage that is done with such setups. A tiny bump becomes thousands of dollars in repair costs.

Toyota now offers a “sport appearance package” that removes the spare tire. But that comes only with run-flat tires, despised by many. Toyota needs to figure out how to store the spare tire under the cargo bay, as others do.

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