Vail Valley autos: Toyota’s RAV4 is functional, but fun to drive
Vail, CO, Colorado
An old editor of mine, crazy Uncle Randy, gave me some life-reaffirming advice a few years ago, when my car reviews had turned bland and product-heavy: “Kid, drive those cars like you stole ’em … and then write about it. Truthfully.”
The combined Colorado law enforcement community may not agree, but I found it to be a soul-enriching strategy, and one that I continue to employ to this day.
To that end, the fun factor of nearly any vehicle can be willfully accentuated through vigorous thrashing, with the possible exception of minivans, which are never fun to drive, or look at, under any circumstances.
One machine which didn’t take much prompting to turn into a good time was the 2009 Toyota RAV4 Sport, a light and sprightly, good-looking small SUV that careens with the heart of a sports car, but can still carry 73 cubic feet of cargo, or engage in some moderately rugged off-road activity.
I hadn’t driven a new-gen RAV4 with the larger 3.5-liter V6, but the minute I sat behind the wheel and floored the gas pedal, I was hooked. The engine generates 269 old-fashioned, non-turbocharged horsepower, and with a wide stance, healthy 18-inch wheels and a light 3,700 pound curb weight, this baby flies. I mean, really flies, plus has much better-than-average handling and stopping ability for an SUV. And it still returns more than 25 miles per gallon, even when smoking the tires through downtown Denver.
I could even imagine going so far as strapping on some Brembos, messing with the already fairly tight suspension and turning the RAV4 into a weird fusion of Mitsubishi Evo X (totally uncomfortable as it is, and yet only 30 more horsepower) and smaller, turbo lag-laden utes such as the Volkswagen Tiguan and the Subaru Forester. New-fangled sequential shifting with wheel-mounted paddles would also help – RAV4 doesn’t have ’em, though the gated five-speed automatic is still pretty slick.
Electronic, automatic 4WD can be manually switched to provide more torque to the rear wheels; otherwise, the system works seamlessly at all speeds. There’s also a hill-start assist and a hill-descent assist, should you opt to explore some mining roads. And it will also haul 3,500 pounds of trailer, without missing a beat.
The little Toyota certainly has looks to spare, with a stylish sweep to its body line, an interesting treatment in the rear window space and slick touches such as the aerodynamic overhang on the tail. The smoked alloy wheels also are some of the nicest stock pieces I’ve seen.
Like many Toyotas, the interior is a little low on flash but heavy on functionality, with round instruments and controls, Toyota’s bulletproof, touchscreen navigational system (a flop-forward screen hides the CD player) and a new, slightly jury-rigged but still effective Bluetooth system.
Leather seating is comfy and reasonably sporty, with a good sized second-row; Base and Limited variations of the RAV4 will also provide a super-tiny third row as an option (as well as a frugal but powerful 179-HP 2.5 liter four-cylinder engine). It’s an easy car to get in and out of, and the high seating position and a lot of glass gives you a great view of the road at all times.
In the back, a hard spare tire cover is the only minor sightline blockage; the rear door opens to the right, allowing easy access for cargo (though I would have, oddly, opted for a left-hand-opening door).
A sweet and totally authentic mix of sport and utility, the RAV4 worked for me. Now, on to more thrashing, with a more thrashable mount.