2014 Toyota RAV4

Close to 30 MPG – And Worth a Closer Look.

You have most likely observed that not everything that is stated or printed is cast in stone. Look no further than the “your mileage will vary” warnings or anything printed in the smallest possible type on a contract.

That also holds true for our 30 mpg All-Wheel Drive (AWD) Club – cars, crossovers and SUVs with AWD that deliver at least an EPA estimated 30 miles per gallon (MPG) on the highway. We’ve made an exception for Toyota’s RAV4 AWD crossover, which has an EPA rating of 22-mpg city, 29 highway, and 25 combined city/highway.

The reason for the exception? The RAV4’s all-wheel drive system.

Typical of AWD systems in this class, the RAV4’s system, called Dynamic Torque Control, operates in fuel-saving front-wheel drive if sensors aren’t detecting any wheel slip. Any loss of traction activates an electromagnetic coupling that reapportions torque, up to 50/50 front/rear, until grip is restored. Torque transfer to the rear wheels can also take place based on steering input and cornering forces to improve handling and control.

Like virtually all compact crossovers, the RAV4 is not designed for severe off-roading. However, it has a feature relatively rare in this class – AWD Lock – for maximum traction off pavement or very slippery on-road packed snow or ice. Activated by a dashboard button, it locks torque distribution in a fixed, 50/50 ratio at speeds up to about 25 mph. Above this speed, the system automatically reverts to standard AWD mode.

That’s not all. In Sport mode (more on that later), which is standard on AWD versions, the system triggers more dynamic power distribution. Torque transfer to the rear begins the moment the steering wheel is turned. And if the RAV4 begins to noseplow through a corner, the system will send up to 50 percent of the power to the rear to stabilize control.

Pretty cool stuff.

Toyota, which likes to vaunt that the RAV4 spawned the crossover segment in 1996, today is in a traffic jam surrounded by competitors – more than two dozen and counting. And, while it has sold well over the last several years, it hasn’t been able to dislodge either the Honda CR-V or Ford Escape from the top-selling position. With an all-new for 2013 RAV-4, the first fully redesigned edition since model-year 2006, the automaker is looking to change that.

Exterior Styling

New styling trades rounded edges for a more creased, aerodynamic form. Lost in the redesign was RAV4’s trademark side-hinged cargo door, jettisoned in favor of a modern, roof-hinged liftgate. It’s far from a radical shape, but it does stand out visually enough in a category that includes the styled-in-Europe Ford Escape, the handsomely aerodynamic Honda CR-V and the latest redesign of the Nissan Rogue.

An expressive front leads to a lowered hood line and steeply raked windshield. The arched roof culminates with a large spoiler and the concave lines of the rear hatch lend a modern look. Aerodynamics is greatly improved over the last RAV4 thanks to the slipperier shape, new underbody covers and front “aero” corners.

Redesigned Interior

The redesigned interior is a highlight with a wide soft-touch dash dividing the work and comfort zones, giving an almost cockpit feel. Cabin materials rank among the better in this class. Dashboard controls are driver centric,

RAV4 Interior Goes Upscale

and in the center is a 6.1-inch screen that displays audio and climate controls settings as well as the available navigation system.

Front bucket seats are road trip comfortable and in back, three adults will find legroom that rivals many mid-sizers while seated on a sofa-height bench that is comfortably firm. The rear seat is split 60/40 and folds nearly flat with a simple lift of a handle on the bottom of the cushion. Folding offers up 73.4 cubic feet of cargo volume, tops by far in the class. With the back seat upright, the space behind is 38.4 cubic feet, also a class-leading number.

RAV4 won’t confuse buyers with its configurations – the choice is either front- or all-wheel drive and just three trim levels: LE, XLE and Limited. Our review vehicle was a 2013 XLE AWD model. There are no changes for the 2014 model year except for a new Entune audio lineup and a new Technology package for the Limited model.

It’s What’s Underneath That Counts

Beneath the new RAV4’s sheetmetal, not much has changed. Dimensions in the latest iteration are nearly identical to the previous version, riding on a 104.7-inch wheelbase with an overall length of 179.9 inches – a footprint that virtually duplicates the CR-V and Escape.

Under the hood, Toyota has tucked away the carryover 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine. Output is rated at 176 horsepower and 172 pounds-feet of torque, numbers that are on par for the class. Instead of the old four-speed automatic transmission, however, it’s now mated to a six-speed automatic borrowed from the Camry. It features two overdrive gears and a torque converter that locks up more of the time (than in past versions), which improves fuel economy.

New to the RAV4 are Eco and Sport modes, activated by dashboard buttons. Like others of its kind, Eco mode aims to save gas by easing off throttle response, remapping shift points and regulating the air conditioner. Sport mode sharpens shift points, throttle response and steering response.

On the Road with the RAV4

Weighing in at a portly 3,585 pounds, our XLE AWD needed all of its 176 ponies. The engine is fairly smooth and mostly quiet, and was more than adequate to handle the everyday chores of merging and passing. The four had a good working relationship with the automatic transmission, which shifts quickly and quietly through the gears. The shift lever can be toggled for manual-type gear control, and when in Sport mode the transmission held the gear selection.

Driving on city streets or freeways, the all-independent suspension delivered a pleasant ride. Even over railroad tracks and rough, broken surfaces, the RAV relayed very little bouncing. Steering responded quickly to input, although there wasn’t much feedback.

Cornering was taken in stride with some expected body roll when pushed, but there was an unexpected lack of understeer. The four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes performed competently when one of those “oh-my-god” situations suddenly appeared.

Mild Off-Roading with the RAV4 – Good MPG

As for the 50/50 lock-up of the AWD system, we gave it a modest test on a eight-mile, narrow and hilly Forest Service trail that had been slightly washed out in places. It performed as advertised, but with a low 6.3-inch ground clearance and no underbody skid plates, the RAV4 isn’t designed for serious off-highway excursions.

When it comes to fuel economy, the EPA’s little disclaimer that “actual mileage will vary” works two ways. We clocked 264 miles during our week with the RAV4. Nearly half, 127 miles, were driven in the default Normal mode with frequent selections of the Sport mode. We kept to posted speed limits in town, but drove on the freeways mostly at 75 mph, 5 over the posted limit. When we topped up the tank, 26.2 mpg was tallied.

The other 137 miles were driven with the Eco mode selected. On the freeway we set the cruise control to 68 mph. Topping up revealed 30.6 mpg, 1.6 mpg better than the EPA’s estimate. Toyota notes that the EPA doesn’t engage the ECO mode during the test-drive cycle – perhaps they should.

Competitive Pricing

In its quest for more sales, Toyota has priced the RAV4 very competitively. The LE AWD with an attractive selection of features has a sticker price of $25,810, including $860 destination charges. Notable is the standard backup camera that displays on the dashboard screen. And every 2014 RAV4 has USB linking as well as Bluetooth hands-free connectivity to cell phones and music streaming. Power locks and windows, air conditioning, cruise control and a manual tilt/telescope steering wheel are included, as well.

XLE AWD ($27,260) and Limited AWD ($30,580) have a sunroof and dual-zone automatic climate control standard as well as Toyota’s Entune infotainment system. It teams with a smartphone for access to a collection of popular mobile applications such as iHeartRadio, Pandora, and MovieTickets.com. Standard features exclusive to the Limited include a leather-wrapped steering wheel, power driver’s seat, heated front seats, and keyless entry with pushbutton ignition. Exclusive to the Limited is a power liftgate and the optional Technology package featuring a blind-spot monitor with rear-cross-traffic alert and lane departure alert.

RAV4-Cavernous Cargo Space

The 2014 RAV4 is a compact crossover that doesn’t waste a square inch of passenger or cargo room. It has surprising amounts of both in a body that has presence on the road without occupying too much of it. In addition to Toyota’s-brand quality and resale value, you get above-the-traffic ride height, comfortable seating for five, and just enough off-road capability to keep you out of trouble — or get you into it.




Story & photos by Larry E. Hall

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