The new Toyota RAV4 has a good price tag and it has that impeccable Toyota quality and dealer network.
The new Toyota RAV4 has a good price tag and it has that impeccable Toyota quality and dealer network.
The flagship petrol engine is rather thirsty though.
The flagship petrol engine is rather thirsty though.
Interior is very well appointed.
Interior is very well appointed.

Toyota’s RAV4 is the reason I bought a Subaru Forester. Had Toyota’s then PR man, Roger Houghton, realised this would happen, he might not have loaned me the RAV for a weekend near Nelspruit.

In those days – more than 10 years ago – the RAV4 (second generation) stood out from the crowd for its sexy looks (and when was the last time you ever heard someone say that about a contemporary Toyota?) and because it was the car that effectively invented the “softroader” SUV category.

I loved the three-door RAV, with its all-wheel-drive, which made tackling dirt roads at speed a pleasure. It also had a decent 2.0 litre Camry-based engine which revved sweetly and yet was surprisingly economical.

The time with the RAV got me thinking about what I wanted in a car. For the five years we lived in Namibia we got to many out-of-the-way places in two-wheel-drive cars... because most of the gravel roads in that country are excellent. The debate in our circle at the time was whether to get an additional, pukka four-wheel-drive, like a Land Rover, to tackle hardcore expeditions. The alternative was to get a four-wheel-drive Toyota Hilux, which could do the same but could also double as a daily driver. But a Landy or a Hilux is no fun in the urban environment, so we soldiered on, with a FWD Opel Kadett and then a FWD VW Jetta.

And, the reality is that you could reach 90 percent of the interesting places in a two-wheel-drive. However, there were moments – in Namibia and later in South Africa – when we realised an all-wheel-drive system would have spared us terrifying moments when FWD cars ran out of grip on a gravel uphill stretch and began sliding backwards.

Another problem with an ordinary sedan was that it does not have the ground clearance you need for tackling even good gravel roads... as I discovered when I holed the petrol tank on my Kadett after bottoming out on a long gravel road near Khorixas in Western Namibia.

The RAV4 met the bill for me in many ways, except the two most critical: it was too small and too expensive. Even though there was a five-door version, Toyota in those days was pricing the vehicle as a specialist purchase... and was aware there was little competition.

What they seem to have missed was that their brilliant creation actually created a new market segment... and by the time they woke up to that and adjusted prices to make the RAV more accessible, competitors such as Hyundai and Kia had jumped in.

I opted for a Forester because it was more affordable and better off-road than the RAV. Plus its symmetrical drive train (boxer engine and AWD system) made it a blast to drive on dirt.

But, I was a little nostalgic and interested to see how the new, fourth-generation RAV4 stacked up.


Its design, sadly, does not stand out like its predecessor’s did (but the Forester has also become more middle-of-the-road over the years).

The model I drove – the top-of-the-range 2.5 Auto – is well equipped and reasonably priced, at about R360 000, which undercuts some competitors by a good margin. The 2.0 litre FWD version is a bargain at under R300 000.

(It was also a bit of a mission to tell which version I had, because there are no model badges. But I looked in the manual and then at the engine to discover I had the big four-pot motor under the bonnet.)

The 2.5 is supposed to be an all-wheel-drive although it is only a part-time system, which is not something the salesperson will dwell on. The RAV4 is a FWD car until there is loss of traction at the front and then the rear wheels come into play. The system can also be locked in all-wheel-drive mode for low-speed off-road conditions. Low speed? Yes – the system unlocks and reverts to FWD at speeds of more than 40km/h.

Which is the point that many buyers of such vehicles miss: where you most need all-wheel-drive in a vehicle like this is when you’re travelling at speeds higher than 40km/h on gravel roads... because you get better traction, balance and controllability. Think I’m wrong? Then why are top rally cars all all-wheel-drive?

The new RAV4 is not a vehicle I would personally buy... not while a Forester is on the market. But, of all the other “softroader” SUVs, it is a smart option... if you don’t intend venturing too far off the tar (in that case, the 2.0 litre FWD would be my choice).

It’s a Toyota, so it’s well made and you can get it attended to all over the country, in the unlikely event that something should go wrong. And it’s well equipped, as well as being priced to compete with the Koreans.

The big petrol engine is thirsty though (strangely, no motoring writers have mentioned this). There is an economical diesel option, too.

It’s a pity, I think, that Toyota misjudged the market and priced the RAV4 incorrectly and didn’t do much to market it in the past. If it had, we wouldn’t be talking about Sportages and iX35s... and I might not even have noticed the Subaru. Anyway, thanks Roger. -Saturday Star

toyota rav4 2.5 vx auto

Engine: Four-cylinder, naturally aspirated petrol, 132kW.

Fuel requirement: 95 octane unleaded petrol.

Fuel consumption: Toyota is at least honest by noting an urban fuel consumption of 11.6 litres per 100km which is about what we got. The company claims 6.8l/km in highway motoring, but the reality is about 7.5l/100km. But that’s not bad.

CO2: 198g/km (official figure).