Johannesburg - To say that the Toyota Rav4 has “grown up” would technically be old news by now. Generations-old news in fact.

Ever since the funky looking first-generation pioneered the segment back in 1994 the Rav4 has grown from a compact to a truly family-sized vehicle and now we’ve reached generation five, which is actually marginally (as in 5mm) shorter, but 10mm wider than its immediate predecessor, while the wheelbase has grown and the overhangs shrunken.

Rather than expanding in size, the new Rav4 gets a whole lot more glamour. Its daring new design seems to have inherited some of that Lexus zing, its tauter lines also turning a few heads here and there - an acquaintance even mistook it for a Jaguar when seeing it at a distance. 

There is plenty of Lexus inspiration inside. While I can’t vouch for the humbler GX models, the 2.5 VX AWD auto that we tested felt significantly plusher than the previous Rav4, with much of the dashboard featuring soft slush-moulding and padded leather surfaces. 

The cockpit is a slightly odd but user-friendly mix of digital and analogue. The instrument cluster features a digital speedo placed in the middle of conventional rev and fuel dials. A 17.8cm touchscreen, flanked by conventional buttons that serve as menu shortcuts, juts out the top of the dashboard, but rather than going for the floating effect, Toyota installed a back cover that makes it look like a PC screen from 2003. Nonetheless the central command centre is very functional and easy to use, the only real bugbear for now being the lack of Android Auto and Apple CarPlay apps, although these are likely to be added at a later stage.

As mentioned, the cabin is family sized and there is some leg-stretching space for those in the back, as well as ample headroom for taller teens. The boot capacity has also grown to 580 litres (up 79 litres) which should be more than enough for your holiday luggage, but do bear in mind that the Rav now has a space-saver rather than a full-sized spare wheel - if that matters to you.

Now built around Toyota’s TNGA platform that underpins most modern front-wheel-driven Toyotas, the Rav4’s body is 57 percent more rigid than before, while weight optimisation has also lowered the centre of gravity. This and the use of a double wishbone rear suspension system, and a sophisticated new permanent all-wheel-drive system with dynamic torque vectoring in the top two models, result in a solid, planted feel on the road as well as surefooted road holding. 

The ride quality is comfortable too, but we’re not giving this SUV full marks for refinement because the engine gets a bit noisy when throttle inputs go anything beyond gentle.

Toyota has resisted the temptation to go the turbocharged engine route, so all local models are powered by four-cylinder normally aspirated engines. Most models in the range get a 2-litre unit with 127kW and 203Nm on tap, but we tested the range-topper, which upgrades to a 2.5 with 152kW and 243Nm. And whereas the 2.0 versions get either a manual or CVT gearbox, the 2.5 is fitted with an eight speed torque converter auto.

It's not necessarily the most refined engine and gearbox combination out there but gear changes are generally quite smooth and the engine delivers reasonable performance, but it’s not as effortless as some of the turbocharged rivals out there.

The range-topping VX spec grade buys you plenty of driver-assistance gadgets, such as a Lane Keeping System, Blind Spot Monitor, Pre-Crash System and Panoramic View Monitor. 

This is in addition to a whole glut of luxury features, including dual-zone climate control, leather seats (powered for the driver), Adaptive Cruise Control and a powered tailgate. The latter feature we wished it didn’t have throughout the test period as it is slow-operating and not always easy to activate.

VERDICT

The latest Toyota Rav4 has been selling up a storm since its recent launch and with good reason. It’s every bit as solid and practical as its predecessor, only now it’s bolder looking, plusher inside and more sure-footed on twisty roads. Engine refinement is lacking a little, but it is otherwise a highly impressive product, offered in a wide range of derivatives.

IOL Motoring