Driving Impressions

By February 20, 2013

While the 2013 RAV4 is a marked improvement over the outgoing model, it still lacks character, emotion and engagement. Praise must be offered, however, because the gains over the previous RAV are sizeable.

The 2.5-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine remains, producing 176 horsepower and 172 pound-feet of torque. The more powerful V6 option available in the outgoing RAV4 is ditched, with Toyota stating they sat stagnant on dealers' lots.

Replacing the old 4-speed transmission is a 6-speed automatic that uses the last two gears as overdrive for increased fuel-efficiency.

Fuel economy has been improved, earning an EPA-estimated 24/31/26 mpg City/Highway/Combined with front-wheel drive (compared to 22/28/24 mpg for the old RAV4) and 22/29/25 mpg for a 2013 RAV4 AWD (vs. 21/27/24 for the outgoing model).

With AWD, you can expect dynamic torque control to aid with handling. This all-wheel drive system manages torque transfer between the front and rear wheels via an electromagnetically controlled coupling. Torque distribution can vary from 100:0 to 50:50, with 100:0 FWD engaged under normal driving to improve fuel economy.

How this helps handling is when an understeer occurs and the front wheels slide, torque transfer increases to the rear wheels by up to 50 percent. This reduces front tire load to provide better lateral grip and balance out the understeer ensuring a more neutral balance.

It works too, with the AWD drive cars noticeably handling twisty sections better than the 2WD vehicles with no dynamic torque control. Switching between the Eco, Normal and Sport mode adjusts the driving feel. Sport offers sharper gear shifts and throttle response, with the electric power steering being backed off by 20 percent. While you feel the extra weight through the wheel, ultimately, the steering feels rubbery and disconnected, like stretching a taut rubber band.

The RAV4 has MacPherson strut front suspension and a double-wishbone rear suspension and, despite improvements over the last model, it still lacks fun. After driving the car and initially being impressed by the gains, very soon the novelty wears off leaving you bored. It still feels like a means of transportation, albeit a better one than before.

Acceleration feels a touch less responsive than the old RAV4, even with the same 2.5-liter engine. This is likely due to a revised first and second gear ratio to aid with city fuel efficiency.

The ride is firmer and less floppy. It's more balanced and poised, with the suspension feeling more rigid. The old car was like driving a school bus, but the new SUV feels more normal. Braking is good, but if you drive the Mazda CX-5, the handling is in a different league. The CX-5 proves that an SUV needn't be a compromise compared to a smaller car, whereas the RAV4 still feels like an SUV lacking passion.

It doesn't get better off-road, either. In fact, it becomes far worse. Even on a dirt road the car feels like it's going to fall apart, as do your teeth. The vibrations are intolerable and you just want the monotony to end.

No doubt the 2013 RAV4 is a chunk better than the old model, and we congratulate Toyota for bringing the car into the ballpark. But you only need to drive the Mazda CX-5 to appreciate how far Toyota still has to go to make the RAV4 a pleasure to drive.