Toyota looks for RAV4 rebound with redesign
First small crossover once dominated, now plays catch-up
PHOENIX -- Toyota was the first automaker to bring a compact crossover to the United States.
But since 1995, Toyota's dominance of the segment has eroded. It now resides in fourth place in the segment sales race. Toyota hopes its 2013 RAV4 redesign will return the brand to the thick of the chase.
The basics: The RAV4 is about an inch larger in every dimension than the Honda CR-V, and prices start about $500 higher.
While the four-cylinder engine is carryover, the 2013 model has upgraded its transmission from a four-speed automatic to a six-speed automatic with sequential-shift gating.
All-wheel-drive models have Toyota's Dynamic Torque Control system, which automatically shifts from front-wheel drive to all-wheel drive when accelerating or when sensors detect wheel slippage, according to Toyota. Most of the time it remains in front-drive setting.
The system also comes with a "lock" mode for muddy or sandy conditions under 25 mph, sending up to 50 percent of engine power to the rear wheels.
Although the front-strut and rear-trailing-arm suspensions are carryovers, a "sport" mode gives tighter suspension response, in addition to sportier shifting and throttle response.
Toyota made only evolutionary changes to the exterior styling. Designers paid more attention to the interior and used more soft-touch materials. The seats are taller and longer. Second-row seats recline, and a 6-foot adult can fit easily in the second row.
Notable features: Toyota engineers moved the rear-mounted spare tire under the cargo area, enabling the RAV4 to have a rear liftgate instead of a side-mounted door. To accommodate short garages, owners of the Limited trim level can custom-set how high the liftgate rises. Not counting the spare-tire carrier of the old model, the new RAV4 silhouette is about 1.5 inches longer.
Standard features include 17-inch wheels, eight airbags, privacy glass, daytime running lights, cruise control, backup camera and steering wheel controls for audio and Bluetooth.
The XLE trim level adds what Toyota says is $2,000 in additional content, but with just a $1,000 price bump. All-wheel drive is available on all grades at a $1,400 premium and is expected to account for two-thirds of RAV4 sales.
What Toyota says: "We wanted to keep fulfilling the customer's 'SUV dream' of going anywhere," says Yoshikazu Saeki, RAV4 deputy chief engineer. "But while most people dream of going to the mountains, it's on paved roads. They want to dream, but they are thinking more practically."
Compromises and shortcomings: Toyota no longer will offer a V-6 option, which accounted for about 15 percent of sales in recent model years. Toyota also axed the optional third-row seat, which currently had a 5 percent order rate. Toyota suggests people needing a third row move up to the Highlander. There is no hybrid version -- Toyota is considering it "down the road." In the interim, shoppers will be shunted to the Prius V model.
As for the driving experience, the paucity of asphalt sheeting in the wheel wells transmits significant road and tire noise to the cabin. Second gear is too tall; a downshift kick-down at 25 mph results in a boggy engine, making city-street passing precarious. If a driver turns off the traction control system, it reboots automatically at 35 mph.
The market: Toyota has sold more than 1.7 million RAV4s since the vehicle came to the United States in 1995, and 80 percent are still on the road. The RAV4 has become a global phenomenon, sold in more than 150 countries.
Toyota hopes to sell about 200,000 units annually in the United States. Most of those vehicles will be built in Woodstock, Ontario.
Through November, Toyota sold 157,526 RAV4s, compared with 255,919 Honda CR-Vs, 240,877 Ford Escapes and 199,070 Chevrolet Equinoxes. So even if Toyota hits its mark, it could remain in fourth place.
The skinny: The RAV4 goes on sale Jan. 7, with initial vehicles from Japan. Woodstock production begins Jan. 16. The price bump from the LE to XLE trim will be $10 on a lease payment, or $16 on a 60-month financing. Toyota has reduced the number of ways a RAV4 can be equipped, which is likely to increase assembly line efficiency. Whether customers will be happy with fewer choices remains to be seen.
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