REVIEW DATE: 04 May 2007
Toyota Are Breaking Into New Territory With the RAV4 T180, A Model That Lifts Them Into Some Premium Terrain. Is It A Stretch Too Far? Andy Enright Reports
Before we go any further, we need to wipe your memory banks. Like most people, you probably associate Toyota's RAV4 with something relatively cheap, resolutely cheerful and certainly not something that would carry a price tag of nearly £27,405. There, we've got that of the way. A fair proportion of the readership will have departed as soon as they clapped eyes on that rather big number, but there are compelling reasons why this RAV4 is a better source for that money than, say, a BMW X3 2.0d, the car it ruthlessly targets.
Toyota attacks in three key fronts: power, equipment and safety. It's not often that BMW find themselves outmuscled but in this instance the Munich company must give best to Toyota, the T180 featuring a 27bhp power advantage over the X3. That's not the long and short of it though. There is a trade-off in terms of refinement as the Toyota's engine certainly can't match the 150bhp German on that score but, to be honest, in a vehicle like a compact 4x4 it doesn't matter too much. This same engine doesn't really work in the Lexus IS220d but this installation feels eager, enthusiastic and playful. Somewhat oddly, it doesn't feel as quick as you'd imagine, the onset of the turbocharger being gradual and progressive. The RAV4 T180 is one of those vehicles which is often travelling a whole lot faster than you realise.
It's also one of the few compact 4x4s that you'd choose to throw down a twisty road just for the fun of it. The electric power steering, so often a byword for anaesthetised response, weights up nicely the harder you put the RAV4 into a bend, the light weight of the diesel engine means that turn in is excellent and front end grip, even on looser surfaces, is almost beyond reproach. It's an impressive ride and handling package, one that Toyota would do well to emphasise, instead of fixating on the 'premium compact 4x4' market.
You may well ask yourself why Toyota are tilting at BMW in any case. Don't they have the Lexus brand for that purpose? It's an apt question and one that was put to a senior Toyota product executive at the vehicle's launch. The issue was stonewalled somewhat and there hung a hint that with Audi and Mercedes set to enter this market at some not too distant point, it would be folly for Lexus to ignore such a lucrative trough. The RAV4 T180 may well be a stop-gap model for the Toyota group but it does a very good job.
"The RAV4 T180 isn't shy of power or agility"
Equipment levels are, to put it bluntly, almost obscene. Not only do you get full leather seating with leather trim on the steering wheel and other ancillaries, there's a superb stereo, DVD satellite navigation, eighteen-inch alloy wheels shod with run flat tyres, keyless go, electrically adjustable driver's seat, dual zone climate control and a whole host of other toys. The T180 is priced identically to the entry level X3 2.0d but you're not going to find any of that kit on the German car.
Safety is another area where this car excels with no fewer than nine airbags as standard, including, for the first time in this segment, a driver's knee airbag. The Interactive Drive System is a really smart piece of technology, marrying intelligent four-wheel drive to the VSC+ stability control and the EPS electric power steering. Brake with one side of the car on a slippery surface, such as a dirt verge, and the other on tarmac and in most cars you'd have to apply some carefully judged opposite lock with the steering to stay travelling straight ahead. With the RAV4, the Interactive Drive System computers recognise what's going on and apply a compensating torque to the steering system. Toyota's engineers are at pains to stress that the car doesn't steer for you, it merely assists in the task of staying in control.
This engine is a high-tech unit, of all aluminium construction with a 2.2-litre displacement. The light weight helps keep the front end of the RAV4 agile and also assists in Toyota's goals of low emissions and decent fuel economy for this model. Acceleration is punchy, the RAV hitting 60mph in 9 seconds and only topping out at 120mph. Drive a little less manically and you should average around 40mpg which, somewhat remarkably, is better than the old 114bhp D4-D diesel that powered this car's predecessor. A hefty torque figure of 400Nm is on tap between 2,000 and 2,600rpm. The gearing is a little odd, perhaps as a sop to city or off-road driving, with the first couple of ratios being set very low with a relatively tall third gear. This means that unless you rev the engine hard in second gear, it's easy to rather lazily fall off the bottom of the engine's useful response when you slot third. Otherwise there's not a whole lot wrong with the six-speed transmission.
There are a couple of curiosities about this model that were never satisfactorily explained away. This powerplant is well suited to light off road duties but Toyota's Hill Descent Control is only offered on models with an automatic gearbox and, you've guessed it, the RAV4 T180 doesn't have an auto option. The sideways opening rear hatch will also make loading in tight car parks rather tricky and there's no separately opening rear window option offered. Some of the plastics inside, most notably the map compartment door, aren't what you'd expect in a car that targets BMW either.
Rear seats that fold flat to the floor with one pull of a lever are one reason why the RAV4's load capacity has risen so dramatically and it also helps that the rear seats can be slid backwards and forwards over a range of 165mm, optimising either luggage space or rear passenger leg room. The seat folding action is particularly slick. Whereas some rivals may also claim flat folding rear seats, the reality is that you will often have to spend time dismantling the head restraints or risk a hernia from flipping seat bases up before the operation can be completed. There's none of that palaver in the RAV4, a one-handed operation seeing the seat vanish flush with the load bay floor beneath which is a handy stowage area.
There's a lot to be said for the latest RAV4 but the T180 is a car that's living outside its natural comfort zone. Yes, it has a very good engine, is well-equipped and features safety gear that its targeted rival cannot hope to match, but it is also punching above its weight with a badge that doesn't carry a lot of clout in this sector. This is a good car but I can't see it notching up too many sales. There are just too many diverting attractions elsewhere.
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