Toyota RAV4: Hauling in Every Sense of the Word

At Roadfly’s offices in Northern Virginia, just a few miles outside Washington, D.C., we greeted the arrival of the 2007 Toyota RAV4 with some excitement. There were two reasons for this. Firstly, our area was about to be hit by a winter storm that would paralyze the nation’s capital for a period of more than twenty-four hours. Secondly, the RAV4 is a special vehicle. Since the death of the excellent Celica GT-S, the RAV4 has become Toyota’s fastest-accelerating model in the U.S. market. That includes cars, trucks, and SUVs wearing the Toyota badge, but excludes Lexus models. So, our hopes were somewhat elevated when the RAV4 rolled into the parking lot of our quaint little office park.

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If you’re reading a website about cars, we’ll assume you know already that Toyota’s products are renowned for their build quality, dependability, and easygoing, vanilla attitudes. So back in 2006, when this third-generation RAV4 hit U.S. shores with a big, honking 3.5-liter V6, our eyebrows went up. This V6, lifted from Toyota’s large Avalon sedan, makes 269hp @ 6200rpm and 246 lb.-ft. @ 4400 rpm. Those are pretty stout numbers, higher even than the 4.7L V8 in Toyota’s larger 4-Runner. 0-60 times for the RAV4 are being reported in the mid-six-second range, with quarter-mile times of less than fifteen seconds. That’s knocking on the doors of all manner of sporty cars, from six-cylinder BMWs to VTEC Hondas to turbo Volkswagens.

The third-generation RAV4 was introduced in 2006, and for one year had near-exclusive bragging rights in the cubic-inches department. Honda’s CR-V soldiers on with big-block Civic motors, and the Ford Escape/Mazda Tribute twins offer 3.0L V6s but aren’t true head-to-head competitors to the RAV4 in our opinion. For 2007, Hyundai’s Santa Fe has caught up with a 3.3L V6, but they are the scrappy upstarts to Toyota’s sprawling empire. Toyota has been building sporty motors for longer than your humble correspondent has inhabited this plane of existence, and we were expecting big things.

As soon as our tester RAV4’s oil-temp needle was far enough from the C, we decided to test these expectations. The V6, equipped with Toyota’s VVT-i technology, is a real performer. From a dead stop, first gear is truly alarming until you get used to the prodigious amount of power lurking beneath your right foot. The RAV4 truly romps from a standing start, storming through the gears with stunning alacrity for a small, docile SUV. We suspect Toyota has given the RAV4 a short, aggressive first gear, since even partial-throttle inputs will send you scooting over quite a bit of ground.

However, it is possible to catch the RAV4 flat-footed. Sometimes putting your foot to the floor will result in the transmission immediately kicking down, and there you are leaving traffic in the dust. But other times, the transmission will just stick with whatever gear it’s already in, and you’ll have to wait patiently for those 269 horses to arrive.

This is not an insurmountable obstacle by any means, and we think Toyota is more than capable of addressing it. Better transmission mapping might help, or perhaps a six-speed auto. An option for a manual transmission would be lovely (but unlikely from Toyota), especially with a motor this sporty. But the easiest way to go would be to include a good manual-shift option for the existing tranny, which would make this little SUV a lot more fun to drive. We strongly recommend this option to Toyota, as it would greatly improve what is already a hell of a vehicle.

This is the first RAV4 not built on a Corolla chassis, and that is evident in many ways. Firstly, the handling is markedly different from previous iterations. The second-gen RAV4 felt like, well, a tall Corolla, and was endearingly frisky, even darty. A longer wheelbase makes the new model much more stable, but less tossable on highway onramps. Part of growing up, we surmise.

However, the longer wheelbase pays dividends in practical pursuits, like hauling stuff. The new RAV4 is almost two feet longer than the car it replaced, and there is now room for an optional third row. If you want to put adults back there, we’d suggest looking a little further up Toyota’s SUV lineup, but the seats are totally fine for kids.

The RAV4 swallows cargo adeptly and conveniently. Our tester came equipped with two bars in the cargo hold, joined together by a net. This is a great place to put groceries or any other medium-sized cargo. They wont move (much), and you’ll save yourself the embarrassment of actually having to bend over to retrieve them from the floor of the car.

There are a host of other little features that make hauling easier, and they’re all reasonably intuitive. If you’ve got the rear hatch open, it’s an easy reach to pull one of two levers that make either side of the second row fall neatly. You can do the same thing with a similar lever located on the seats themselves. The second row of seats also reclines a tad, which we were not expecting of a vehicle in this price range.

On that note, the second row of the RAV4 is a pretty nice place to be. Legroom is freaking cavernous. Our big boss at Roadfly is literally quite big, at 6’3″ and a few shades north of 200 pounds, so we like to use him as a measuring stick for a car’s interior room. He was perfectly content in either the first or second row of the RAV4, with respect to both headroom and legroom. He often fumes about the cramped conditions of much larger cars than this RAV4, so we’ll go out on a limb and call it a success in the packaging department.

Our tester came well-equipped overall. We got the aforementioned cargo-hauling doodads, the big honking motor, and a moonroof that most buyers will find perfectly acceptable, although it lacks the gargantuan proportions and double-panes that are becoming the industry norm. We experienced a little bit of sticker shock, though. Our car was well-appointed but not luxurious, yet still carried a sticker of $28,033. For that price, the RAV4’s first row seemed a bit barren. Everything was well laid-out, and there were some cool features like the secondary glovebox that pops open and shut with the touch of a button. BMW’s X5 glovebox opens in similar fashion, but still requires a pair of hands to close it. We also liked the cupholders, and the two-stage armrest storage. But just a few more gimmicks would have eased our mind about the sticker.

That’s almost immaterial, though. The story here is under the hood (an obscene amount of power), and aft of the B-pillar (obscene amounts of space plus intuitive cargo solutions). The bottom line is that the RAV4 is an excellent all-weather hauler of people and things. And now, with the addition of a big-bore V6, it hauls ass, too.

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