2014 Toyota RAV4: sporty, versatile compact SUV

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Toyota believes in keeping a good thing going. The Toyota RAV4 was the first compact crossover when introduced in the mid-1990s and soon became a hit because it was carlike, practical and economical. It also carried Toyota’s revered name.

The fourth generation RAV4 four-door hatchback arrived for 2013 as a significantly redesigned and improved model, so the 2014 model includes just a few new options. Minimal changes are planned in the 2015 RAV4.

New items for 2014 include an Entune Audio lineup and a Technology Package option with Blind Spot Monitor with Rear Cross-Traffic and Lane Departure Alert.

Toyota RAV4: multiple trims

The RAV4 looks sporty and comes in these trim levels: LE, XLE and Limited, with front-wheel drive (FWD) or all-wheel drive (AWD). List prices range from $23,550 for the base LE FWD model to $29,720 for the Limited with AWD.

All RAV4s are nicely equipped. Even the base LE has air conditioning, backup camera, cruise control, remote keyless entry, power windows with driver “auto” down, power locks, AM/FM/CD and nicely sized power side mirrors.

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Also, the LE features Entune Audio with a 6.1-inch touchscreen, which serves as the display for the backup camera, lets front occupants operate the audio system and display HVAC settings, engage available navigation and access the Entune system. There’s also Bluetooth hands-free phone connectivity and audio streaming.

There’s more: The LE has nicely sized power side mirrors, tilt/telescopic wheel, split reclining fold-flat second-row seat with center armrest containing cupholders and two front 12V auxiliary power outlets.

The XLE adds dual-zone automatic climate control, power moonroof with sliding sunshade, six-way adjustable driver’s seat with sport bolsters, seats with French stitching, tilt/telescopic wheel with audio, multi-information display, higher-grade sound system, voice recognition and Bluetooth hands-free telephone controls.

Toyota RAV4: Plenty of features

The top-line Limited’s standard items include a pushbutton start, power eight-way adjustable driver’s seat, heated front seats, four-way adjustable front passenger seat and a handy one-touch power liftgate (hatch). The Limited can be upgraded to the Entune system with JBL audio with 11 speakers and an 8-channel amplifier.

Giving the Limited a little more roadability are 18-inch wheels, up from the standard 17 inchers for other RAV4s.

Safety features for all models include six air bags.

I tested the $26,400 XLE AWD model. The advanced AWD system coordinates through a high-speed interactive management system with Vehicle Stability Control and an electric power steering system to enhance performance, handling and safety.

Like to occasionally leave the beaten path? For off-pavement driving and other trying driving conditions, pressing an AWD Lock button locks torque distribution in a fixed 50/50 ratio at speeds up to about 25 m.p.h. Above this speed, this system automatically reverts to Auto mode.

However, a drawback with AWD is lower fuel economy.

A V-6 engine and third-row seat were dropped for 2013, but the third-row was cramped, and Toyota felt the V-6 was no longer necessary in a fuel-price-conscious world.

But never mind, the RAV4’s fuel-thrifty 2.5-liter four-cylinder, which powers all models, does a good job of providing lively acceleration off the line and on highways with its direct injection, dual overhead camshafts, 16 valves and variable valve timing.

That engine provides 176 horsepower at 6,000 r.p.m. and 172 pound-feet of torque at 4,100 r.p.m. It’s usually smooth and quiet, although noisy when revved hard. It revs freely, which is a good thing because lots of revs are needed for brisk acceleration.

All engines work with a responsive six-speed automatic transmission with an easy manual shift feature. But forget about towing the family yacht because the RAV4’s maximum towing capacity is 1,500 pounds.

A driver can select “Eco” (economy) mode to maximize fuel economy or “Sport” mode to sharpen shift timing and throttle and steering response.

Estimated fuel economy with FWD is 24 miles per gallon in the city and 31 on highways. With AWD the figures are 22 and 29. Only 87-octane fuel is required.

As always, the RAV4 is very carlike, although much larger and heavier than the original RAV4. It has a 104.7-inch wheelbase and is nearly 180 inches long. The curb weight is 3,435 to 3,610 pounds.

This crossover has precise steering, which has a firmer feel and sharper response to steering input in Sport mode. Handling and braking are good, helped by traction and vehicle stability control, electronic brake-force distribution, brake assist and anti-lock all-disc brakes with Smart Stop technology.

My test car’s quiet interior had very supportive front seats and room for three tall occupants in the rear seat, although it’s most comfortable back there for just two. Also, the flip-down rear armrest doesn’t sit in a perfectly horizontal position when folded down, but has an annoying (to me at least) slight downward slant.

It takes a little extra effort to get in and out, even for tall folks, because of a high passenger floor. There are a decent number of cabin storage areas and a handy covered coin holder at the front of the console.

The interior has a fair amount of decent-looking plastic and a mixture of large controls and clearly marked small controls. Gauges can be easily read.

The cargo area is large, and considerably more storage space can be obtained by flipping down the rear seatbacks, which sit flat when folded. The rear seat bottoms nicely slide forward a bit when the seatbacks are flipped forward.

Sales of crossover vehicles, which combine SUV utility with carlike manners, have taken off since the first RAV4 was introduced. Toyota was smart to see more than a decade ago that such a vehicle makes a lot of sense.

Pros: Stylish. Roomy. Agile. Supple ride. Fuel-thrifty. All-wheel drive offered. Nicely equipped.

Cons: Rather high step-up. Engine needs lots of revs. Noisy when revved hard.

Bottom Line: A catlike compact just keeps getting better.

Dan Jedlicka has been an automotive journalist for more than 40 years. To read more of his new and vintage car reviews, visit: www.danjedlicka.com.

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