Don’t you love it when someone you met last year at an air show media event e-mails you and asks if you’d like to borrow a brand-new, trimmed-out Toyota RAV4 for a week to see how you like it?
Yeah, me, too.
It was all part of the “Toyota Road Trips” campaign, and the regional Toyota folks were kind enough to drop a dark-gray RAV4 off at my doorstep one recent Wednesday morning. Eight days later, I felt genuinely sad to say “goodbye” to that compact SUV, but please don’t tell my Honda.
My first impressions of the RAV4 were that I loved the firm but comfortable seats, which turned out to not be leather but a relatively new covering called SofTex that looks a lot like the real thing but is apparently more durable, easier to clean and more environmentally friendly in terms of how it is produced. The steering wheel and shift lever are real leather.
The second thing you can’t help but notice is that you don’t have to use the key directly to start the vehicle. As long as the key is in the vehicle, you simply push a Start button and the four-cylinder, 2.5-liter, 176 horsepower engine comes to life.
So then the third positive impression was that the RAV4 responded quickly and powerfully to the gas pedal while handling as precisely as a much smaller vehicle to the seemingly effortless steering wheel. It’s a sporty vehicle, especially the top-trimmed Limited edition, which is what I was loaned.
That first morning, I drove the RAV4 directly to work using the same route I take every day, and the ride was almost blissful. There is so much fun stuff happening inside the vehicle, including in my case an optional Entune Premium JBL Audio system complete with subwoofer; the standard (at the Limited trim level) Entune App Suite, which includes a 6.1-inch monitor in the console featuring GPS, weather, Bluetooth telephone controls and every musical entertainment option you can imagine; and heated seats.
Okay, so that last feature probably isn’t on most men’s top-10 automobile features list, but when my wife Joni was cold one moment and comfortable the next because of the flip of a switch, I was sold on it being a great add-on.
In real life, people like us with three young kids and a fourth on the way are going to look at something bigger, perhaps the larger Highlander SUV or the Sienna minivan, but the RAV4 is surprisingly spacious. At 6′ 1″, I was comfortable in every seat, and we were able to squeeze two booster seats and a full-sized car seat in the back row. A generous rear compartment makes it a good pick for hauling kids’ sports gear, vacation luggage or grocery bags.
Day One was fun, but it was on Day Two of my review that I discovered the RAV4’s best selling point, which is its ability to navigate a trip into Downtown Atlanta. On that day, I had to take Joni to the doctor’s office in Midtown, and this little SUV gave us the right height for good visibility as well as the agility and responsiveness to keep up with interstate and surface street traffic. The braking on the RAV4 is superb, which anyone facing Downtown Connector traffic will appreciate.
Parking in the Emory University Midtown Hospital multi-story lot was a breeze. The RAV4 seems to turn on a dime, though steering in high-speed traffic isn’t jerky. You’re getting the best of both worlds here.
So it occurred to me the RAV4 is a perfect vehicle for people with daily commutes from the suburbs into or through the ATL. It’s a city car.
But how does the RAV 4 fare on unpaved surfaces? We got a little taste of its capabilities on Day Two as we returned from Atlanta and got behind a car blocking Hwy. 54 trying to turn left. In my Honda, I would have stayed put and waited it out. In this true “sport utility vehicle” I opted to go around on the considerably sloped, unpaved shoulder but honestly felt as if we had never left the roadway, it was that smooth.
Then came Day Four, which is when we kicked up our off-roading a notch.
I spent my childhood in the shadows of Southlake Mall, and Joni grew up on the edge of the second-largest city in the United Kingdom, so when it came time to get the RAV4 “down and dirty”, we suburbanites were just brave enough to take it for a spin under the pines at Starr’s Mill.
One Facebook friend goaded me to take the RAV4 “muddin”, but all those high school stories of ripped-out axles and having to get big rigs to pull trucks out of the mud came back to mind, so we opted instead for middle ground. In this case, our off-road course was the short series of wooded trails behind Starr’s Mill, which offer fun turns, steep approaches and even a short span of challenging, above-ground pine tree roots. The RAV4 seemed just as at-home in that environment as it did turning the corners in Midtown Atlanta, which left me with the impression that this RAV4 may be a suburbanite’s dream come true.
Day Five, which was also the day of the big race down at Atlanta Motor Speedway, saw me and two of our kids cruising down to Hampton to take in the spectacle from outside the gates. By the time we got there it was afternoon, so there was no traffic, and we slipped behind the little airport there to take a sporty stroll down Wilkins Road.
Wilkins Road is half paved, half gravel and a whole lot of fun. We started on the paved part, got the RAV4 up to about 40 mph and then maintained that speed onto the gravel portion. Even when I wiggled the steering a bit, this front-wheel-drive SUV maintained perfect control, no problem. It was almost disappointingly smooth and steady on the gravel, though if I lived on a gravel road I think I would fall in love with these traits.
Other features we enjoyed along the way include the blind-spot back-up camera, the built-in hands-free mobile phone system and the presence of six front row cup/can/bottle holders. Call me a redneck if you must, but I like having multiple drink options at my fingertips. And if you’re a dipper, your spit can has its own holder to call home. [Editor’s note to the Toyota folks: Don’t worry. I don’t dip.]
Joni particularly enjoyed the very functional dual-zone climate control system on the RAV4. Set a temperature and perhaps a fan speed, and you’re both comfortable.
Now let’s talk about price, and here we arrive at the reason they had to take my RAV4 back on Day Eight. Fully-trimmed, like the vehicle I was driving, you’re looking at a retail of around $32,000. However, most of the same important features are also available on the LE version for about $9,000 less.
This coming week at Georgia World Congress Center, The Atlanta International Auto Show rolls back into town, and they’re bringing back free test drives. Toyota is scheduled to have several of its top sellers there, including the RAV4, so drivers over the age of 21 will have a brief opportunity to experience this fantastic ride for themselves.
If you do go to the car show, and if you see a dark gray RAV4 there, tell it hello for me. And if you see a 40-something bearded man hogging the driver’s seat while other people are asking to have their turn, well, that’s probably going to be me.
[This feature review was originally published in the Saturday, March 21, 2015 editions of Fayette County News, Today in Peachtree City and East Coweta Journal.]