Toyota introduced the fourth-generation RAV4 without much fanfare. That modesty belies the RAV4's importance as the model that successfully created the blueprint in the 1990s for small car-based SUVs and continues to lead the charge today.
Despite dramatic changes seen in previous generations, the latest RAV4 doesn't stray far from the current version's winning formula. The new RAV4 retains its trademark D-pillar kink and its proportions that convey compactness and solidity. One trademark feature the RAV4 lost was the clunky side-swinging rear door with its mounted spare tire. Getting rid of it not only reduces the vehicle's center of gravity but also allows for a power liftgate, which comes standard on the top trim Limited version.
Toyota's 2.5-liter four-cylinder will be the sole engine delivering 176 horsepower, a touch less than found in the outgoing model. Gone is the optional V6 engine. (This is a shame, as the 2012 RAV4 V6 could nearly match the four-cylinder in fuel economy, while delivering 90 more horsepower.) The automatic transmission is now a six-speed unit instead of the old four-speed box.
It's a bit hard to comment on interior materials since the show car was the top-level Limited version, which had leather seats and nice stitching on the dash. Other trim lines include the LE and XLE, which is expected to be the volume seller.
A rearview camera is now standard, an almost essential item for any SUV. Credit actually goes to Honda for being the first in the segment to make it standard on the latest CR-V.
The outgoing RAV4 grew in size to accommodate an optional third-row seat. As a result, it lost some of its handling agility that characterized the first and second generations. Like the exterior-mounted spare tire, the third-row seat option is gone. Hopefully these changes help return the RAV4's agility and fun-to-drive nature that made the original version so special. We will find out soon enough when we buy our own RAV4 in January.