What a difference a couple of decades can make.
The original Toyota RAV4 that helped usher in the compact-utility segment back in 1996 was a major design and marketing breakthrough. Vehicles such as the Honda CR-V, Ford Escape and others eventually followed, with all offering an economical and affordable way to deal with just about any type of inclemency that Ma Nature might have tossed our way.
The latest RAV4 is no less capable, but over the years has evolved into an elegant, sophisticated and highly detailed wagon. Physically it now displays all sorts of swoops and curves that replace a boxier design. In back, the side hinged cargo door with attached spare tire has been replaced by a more practical liftgate. The full-size spare (a rarity in this class) is now discretely located beneath the cargo floor. There's also a handy spot to hide small valuables next to the spare, while the slightly enlarged main stowage area handles the bulky stuff, especially when the split-folding second-row seat is folded flat.
The rest of the cabin has been completely restyled and is awash with "soft-touch" materials and silver trim bits, which is pretty standard for this class now. The mostly business-like asymmetrical dashboard and control panel runs counter to the currently in-vogue shapes that appear to intrude into the passenger area. There are eight standard airbags as well as a 6.1-inch display that doubles as a monitor for the backup camera.
Oh, and if you're planning to add the third-row seat option to your RAV4, be advised that Toyota has discontinued that feature due to an apparent lack of interest.
Also gone for the same reason is the 269-horsepower 3.5-liter-V6 option, which means that returning for 2013 is the one and only 2.5-liter four-cylinder that delivers 176 horsepower and 172 pound-feet of torque, which is actually enough for a vehicle that weighs in at about 3,450 pounds. Although the engine returns basically unchanged, there's a new six-speed automatic transmission that replaces the previous four-speed unit. The new fifth and sixth overdrive gearing - plus a more efficient torque converter - is largely responsible for the bump in fuel economy to 24 mpg in the city and 31 on the highway (for front-wheel-drive models), which is up from 22/28. All-wheel-drive versions achieve 22/29 mpg, which is up from 21/27.
The AWD option is updated with Auto, Lock and Sport modes to suit specific traction and driving situations. Lock mode keeps half the power going to the back wheels as long as you're driving slower that 25 mph. Sport mode allows wider transfer of torque between the front and rear wheels (as much as half to the rear) than the Auto mode.
The base RAV4 LE comes with 17-inch steel wheels, which probably helps keep the starting price to less than $25,000, but you do get air conditioning, reclining second-row seat plus most of the basic power features.
The XLE adds a moonroof, dual-zone climate control, premium bucket seats with more bolstering (side support) and fancier 17-inch alloy wheels, while the Limited loads up with power-adjustable and heated front seats with memory settings, power liftgate, 576-watt JBL-brand audio system and 18-inch wheels.
The XLE and Limited are also the portals to a variety of premium-level options, including voice-activated navigation and Bluetooth wireless networking. For the Limited only, you can order a blind-spot monitoring system with cross-traffic alert that lets you know when other vehicles are approaching from behind on the highway, or are crossing your path when backing out of a parking spot.
Whether in standard trim or all dressed up, the latest RAV4 is a handsome wagon that accentuates economy and efficiency, which was exactly the stated mission all those years ago. This time around, though, the RAV4 leaves behind its entry-level ways to become a more elegant and refined traveler.
Indeed, what a difference a couple of decades can make.
What you should know: 2013 Toyota RAV4
Type: Four-door, front- /all-wheel-drive compact wagon
Engine (hp): 2.5-liter DOHC I4 (176)
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Market position: The vehicle credited with starting the small-ute craze has stayed with or ahead of the pack by offering a smart-looking package that's modestly priced, fuel efficient and well equipped, even in base trim.
Points: All-new sheetmetal is way more appealing; Base four-cylinder engine is more than adequate for most tasks; V6 was great, but a bit much; Optional third-row seat deletion makes room for full-size spare-tire storage; AWD is well worth the $1,400; New RAV4 still not likely to overcome class-leading Honda CR-V in sales.
Safety: Front, side-impact and side-curtain airbags; driver's knee airbag; passenger seat cushion airbag; anti-lock brakes; traction control; stability control.
MPG (city/hwy) 24/31 (FWD)
Base price (incl. destination) $24,150
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