Never mind the outskirts of Phoenix, where the saguaro cactus are everywhere. The 2013 Toyota RAV4 might look like a sport-utility meant for the open spaces of America, but it only begins to make sense to us when its cross-traffic alert system goes off while we're backing out of a space in the parking lot at Target.
Times might have changed but Americans still know that a utility vehicle makes sense in a way that a sedan does not. The thing is, it's more stupid than ever to own a fuel-swilling hauler when you really only have to go to the store. That's why concerns about affordability and fuel efficiency have made the compact crossover the kind of utility that everyone is buying. Say what you will about midsize sedans, but the compact crossover is the new American car. The Target parking lot is thick with them, as the RAV4's alarm system warns us.
It's a little hard at first to be romantic about a vehicle that isn't so different in purpose and presentation than the big, red, plastic shopping baskets at Target. Yet the sight of the 2013 Toyota RAV4 in the cold winter light of Arizona is pretty impressive. Though it started out as a Celica All-Trac with a wagon-esque body in 1999 (Automobile of the Year, as it happens), the RAV4 has now become surprisingly handsome, the best-looking vehicle with a Toyota nameplate that you can buy - not that the bar is very high at Toyota, of course.
We're motoring down the freeway north of Scottsdale in the fast lane and it comes to us that the RAV4 looks pretty good in the crowd of dress-to-impress Euro crossovers swirling around us. The interior looks very, very good, thanks to two-tone colors and soft leather upholstery. Factor in a 176-hp 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and standard six-speed automatic transmission, plus the choice of front- or all-wheel-drive, and the RAV4 seems pretty compelling. It even has a power-operated liftgate, too. A nearby Mercedes-Benz GLK seems to wobble for an instant as the 2013 RAV4 punctures the Benz's little bubble of entitlement.
Just like a full-size luxury crossover, the 2013 RAV4 has an impressive suite of consumer-friendly standard features that include active and passive safety, comfort and convenience, and electronic connectivity. What we notice first is the power-operated cargo hatch, which can be programmed to open to the height you prefer, whether this is to accommodate a shorter driver or avoid banging the low ceiling in an apartment garage. You'll find a 6-inch touchscreen in the middle of the dash, and a backup camera and Bluetooth are both standard equipment as a result. Optional niceties like blind-spot warning, cross-traffic backup alert and Toyota's simple but usable Entune multimedia system are also available. This is a lot of stuff.
For all the Toyota imagineering, though, the vehicle beneath the stylishly sculpted sheetmetal is much the same as before. The RAV4's dimensions are virtually identical, as it rides on a wheelbase of 104.7 inches while measuring 179.9 inches in overall length (the spare tire is now packaged beneath the rear cargo floor instead of behind the cargo hatch), 72.6 inches wide and 65.4 inches high.
We drove around Scottsdale all day, and we grew impressed by the 2013 RAV4's improved refinement, especially the way the double-layer windshield muffled engine noise. Yet we also realized that this remains a compact package, best for couples and young families. When you're behind the steering wheel, you feel more comfortable thanks to lower seating position, a more upright steering wheel and more fore-and-aft seat travel. Even so, you're always rubbing elbows with your neighbor, and there's not as much storage convenience as we'd like, even though overall cargo capacity behind the front seats remains best in class at 73.4 cubic feet.
The 2013 RAV4's liveliness makes up for this, as the direct-injected 2.5-liter inline-4 delivers 176 hp and 172 lb-ft of torque, although the real secret is a smooth yet crisp-shifting six-speed automatic transmission with both Eco and Sport modes. We have no bad things to say about the electric-assist power steering, while the AWD system incorporates a center differential that's programmed to distribute power to the rear wheels according to circumstance, including steering angle and speed of input. More important, a torque-vectoring function distributes power side to side to help the RAV4 turn more responsively when the traction is poor. The mid-grade trim level of the AWD RAV4 represents 3585 pounds to pull, so the acceleration won't exactly make you forget the discontinued RAV4 V-6 model, which has been the quickest car to 60 mph that you could by with a Toyota label for some time.
Altogether this is a more refined and poised Toyota RAV4, though the suspension still seems short on compliance. You can choose 235/55R-18 99H tires for crisper steering if you like, but there's a noticeable amount of harshness that we could feel even on Scottsdale's incredibly smooth asphalt, so we think the 225/65R-17 102H tires are a better deal.
For all this, it's the price that will send the 2013 Toyota RAV4 on the way to an anticipated 200,000 customers in 2013. There are just three grades (and no third-seat option). For FWD models, the MSRP stacks up like this: LE $23,300; XLE $24,290; and Limited $27,010. For AWD models, the MSRP stacks up like this: $24,700 LE; $25,690 XLE; and Limited $28,410.
Now that compact crossovers like the 2013 Toyota RAV4 really combine all the comfort and convenience of a big-time SUV in an affordable, fuel-efficient package that fits those tiny parking spaces down at Target, we're totally prepared to say that they are a good thing for almost everybody. As an everyday American-style car, a compact crossover seems smart, not dumb.
2013 Toyota RAV4 XLE AWD
On Sale: March 2013
Base Price (with destination): $26,535
Engine: 2.5-liter Inine-4
Horsepower: 176 hp @ 6000 rpm
Torque: 172 lb-ft @ 4100 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Wheels and Tires: 17-inch aluminum wheels
225/65R-17 102H Dunlop ST30 Grand Trek tires
Curb Weight: 3585 lbs
Cargo: 38.4/73.4 cu ft
Legroom (front/rear): 42.6/37.2 in
Headroom (front/rear): 39.8/38.9 in
Towing: 1500 lbs