SANTA BARBARA, CALIFORNIA The prelaunch buzz about the 2006 Toyota RAV4 was that the original cute-ute was growing into a bigger brute-ute. Sure enough, the all-new sport-utility vehicle is more than fourteen inches longer and 400 pounds heavier than the SUV it replaces, and it's available for the first time with a V-6. But it still drives small, which is a good thing. And while some of the spunk was dialed out when Toyota went mainstream to double annual sales, the RAV4 remains the sports car of the small sport-ute set.
Back in 1996, of course, the RAV4 was the only small, car-based SUV on the planet. But it didn't take long for rival automakers to jump on the cute-ute bandwagon, and the bubbly but undersized RAV4 couldn't measure up to the bigger Honda CR-V and the V-6-powered domestics. So you didn't have to be a product-planning genius to realize that some serious bulking up was in order.
The new RAV4 rides on a wheelbase that's 6.7 inches longer than the old one. This allows for ample second-row legroom, not to mention space for optional third-row seating. (To be honest, though, this is useful only for bragging rights and torturing badly behaved teenagers.) To broaden the RAV4's red-state appeal, the design team opted for more rugged exterior styling, and the interior-featuring high-grade materials and optional side- and roll-sensing side-curtain air bags-is more grown-up.
The 2.4-liter in-line four carries over from the previous generation, but the slow-selling five-speed manual is no longer offered. A higher compression ratio provides a 5-hp bump-the engine now makes 166 hp-but since the vehicle is heavier, performance is unchanged. And that's fine. The torquey four-banger goes about its business quietly and competently, and most drivers will find it perfectly adequate.
Still, if you can afford it, the optional V-6 is the way to go. The 3.5-liter engine cranks out 269 hp and 246 lb-ft of torque. The smooth power delivery and creamy five-speed automatic allow you to take full advantage of the taut chassis and fully independent suspension and make this a sport-ute that's actually fun to drive. What a concept, huh?
On the other hand, if off-roading's your thing, the RAV4 is a non-starter. Toyota expects to sell nearly half of them with front-wheel drive only. Those equipped with all-wheel drive feature an ingenious-but non-gnarly-on-demand system that incorporates an electromagnetic coupling at the rear differential rather than a center diff to apportion torque among the four wheels.
If there's a knock on the new RAV4, it's the loss of its old exuberance. Then again, bigger and brawnier than its predecessor, the 2006 RAV4 demonstrates that, sometimes, more is more.
Price: $18,000-$25,000 (est.)
Engines: 2.4L I-4, 166 hp, 165 lb-ft; 3.5L V-6, 269 hp, 246 lb-ft
Drive: Front- or all-wheel