The Toyota RAV4 sure has grown up since its introduction in 1996. Now in its third generation, this compact SUV remains a strong player with some design tweaks for 2009. It has optional third-row seat — quite ambitious. The RAV4 plays in such a competitive class (hello, Honda CR-V), and that must be why Toyota offers a RAV4 configuration for everyone. Make that 12 configurations.
Appearance: For '09, Toyota made some tweaks to the RAV4 design. We like the less-fussy grille. The sloping roofline ends in an angular tailgate, where a full-sized spare is mounted. It gives the RAV a sporty and retro, Jeepy look. Don't like it? In some models, the rear tire carrier is optional.
Performance: The optional 269-horse V-6 is a lot of power for a small SUV. It's almost as powerful as its bigger sibling, the Toyota Highlander. But because of the RAV4's lighter weight, the acceleration has a kick that some of its competitors would envy. Plus, there's this bonus: mileage estimates of 19 (city) and 27 (highway). We found the brakes strong and responsive. One thing is for sure: You'll have no problem merging onto I-275. Peter — getting all technical — felt the steering was a bit mushy, while Lyra found it light and nimble, great for those who like effortless driving.
Interior: In the base model, you get a lot of hard plastic. And there were some missteps. For instance, the driver's seat manual adjustment is clumsy and doesn't have a tilt lever. Lyra felt shoved forward when the seat was elevated. If you can, opt for the power seat. And why are the rearview mirror controls in the center console? That's counterintuitive. That said, the seats are firm and offer a lot of support. And the vanity mirrors on both the driver and passenger sides light up when you open them. Peter liked the telescoping steering wheel, but found it a rather tight fit with his knees. The roomy back seats fold flat with a release lever. But watch out, ladies: The seat lever can be a fingernail breaker. Third-row seating is available as an option.
Our 3 favorites
Peter Couture , 49, city driver, 6 feet tall, married with a teenager and a middle-schooler.
AC controls: Nothing fancy, just turn the large dial. Simple and easy to use while driving.
Cargo space: With the two-row seating, the rear roominess is made for vacations.
Rear spare: Call me old-school, but I like it. The trade-off is a hatch that swings out and needs more room than a lift-back.
Lyra Solochek, 43, highway commuter, 5 feet 1, married with a 5-year-old and teenager.
V-6 power: This engine has the pep to beat that 18-wheeler barreling down on you at the on-ramp.
Hidden storage: It's under the back deck, where the spare tire would normally be; great place to store valuables.
Adjustable seats: The roomy second row slides forward and backward, with seatbacks that recline slightly to make it easier for the kids to relax.
The bottom line: With the RAV4, you know what you're getting: reliability and practicality. Peter quibbled with its utilitarian nature. For him, it made a boring daily driver. Lyra says RAV4 perfects simplicity. Our front-wheel-drive tester was a lot of car for the price.