As a typical young person with anxiety about disconnecting from the grid, long road trips are genuinely relaxing. A generous period of solace away from the internet is enormously desirable. Out there on the open road, it’s just me, the music and the car. A few friends along for the ride are an optional extra.
So it was with pleasure in December that I received a call that a ‘milestone’ birthday party would be held for a rural mate in southwestern New South Wales in mid-March. I knew I’d be shepherding three friends down to Holbrook with me, so I went about planning something a bit interesting to drive for the 1,000 kilometre roundtrip from Sydney.
Having liked the Tonka-esque Toyota FJ Cruiser so much when I drove it last year, I went and booked another. The gods were against us this time, though: less than a week out, the FJ was written off. Toyota valiantly offered two last-minute alternatives: a manual 86, or a top-spec RAV4 Cruiser.
Though my heart said ’86’, my mind said ‘RAV4’, remembering previous struggles to fit an adult into the
parcel shelf second row of the little coupe. And so our RAV4 came to be – an Inferno orange flagship Cruiser, resplendent with special-edition orange leather highlights. Unique, to say the least.
Our third-ever review at Chasing Cars was of the fourth-generation RAV4, and I was quite gushing about it back then (look how far we’ve come) – so, this was an interesting, unplanned experiment to see if my feelings have changed in the intervening two years.
Well, my feelings have changed.
I’ll come clean immediately and concede that the engine supplied in our orange RAV4 wasn’t the right engine for this highway test. The standard 2.5-litre petrol four we got is slow when laden down with passengers and cargo; it’s gratuitously thirsty (I averaged 9.2L / 100km at highway speeds); and the six-speed automatic thrashes and splutters – the gearbox throws tantrums on even slight uphill motorway gradients as it battles with the lack of torque (233Nm of the stuff, and 132kW of power).
The RAV4’s optional 2.2-litre D4D turbodiesel is the engine you want to pick if your Toyota will be doing mostly highway miles, and I missed the diesel’s plentiful torque and calmingly-low fuel figures every kilometre of the Hume Highway.
We’ll come back to the thirst and the gutlessness when I get a bit reflective later on. Putting that aside for one moment, the RAV4 actually surprised us by being a rather fun companion.
It’s no dynamic superstar, but our all-wheel-drive truckster became the emblematic chariot of a hilarious road trip: a late start out of Sydney, getting to Holbrook, the long way via Canberra, due to my crazy affections for shantung chicken at Sammy’s Kitchen in the nation’s capital; my friend Emma’s emotional roller coaster of a Spotify playlist, and managing to perfectly upend a coffee cup at highway velocities were all highlights endured at the wheel of our orange RAV.
It was the RAV4 that got us out of harm’s way, when a disgruntled caretaker at the Gundagai ‘Dog on the Tucker Box’ attraction attempted to kidnap / lock us in after closing up at 4pm – dinners must come early on Saturdays.
It was the RAV4 that said ‘no worries’ as the B-road between the Hume and our friend’s distant property turned to soft, loose rusty dirt due to botched roadworks: the all-wheel-drive system totally unflappable despite cruising along at quite a clip.
And there were no complaints from the RAV4 as two of my friends chucked in possibly the largest two-person tent accommodation I’ve seen, alongside the rest of our luggage – all swallowed up in the usable, square boot. (As it happens, the tent was indeed deeply impressive).
Our car was the Cruiser model, so the creature comforts were all there – the sleeping faces in the back clearly didn’t object to the soft, reclining second-row bench with cupholders down the middle. Up front, the leather pews were much more supportive than expected – much like those in the (also orange) Corolla Levin ZR we borrowed some time ago. And the JBL sound system lived up to the task, despite having to compete with some intrusive road noise along the way. However, at about $55,000, the Cruiser would want to be really very good.
And that leads me on to the question of whether you’d actually want to buy one of these things.
We didn’t see many new RAV4s on our way down from Sydney, or back up on the Sunday. We passed plenty of Mazda CX-5s by, and more than a couple of Subaru Foresters (which continues to be a favourite among hipster adventurous types). However, I reflected for some time about the fact that the superb Mazda – the best of the little SUVs – has essentially replaced the Toyota RAV4 as the ‘default choice’ for a family SUV in the collective Australian mind.
Why is that? Well, the Mazda is the car with the innovative engines – the petrols are miles better in the CX-5, and the optional diesel is very quick. The Mazda is the car that feels and looks more special – and nowhere is that more evident than at this very top-end level. The RAV4 Cruiser feels like a base RAV4 with some leather and navigation. In comparison, the flagship CX-5 Akera feels like an ‘event’ – an ultra-comfortable, quality, properly well-driving SUV worthy of a $50,000+ price tag.
Don’t see this as a slanging match against the RAV4 – remember, I did say that despite everything, the comfort, practicality and steadfastness of the Toyota were ultimately huge assets on this test.
But those virtues aren’t unique to the RAV4.
There was a time when the Toyota stood alone as the quality, dependable small SUV.
In the two decades since the original RAV4, though, the landscape has shifted massively: the small SUV segment is now the hottest in the new car market.
It’s a fiercely competitive segment: every buyer compares the RAV4 to the CX-5, the Nissan X-Trail, the Volkswagen Tiguan, and the Subaru Forester, at the very least. Each offering approaches the task a little differently, and buyer expectations are sky-high.
After a thousand kilometres in the RAV4’s saddle, it couldn’t be clearer that simply being the first doesn’t guarantee that you’ll remain the best. Where a segment is this competitive, constant innovation and reiteration is a prerequisite for success. Mazda have discovered that, and they’ve hit their stride with the CX-5 – and it is no surprise that buyers continue to vote with their wallets to keep that car on top.
The Mazda’s spot at number one is, however, not guaranteed.
With careful work on drivetrains and interior quality, there’s no reason that spot shouldn’t belong to the RAV4 again.
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