2013 Toyota RAV4 First Drive

Alluring inside and out, the 2013 Toyota RAV4 adds new appeal to the veteran crossover.

What It Is
The 2013 Toyota RAV4 is the new crossover from the automaker that essentially invented the segment.
Best Thing
The RAV4 looks good, inside and out.
Worst Thing
Only one powertrain option, no turbo or hybrid variants.
Snap Judgment
Toyota has livened up the RAV4 with bolder styling and an attractive interior, making this the best RAV4 yet.

When you hear "RAV4" you might think of that crossover Toyota has been making since what seems like the dawn of the crossover itself--and, you'd be right. Back in the mid-90s when the first RAV4 debuted, people didn't know what to make of the little SUV, mostly because Toyota basically invented the segment. Now over a decade-and-a-half on, and tallying more than 1.7 million models sold, we were sent out to Arizona to test the fourth-generation, newly-styled 2013 Toyota RAV4.

And in just one year, there's quite a lot that's changed on the new model. Seeking to further differentiate its lineup, Toyota ditched a larger V-6 engine, and the third-row option--both of which are available on the slightly larger Toyota Highlander--and gave the RAV4 new styling inside and out. Looking to infuse some inspiration into the 2013 Toyota RAV4, designers heeded the call of Toyota president Akio Toyoda, delivering a more aggressive aesthetic, and a far more premium feeling interior. And if RAV4 buyers wanted simple, Toyota delivers there too. A 2.5-liter four-cylinder 176-hp engine is the only option, mated to a new standard six-speed automatic transmission, the only one available. There are three model levels, beginning with the entry level LE, which starts at $24,145 after delivery. You'll get a 6.1-inch display audio screen and backup camera, a power liftgate, 17-inch steel wheels, soft-touch accents on the interior, and a tilt/telescoping steering wheel, all as standard features.

The XLE serves as the mid-level, and starts at $26,165 including delivery. XLE adds sport-bolstered seats with French stitching, upgrades the 17-inch wheels to alloy from steel, and includes dual-zone climate control, and a power-sliding moonroof. The most premium model is the Limited, which starts at $27,855 after delivery. The Limited adds 18-inch alloy wheels, a leather trimmed steering wheel, and eight-way power driver's seat. Navigation is an option on the Limited, and all-wheel-drive is available on all models for an extra $1,400. The AWD system sends up to 50 percent of the power to the rear wheels, and has been improved for increased control. And with many substantial differences over the current RAV4, the question remains, what do we think?

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The RAV4 has built a reputation as a very good, if bland, crossover. For its 2013 model, Toyota designers looked to part with the bland--so much of which is often tied to exterior styling. Did they succeed? Our initial impression is yes. Make no mistake, people who've owned any of the previous generations of RAV4s will immediately be able to tell the model apart from the sea of new crossovers. But a slightly lower and minutely smaller frame add a touch of sportiness, and complement the more dramatic sculpting. Gone is the spare tire on the rear door--it's now hidden underneath--which not only allowed Toyota to add an automatic liftgate, but modernized the design too. The design may not keep your eyes lingering on the new RAV4 as it passes by, but this crossover looks far more modern and current than the previous one did.

Sitting Down

While the outside looks good and is nicer than the outgoing model, it’s the inside that really got the treatment. Gone is the third-row option, which means you'll have to opt for a Toyota Highlander if you want a third-row. Why did Toyota get rid of it? In addition to differentiating the RAV4 from its Highlander cousin, Toyota says not that many people--about 1 in 20--actually ordered or bought a car with a third row. In addition to a bevy of 2013 models, Toyota had a current 2012 RAV4 on hand for us to check out, as well as the crossover's primary competition--the Honda CR-V. After driving in the new RAV4, we hopped into the outgoing model, which is the new model's strengths immediately and glaringly had shown themselves.

While the current RAV4 wasn't bad, there was an abundance of hard plastics and older digital read-outs; it didn't feel current. The 2013 keeps the excellent build quality, and adds a beautiful soft-touch, padded and stitched surface to the dash that gives the crossover a more premium feel than anything in the segment. The steering wheel feels nice in-hand, the seats are comfy, and the 6.1-inch screen looks good and is user friendly. All of the buttons and dials feel new. Sitting in back you can forget that the RAV4 is technically a compact SUV; legroom and head room are impressive, and nothing in the segment offers more cargo room. And when we sat in the current Honda CR-V, we were taken aback. The CR-V featured a cheap steering wheel, didn't have an arm rest for passengers and offered an awkwardly placed one for the driver. There were hard plastics exclusively, and the sun visor didn't slide or extend to offer additional coverage. But the headliner in the CR-V was nicer, and less rough-to-the-touch. Ergonomically, the CR-V also felt well situated and comfortable.

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There were a couple things we noted in the 2013 RAV4 cabin that we didn't like: The "Sport" and "Eco" buttons, and the heated seat controls, were all tucked away under the protruding center stack. If you want to apply one of the modes or use the heated-seat function, you'll likely have to take your eyes off the road and glance down to find the right button. And the tuning dial on the stereo is closer to the passenger side, and you can only go to a non-preset station using the dial, which means you have to sit in an uncomfortable position until you find the right station. This won't occur in most situations where you'll have your stations set, but for road trips and general scrolling, it's a minor nuisance.


Like many automakers looking to offer more fuel-efficient lineups, Toyota is downsizing its powertrains. Want a V-6 engine? You'll have to get a Highlander. But again, as it turns out, odds are you don't want a V-6 in your RAV4, as less than 1 in 10 buyers opted for one previously. And really, the 2.5-liter, four-cylinder performs brilliantly. I was surprised at the 176-hp figure, as the engine had plenty of zip, and even in routes where we had a few hills to climb, there was never a shortage of power. As it turns out, the 2.5-liter engine is not only adequate, but surprisingly good. The brakes felt sharp, and the suspension seemed to nicely balance the sportier nature Toyota was looking for with the 2013 model, and the traditionally smooth ride buyers generally associate with the crossover. Taking the RAV4 into sharp corners, we surprised at how planted, almost intuitive the small SUV was. This model can probably do more than the great majority of buyers will ever ask of it, which is a good thing. Surprisingly, the 2012 RAV4 still employed a four-speed automatic transmission, one that gets replaced with a new six-speed. Despite being outdated, we didn't really have any issues with the old transmission, but the new one will help out with fuel economy. It's possible the automaker will add a hybrid powertrain in the future, one that would likely be welcome. And while the RAV4 has more than adequate power, we'd also like to see a turbo model on offer, but that may be wishful thinking.

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If Toyota had left the current RAV4 unchanged for the 2013 model year, it would still have outsold most automaker's best-selling models, and in a few cases, would out-pace entire lineups. But despite the fact that the 2013 Toyota RAV4 would still be gobbled up in envy-inspiring quantities, Toyota has heard the calls for a more inspired crossover--and delivered. From a value perspective, the 2013 RAV4 can compete with any crossover in the segment. But there are still competitors to consider: the Honda CR-V offers good drive-feel and ergonomics; the Ford Escape is new and worth taking a look at; we were also very impressed with the Mazda CX-5, which gets excellent fuel economy, offers great handling, and looks good inside and out. Sure, the 2013 RAV4 won't turn your world upside-down, but for a twenty-something-thousand dollar small Toyota SUV? The RAV4 retains the safety, space, economy, and utility buyers have appreciated. It also adds bolder exterior styling, and an interior that competes for best-in-class, if it's not the clear winner.

Basic Specs

2.5-liter 176-hp four-cylinder engine, six-speed automatic transmission, front wheel drive, $24,145, 24 mpg city/26 mpg hwy 2.5-liter 176-hp four-cylinder engine, six-speed automatic transmission, all-wheel drive, $25,545, 22 mpg city/25 mpg hwy