Available in more than 150 countries, global RAV4 sales have now topped 4.5 million

Available in more than 150 countries, global RAV4 sales have now topped 4.5 million

Glenn Brooks examines Toyota's attempt to regain dominance of the global C-SUV segment with its new generation RAV4.

Some weeks I end up putting a lot of miles on a car, other times I can struggle to get beyond a hundred. In the case of the RAV4, there was no chance it would be returned with little evidence of squashed bugs enmeshed in the grille: I took it to Amsterdam, which meant ten hours' driving each way. I say ten but about half an hour of that was spent under the sea - my stomach is not a fan of cross-channel ferries.

The RAV was brilliant on the run from home in the West Country to the Le Shuttle terminal at Folkestone and there was some amusement to be had onboard the train with the SatNav tracking (pun intended, sorry) progress. Remember the era of having to buy new discs for other European countries? Seems a long time ago now. Up the ramp off the platform at Calais and onto the autoroute with directions immediately announced. What could be easier?

Some more likes about the new model. It has a couple of things I am often disappointed to notice are missing from many new cars. Here, however, there is an ignition key and a handbrake so no fiddly, allegedly superior substitute technloogies.

The new Toyota is to many eyes better looking than its main rivals and that's thanks to a nose which has taken on certain styling cues from the equally fresh Auris hatchback and newly launched wagon. These cars are slightly smaller than the RAV4, while it uses a different platform too. This has the same 2,660mm wheelbase as that of the third generation RAV4, or rather the longer, wide body one formerly sold in North America - Europe's outgoing model was more compact and had a 2,560mm wheelbase.

Driving the new car on UK, French, Belgian and Dutch dual carriageways as well as narrow city streets left me with the impression that suspension tuning must have taken place in Europe - there are no signs of pandering to a different standard where softness is the main priority.

The RAV4 is quiet, quick-ish and stable at high speeds, though the CVT in my test vehicle could be a bit noisy upon hard kickdown, something I also found in the Lexus CT 200h. Having said that, the paddle controls are excellent, with downshifts on the left and upshifts done by the right hand - the transmission has a sequential seven-speed mode.

Toyota says the new shape vehicle has better performance and reduced fuel consumption. Over the course of a week at the wheel of a 2.0-litre petrol AWD variant I can back up those claims. I saw 29mpg but without all the stop-start driving in and around home and again in Amsterdam, it could have been closer to the official 39.2 Combined average.

One of the main changes over the previous three generations is the decision to ditch the side-hinged tailgate in favour of a more conventional hatchback arrangement. That also means less weight hanging off the end of the vehicle as the spare tyre is gone from its former mounting point. A downside for me was what seemed like a long wait for the electric opening and closing operations.

High up the list of things that I would expect to be why the new model is off to a strong sales start is roominess. Open a rear door and you will be amazed at the amount of space. Yes, you can tell that the front seats are slimmer than some rivals' but in my experience that didn't mean back ache during long stints. The boot too is amazingly roomy and is deeper, larger and easier to access than that of the old model. This is all doubly impressive considering generation four is slightly shorter and lower.

Toyota says its engineers specified several grades of high-strength steel to form key structural components in the roof, rocker sills, floor, engine compartment and door frames. One of the key benefits of just such a stiffer bodyshell is, obviously, improved handling. In this case, the company has gone further, specifying a new selectable Sport mode to provide what it claims is a more dynamic driving experience, modifying the power steering, throttle and transmissions. There was a CVT in the test model but a six-speed torque converter automatic is available with other engines.

Sport mode decreases power-steering assistance, sharpens throttle response and adapts gearbox management for more responsive gearshifts. In variants such as the one I tested which had AWD, a new Dynamic Torque Control system provides greater stability and agility on both wet and dry roads, Toyota says. Torque transfer to the rear wheels now occurs when the system detects understeer during cornering, not just when slip is detected. Conversely, front-wheel drive is automatically engaged in normal conditions so as to improve fuel economy.

Dynamic Torque Control uses information from speed, steering, throttle and yaw sensors to monitor and control torque transfer. In AWD variants, Sport mode also activates torque transfer to the rear wheels from the moment the steering wheel is turned. Toyota claims it will automatically distribute 10 percent of torque to the rear wheels but further increase torque transfer up to 50 percent when understeer develops.

The car I tried had a 107kW 2.0-litre petrol engine, but depending on the market, up to three other four-cylinder units are available, while the former V6 for the US and some other countries was not replaced due to a lack of demand:

  • 91kW 2.0-litre D-4D turbo diesel (a new unit at launch)
  • 110kW 2.2-litre D-4D turbo diesel
  • 132kW 2.5-litre petrol

Here in Europe, the RAV4 is up against some very strong competition, such as the Volkswagen Tiguan, Honda CR-V, aforementioned Kuga, Kia Sportage, Hyundai ix35 and to a lesser extent, the Opel/Vauxhall Antara. Our cars are imports from Japan, but the new model is also made in Canada (Woodstock, Ontario) and production should soon also be added at one of the Tianjin Toyota joint venture's plants in China.

The UK will never be a major market for the RAV4 but at GBP27,290 for the car I tested, Toyota should be turning a tidy profit on every one sold, especially considering what has happened to the yen in recent months.

As has always been the case, the US is where all the main global volume for C-segment SUVs can be found, despite the ongoing rise of China where the whole SUV segment was up 41% YoY last month according to CAAM. If the US continues to soar, and RAV4 sales with it (20,780 last month compared to 7,035 for FAW Toyota's old-shape vehicle), don't be surprised to see if this new generation model ends up the most successful in the nameplate's 20 year history.