The Toyota RAV4 is a solid performer that you almost don't notice until you stop to think about it. Like that quiet person at your office who doesn't wear loud shirts, engage in office gossip or drink on the job it's easy to dismiss the RAV4 as boring — but to do so is to overlook its strengths.
The 2011 Toyota RAV4 Sport provides good mileage, comfort and utility, but its interior and multimedia systems are a letdown.
As a package, it's better at getting you from Point A to Point B than it is at wowing you with its style.
The biggest issue with the interior is that it looks and feels like it hasn't been updated in about 10 years. It's worth mentioning for two reasons: One, you'll likely spend more time looking at the interior than anything else, and two, if you're cross-shopping the RAV4 with other compact SUVs, most competitors' interiors are newer (or at least look newer).
It's not that the interior is a bad design, the problem is just its age. The big standouts are the three dials that control the climate system, which are easy to understand but look outdated — not to mention they feel really cheap when you turn them. That same sense carries over to the navigation system buttons, the steering-wheel audio controls and so on. Other competitors do a much better job at this sort of thing. (To get a sense of how the RAV4 stacks up against its competitors, check out the results of our $29,000 SUV Shootout.)
Toyota's optional navigation system is not as good as the best systems out there. It's slower to react than any system I've used. If I drove past the exit I was directed to take, it took a long time for the system to realize I wasn't where it thought I should be. Also, at one point the system told me to get off Interstate 94 … then get back onto Interstate 94. At no point did it indicate it had recalculated my route for any reason; it just seemed to hiccup. Combined with the slowness, that means it's just too easy to go astray with this system.
On top of that, the navigation touch-screen didn't respond well to my touch; I had to almost smash the screen to get the system to acknowledge me. That's one of those things that makes you wonder at times if the system is working or, more to the point, if it's worth the money you shelled out for it.
Finally, I can say without hesitation that the RAV4 has the worst-sounding audio system of any car I've tested. There was no amount of fiddling I could do to make it sound anything like it should have. Our test model also didn't have a USB input for MP3 players — another feature that's becoming common among competitors.
Those shortcomings are a real shame, because they drag down an interior that's ergonomically very good. Everything is laid out logically, the controls are where you expect them to be and — most important — they actually work the way you expect them to work. That's great for cutting down on distractions.
Attributes for the Long Haul
It's that lack of distraction that helps make the RAV4 such a solid performer on long trips. Case in point: After finishing a triathlon and settling in for what I expected to be an hour-long stint of driving, I stopped for the first time three hours later, and only then because I needed to get gas. The RAV4 is just that comfortable.
A big part of that is the RAV4's ride. It does a nice job of absorbing bumps and potholes, without making a ton of noise while doing so. Despite the degree of isolation from the road that creates, you're not left with a floating sensation; you feel connected to the road, and that helps you feel secure when, say, accelerating on a highway on-ramp. Some competing crossovers have a much firmer ride, transmitting every road imperfection into the cabin with a jolt and a bang. (One caveat: I tested a RAV4 Sport. Other Cars.com editors have tested different versions of the SUV and say the Sport rides better than other trims, so pay attention to which model you take on your test drive.)
Visibility is excellent in the RAV4, and that's another area where it has an edge over the competition. More cars are switching to a laid-back windshield, so the pillars that support the glass originate farther forward from the hood, limiting visibility. The RAV4 has thin pillars that stand more upright, so it's easy to see what's going on around you. The same thing holds true for side and rear visibility.
When you combine the RAV4's comfort and visibility with things like climate controls that don't make you think about how to make the cabin colder or warmer, you have a car that's not tiring to drive.
The RAV4 also shines for its utility. The cargo area is large, and when you fold the 60/40-split backseat forward you create a huge area that can easily carry a bike. It's large enough back there that unless you're getting really wild and buying huge sheets of plywood, the RAV4 can fit just about anything.
The RAV4 is also the rare compact SUV that can be had with three rows of seats, holding up to seven people. The version I tested didn't have a third row, so I can't speak to its size or comfort, but the available seat is a 50/50-split one that folds flat into the floor.
The only flaws I found on the utility side were with the rear swing-out gate and the optional backup camera. The problem with the swing-out gate is simply a matter of practicality: A liftgate is simpler to use and allows for more options when parking and loading. A swing gate is especially hard to live with if you're trying to load a bike when you're tired and there's a strong cross-wind blowing the door shut. Just, you know, to pick a random example.
The rearview camera is close to being perfect, but falls just short. It's one of those models that shows its display in the rearview mirror, so it's easy to glance up and see what the camera sees (as opposed to looking down to the navigation screen). I like that setup, and the RAV4 camera's readout showed a good, widescreen view of what was behind me. The problem was that no matter the lighting conditions — cloudy, sunny, dusk or dark — the camera didn't provide a clear enough view; it always looked washed out. Great idea, but the execution isn't what it should be.
"Competent" is a good way to describe the RAV4's driving performance. The car I tested had a 179-horsepower, 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine linked to a four-speed automatic transmission. The combination was great for driving on the highway. When I needed to pass, the engine kicked down quickly and off I went. There was no lag, and I didn't notice it hunting around for gears, as transmissions with more gears sometimes do. It's no rocket ship, but it was fine for me. (If the 2.5-liter four-cylinder seems inadequate to you, the RAV4 can also be had with a 269-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 that uses a five-speed transmission.)
Around town, I found the accelerator to be just a touch too sensitive. It took me longer to master smooth, non-jerky getaways in the RAV4 than it does in most cars. It also made the RAV4 feel slightly underpowered: I'd get a great jolt of power off the line, but then it felt like I was getting almost nothing from the engine further down the road.
Steering and braking in the RAV4 are competitive for this segment. The steering requires less effort than other competitors, but it's direct. The brakes also require less effort than others, to the point that the pedal felt a bit too soft on occasion. It wasn't worrisome, but it's something to pay attention to on a test drive.
The RAV4 Sport two-wheel-drive model I tested is estimated to get 22/28 mpg city/highway. I averaged 30.8 mpg on a 390-mile road trip that involved mostly low-traffic highway driving.
The RAV4 can be had with a variety of engines, two- or four-wheel drive, and a four- or five-speed transmission. Here's a breakdown of the mileage estimates:
Safety, Reliability & Changes
The RAV4 scored the highest rating, Good, in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's frontal-offset, side-impact and rear crash tests. It scored the next highest rating, Acceptable, in IIHS' roof-strength test.
The RAV4 is predicted to have much better than average reliability. The RAV4 also hasn't changed much since the previous model year, but you can compare the 2011 with the 2010 model here.
RAV4 in the Market
The RAV4's strengths are its fuel economy, comfort and utility. It falls short with its aged interior, including clunky navigation and audio systems. It was easier to overlook those issues in the past, when there weren't many competitors in the compact SUV segment. Now there are plenty — most with newer designs that are, frankly, prettier to sit in and look at.
But you'll ignore the RAV4 at your peril. It really says something that after a two-day, six-hour trip on which I carried a ton of junk, I had no major complaints with this SUV. I almost didn't notice the car, but in a good way — sort of how you never notice how swell your high-speed internet is until it cuts out.
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