And although we lament the passing of some of the features that gave the last RAV4 character and differentiation, the new vehicle's design takes some clear steps forward. The interior -- especially the dashboard -- is an undeniable improvement over the hard, plasticky cockpit of its predecessor. Although we wouldn't go so far as to call it sumptuous, the stitched, soft-touch center horizontal accent trim definitely lends a more upscale feel to the cabin. The buttons and knobs are large, intuitive, and clearly marked. The display audio head unit is easy to understand; displays Bluetooth music metadata; and on our model, included navigation, HD Radio, and a rear-view camera, the latter being standard on all 2013 RAV4 models.
The exterior is fresher and more modern than the last RAV4, but also less distinctive. The rear three-quarters looks very similar to other vehicles in the class, including the Ford Escape and the slightly larger Hyundai Santa Fe. The new horizontal taillight design also supposedly doubles as an aerodynamic enhancement, with a nearly flat horizontal plane that looks large enough to hold a tall latte, although we weren't brave enough to test our hypothesis.
The nose is said to reflect the "new" face of Toyota. It's very similar to the newest Euro-spec Toyota Auris hatchback, and will likely show up on the coming redesign of the Corolla and other future models. A somewhat questionable exterior feature is the unpainted plastic lower cladding on the front and rear bumpers and lower rocker panels. That said, we could see how it would likely stand up to road debris and normal wear-and-tear better than painted pieces.
The driving experience is typical Toyota. The 2.5-liter four starts with the familiar thrum of Toyota's larger-displacement four cylinders, and settles into an unobtrusive hum once warm. The electric power-assist steering gives light effort at slow speeds, but sometimes gets caught off-guard, and can fight the driver when making quick turns. The gear spacing on the six-speed automatic is near ideal, with short, closely spaced lower ratios, and an extra-tall sixth gear for relaxed, economical highway cruising. And although it may seem gratuitous on a vehicle aimed at young mothers and empty nesters, demographics not typically considered thick with driving enthusiasts, the Sport mode keeps the RAV4 from insistently seeking the tallest gear all the time, holding gears longer when cruising and on inclines, and making the transmission kick down more quickly for passing.
Stepping back from our personal affection for the V-6, the 2013 RAV4 is an improvement over its predecessor in all the ways that will likely matter to its target audience, namely, improved fuel economy; more attractive, mainstream styling; and a much-improved interior, while retaining the generous passenger space and cargo utility that characterized its predecessor. A more focused, narrower model lineup has worked well for Honda, and it's clear Toyota had the CR-V in its sights when it was developing the new RAV4. We'll see if the RAV4's new formula pays off the same as it has for Honda.