IN 1994 I was young, lean, living life on the edge and a bit stupid-looking. Nineteen years later, I’m getting on for middle age – I am a lot more sensible, a bit boring-looking and carrying a lot more weight.
Something similar could be said of the Toyota Rav4, which burst onto the scene in 1994 to a mixture of incredulity and ridicule as it pretty much spawned the SUV segment to which the likes of the Range Rover Evoque, BMW X3, Kia Sportage and Honda CR-V owe their existence.
The first-generation Rav4 was a 4x4, but for the first time, it was a 4x4 aimed not at farmers with flat caps and lambchops and faithful sheepdogs, but young attractive people with square jaws and sun and surf-bleached hair and T-shirts which changed colour depending on the temperature.
Although mocked by critics and idiots like me, who wondered why on earth people who live in towns would need or want a 4x4, the Rav4 (which believe it or not actually means something: Recreational Active Vehicle Four-wheel drive) proved to be a hit with the public, with 4.5 million having been sold worldwide to date, and a host of other car manufacturers soon joining in the SUV party. These days, almost 10 per cent of all cars sold in Europe are SUVs, and the sector is the only one to have grown in the last five years.
Almost two decades after its birth, the lightweight, fun and affordable Rav4 has matured along with its market and is all grown up – the latest incarnation, launched last week, is the fourth generation of the car.
One of the many profound-sounding Japanese maxims Toyota lives by is Genchi Genbutsu, which means “go and see for yourself”. For Toyota, this involved visiting the homes of existing Rav4 owners and asking what they’d like to see in the new version. With surfing trips, journeys to illegal raves or whatever it else was that trendy young urbanites did in the 90s now having been replaced by the school run and taking packs of slobbery Labradors along for a trip to Waitrose, the main responses were “more space” and “more space”.
So Toyota has given the ever-expanding Rav4 more space. Compared to the third-generation car, the new Rav4 is 205mm longer at 4,570mm, 30mm wider at 1,845mm and the wheelbase is now 2,660mm – an increase of 100mm. This translates to more room inside – there’s almost a metre between driver and rear passenger, and, helped by the removal of the spare wheel, the boot now boasts a whopping 547 litres of Labrador-holding capacity (1,746 litres with the seats down).
On the outside, the angled lights and narrow radiator give the Rav4 a keen appearance, while the roof has been lowered at the back, which emphasises its muscular shoulders .
There are two diesel and three petrol engines to choose from. Two of these are new additions, with the 2.0 diesel 4WD six-speed producing 124 bhp and 127g/km of CO2 emissions and the petrol 2.5 Dual VVT-1 boasting 180bhp and a 0-62mph time of 9.4 seconds.
The Rav4 comes in three flavours: the basic two-wheel drive Active (shouldn’t it be called the Rav2?), which starts at £22,595; the Icon, which Toyota expects to make up 60 per cent of the Rav4’s sales; and the bells-and-whistles Invincible, which could set you back as much as £29,295 for the 2.2-litre 148bhp six-speed automatic diesel which I drove towards the end of the car’s press launch in Barcelona the other week.
More of that in a moment. Because first, I drove the two-wheel drive, 2.0-litre diesel manual transmission version of the Icon, which costs £24,295. Yes, it was roomy to the point of being cavernous inside, as promised. Yes, it was nice and comfortable to sit in. Yes, it included some nice bits and bobs you might not expect as standard, such as a reversing camera. But, weaving through the scrub and foothills of the Catalan Coastal Range, it struggled.
Changing gear was a chore, the road seemed a million miles away from the steering wheel and the general ennui of the ride was only occasionally interrupted by pangs of frustration at the slushy response of the steering when negotiating tight bends.
This Rav4 is grown-up all right – I felt was having to drive like my grandad just to keep it on the road. That said, the school run to Linlithgow Academy or wherever isn’t exactly the Catalan Coastal Range, so if money’s a little tight, this could fit the bill for some people – especially people who want all that space while still getting more than 57 miles per gallon of diesel.
It might be £5,000 more expensive, but the 2.2-litre all-wheel drive automatic Invincible felt more than £5,000 better, and it wasn’t just down to the leather trim and keyless entry system. It was noticeably more agile on the roads, almost champing at the bit to get on with things, thanks to Toyota dabbling with the suspension, steering and adding a Sport Mode, which adjusts torque between front and back wheels when cornering to keep things on the straight and narrow, even when you’re being a bit silly.
With more than 3,000 people in the UK having registered interest in buying the car before its release last week, the new Rav4 is sure to go down well with its aging, expanding (in more ways than one) customer base.
It’s practical, roomy, not at all bad looking and, 2WD notwithstanding, very able on the roads. It’s not as ground-breaking or exciting as it was when it debuted all those years ago, with all those customer focus surveys having diluted some of its original verve and quirkiness, making it a whole lot more sensible and conventional, but that’s all part of growing up, I guess.
MIDDLE-AGED SPREAD: THE EXPANDING RAV4 THROUGH THE GENERATIONS
FIRST GENERATION (1997-2003): PRICE £12,801-£22,185; MAX WEIGHT 1,370kg; MAX WHEELBASE 2,410 mm; BOOT 173 litres; BEST MPG 30
SECOND GENERATION (2000-2005): PRICE £13,485-£25,190; MAX WEIGHT 1,485kg; MAX WHEELBASE 2,490 mm; BOOT 150 litres; BEST MPG 39
THIRD GENERATION (2006-2012): PRICE £16,975-£29,296; MAX WEIGHT 1,615kg; MAX WHEELBASE 2,660mm; BOOT 410 litres; BEST MPG 49
FOURTH GENERATION (2013- ) PRICE £22,595-£29,295; MAX WEIGHT 1,660kg; MAX WHEELBASE 2,660mm; BOOT 547 litres; BEST MPG 57