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2009 Toyota RAV4 ReviewThe Good
A powerful V6 engine, car-like handling and maneuverability, superior interior volume, and Toyota's reputation for high reliability give the 2009 RAV4 good family appeal.The Bad
The four-cylinder engine in the '09 RAV4 could still use more punch, and although the optional third row sounds nice in theory, its tiny dimensions provide very little passenger space.
The CarGurus View
The 2009 RAV4 provides car-like handling and fuel efficiency with SUV-like utility and function, along with more power and zip than most compact SUVs in its class. Though it features a rare third row option, the SUV works best as a 5-seater, with a decent amount of legroom and access for passengers. Compared to its closest competitors, however, the RAV4 disappoints with its somewhat plain looks and low-quality cabin materials.
At a Glance
As part of a large and ever-growing field of compact SUVs, the 2009 Toyota RAV4 stands out from the rest with its powerful engines, large passenger volume, and high fuel economy numbers. Winner of Car & Driver's 5Best Trucks award five years in a row, and the leader in that magazine's comparison of nine compact SUVs, the RAV4 offers the versatility and cargo capacity of an SUV, with the driving dynamics of a sportier sedan and the fuel efficiency of a compact car.
The SUV returns with a new engine for 2009 and some minor tweaks to the exterior and interior, as well as a new Sport Package that adds superficial styling and flair. A 2.5-liter inline four replaces its old 2.4 and offers more power and higher mpg numbers. Its automatic transmission has been redesigned for smoother and lighter action. On the outside, the '09 RAV4 adds sharper angles to the front end, along with a new grille, bumpers, and taillights. The 17-inch wheels on the Base and Sport get a new look, and the Limited adds its own distinctive grille and color-keyed side mirrors with turn signals. The Sport Appearance Package offers lots of chrome, special badging, and run-flat tires.
The RAV4 comes in Base, Sport, and Limited trims, with the latter offering the most extensive list of standard features and options. The Sport trim is a Base with the addition of styling features such as foglights, 18-inch wheels, and a rear spoiler. All are available in either front- or all-wheel drive. The on-demand AWD system provides extra traction on slippery roads with its limited-slip differential and locking center differential. It lacks low-range gearing, however, and should not be used for off-roading, especially given the RAV4's scant 7.5 inches of ground clearance.
Built as a five-passenger SUV, the RAV4 can be equipped with a third row to accommodate up to seven passengers, an option not often found in compact SUVs. This might provide a bit more utility for larger families, but the third row reduces cargo space and is too small and uncomfortable for anyone but tiny children on short car trips. Without the third row, the RAV4 offers great storage capacity and one of the largest interior volumes in this class.
The '09 RAV4 upgrades its four-cylinder engine this year, giving it more power and improved fuel efficiency. A 16-valve, 2.5-liter DOHC engine replaces the old 2.4-liter and adds 13 more horsepower for a total of 179. The new engine now features dual variable valve timing (to the 2.4's single) in both the intake and exhaust valves, raising mileage numbers to 21/27 mpg, one of the best in the subcompact SUV class. The inline four comes paired with a 4-speed automatic equipped with “shift logic,” which supposedly locks onto the right gear without much searching. This engine proves adequate for an around-town commuter car, although it does put out a lot of noise and effort during highway driving.
For a real powerhorse (perhaps too much power for the average SUV driver, says one critic), the 24-valve, 3.5-liter DOHC V6 delivers 269 hp and 246 lb-ft of torque. Quick, almost jerky, off-the-line acceleration and peppy punch make the RAV4 fun to drive and the most powerful compact SUV in its class. Its 0-60 time of 6.3 seconds bests its closest competitors by 2 seconds and falls just short of the Hemi-powered Dodge Magnum. The V6 gets a 5-speed automatic. The price to pay comes in the form of reduced fuel economy. Though also equipped with dual variable valve timing, the V6 engine rates only 19/26 mpg, with most test drivers seeing numbers lower than the EPA estimates.
When properly equipped with a tow package, the four-cylinder can haul 1,500 pounds, while the V6 has a 3,500-pound towing capacity.
Ride & Handling
Though it does not share a platform with any other Toyota, the 2009 RAV4 rides and handles like a car, according to test drivers and owners. Sitting on a Macpherson strut front and double wishbone rear suspension, the compact SUV delivers a solid feel behind the wheel, but the soft suspension mimics the floaty rides of compact sedans. The Sport's performance-tuned suspension adds some more firmness (and a bit more harshness over bumps), but does feel tighter in curves and cornering.
Reviewers find the '09 RAV4 stable, thanks to one of the longest wheelbases in its class (104.7 inches), and its responsive brakes and good tire traction provide extra security. Being a compact SUV, it gets jostled around a bit in high winds and exhibits body lean and some nose dive in sharp turns. Both the 17-inch wheels on the Base and Limited and the 18-inch wheels on the Sport absorb bumps and dips well, with little noise intruding into the cabin. In fact, except for the four-cylinder models in highway situations, test drives reveal a comfortably quiet engine overall, a sentiment echoed by happy owners. Some wind and road noise occurs at high speeds.
Critics are also surprised at how precise and controlled the steering feels, without the usual presence of annoying understeer. Normally, electronic power steering with power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering translates to numb and vague responsiveness, but the RAV4's steering offers decent driver feedback for an SUV. Although the rear pillar presents some blind spots, drivers have generally good visibility thanks to a high ride height.
For the best driving dynamics and most energetic ride, critics recommend the V6-equipped RAV4. Although the 5-speed automatic transmission feels a bit jerky at low speeds, the powertrain offers satisfying acceleration and a sport-like performance. For most everyday drivers, the four-cylinder provides adequate commuter power, with the added benefit of improved fuel economy.
Cabin & Comfort
Several critics praise the ergonomics of the 2009 RAV4's interior, but find it blander and less luxurious than the Honda CR-V's. The RAV4 measures slightly longer and heavier than its competitors and is one of the few compact SUVs to offer an optional third row, albeit one better suited for very small children or pets rather than adults. Owners love the spacious front and second rows and functional cargo capacity.
The '09 RAV4 seats five in two rows, with the optional third row adding room for two more passengers. Although the 41.8 and 38.3 inches of legroom in the first two rows, along with fore and aft movement and reclining features, accommodate tall adults easily, the third row's 30 inches of legroom makes this row less versatile. Headroom measures around 40 inches for front- and second-row occupants, but drops by 3 inches for the third row, and passengers over 6 feet tall might feel a bit cramped in any seat in the RAV4. The second row split-folds 60/40, while the third row splits 50/50. Both flip and fold (the third row folds flat) with very little effort. Wide doors up front provide easy access to the second row, but access to the third row is available only on the passenger side. Interior storage is comparable to other SUVs, with plenty of seatback pockets, 10 cupholders, a two-tiered center console with cell phone holder, and a two-tiered glove box.
The cargo area with three rows measures a tiny 12.3 cubic feet, similar to a subcompact sedan. Without the third row, that expands to 37.2, and with the second row down the RAV4 can hold up to 73 cubic feet of cargo. Roof rails are standard on the Limited, optional for all others. The cargo bay features two underfloor storage wells and tiedowns, and a cover comes standard on the Limited trim. Owners find the side-hinged cargo door annoying and would prefer a standard liftgate with separate window. Because it swings out toward the passenger side, both curbside loading and loading in a crowded parking lot become difficult.
Critics find the ergonomics of the RAV4 simple and well laid out. Driver comfort gets a boost from standard tilt and telescopic steering and 6-way manually adjustable seats, although an 8-way power seat remains only optional. Reviews are mixed on the seats, with most drivers finding them supportive, but a few critics saying the extra bolstering in the Sport trim can get uncomfortable on longer trips. Large and easily-reachable controls reside on the center stack, illuminated in amber Optitron lighting and trimmed in a high-end faux nickel finish. All trims get new seat fabric for 2009, with the Sport adding a new Charcoal leather option. The use of low-grade plastics in the cabin bothers both owners and reviewers, with many reporting annoying squeaks and rattles as well as early wear and tear.
The '09 RAV4 does offer a lot of standard features at an affordable price, and even the Base trim comes well equipped with power accessories, cruise control, and a CD/MP3 player with MP3 jack. The Sport trim adds appearance features such as foglights, special badging, and color-keyed handles and moldings. The high-end Limited trim features leather trim, dual-zone climate control, a 6-CD changer with satellite radio, Bluetooth, and the new SmartKey system with push-button start.
Most options are available only for the Sport and Limited trims and include a new low-cost navigation system, heated front seats and an 8-way power driver's seat, leather upholstery, a sunroof, and a DVD player with AC outlet. A new Sport Appearance Package offers run-flat tires (getting rid of the spare tire on the cargo door) and options such as chrome accents, mirrors with turn signals, a stainless steel exhaust pipe, a chrome and leather shifter, and the 6-CD changer.
Toyota carries a solid reputation for safety, security, and reliability, and the '09 RAV4 earns the expected high marks from crash tests. Front driver and side impact scores rate five stars, while the front passenger impact and rollover tests score four stars. All trims feature 4-wheel disc and ABS brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution, as well as confident traction and stability control. Six airbags include dual front-side and side curtain bags for the first two rows.
Added this year to the standard equipment are active front head restraints. Other features include automatic headlights, passenger airbag cutoff, and a tire monitor. New for 2009, the Sport and Limited trims can be equipped with an optional rearview camera to help with the blind spots caused by the thick rear pillars.
What Owners Think
The 2009 RAV4 packs a lot more power and pep than the Honda CR-V, according to most satisfied owners, who particularly like the confident acceleration of the V6 engine. Drivers use the word “fun” a lot when describing V6-equipped RAV4s. Other popular adjectives include smooth, reliable, and solid. Many owners rave about how quiet the cabin is inside this compact SUV and appreciate its spacious front row and abundance of storage options. Other high marks go to the easy flip-down seats, the dash layout, and the Bluetooth and SmartKey features. The fuel economy also ranks as a top selling point for owners.
Most of the negatives focus on the small third row, the lack of a flat-folding second row, and the poor quality of the cabin materials, which rattle annoyingly and show early wear and tear. Many owners agree that a lift-up tailgate should replace the side-hinged cargo door. Some feel that that the '09 RAV4 is not designed well for anyone over 6 feet tall, even in the front row. More than a few drivers find the sound system disappointing.
No word yet on the 2009 RAV4 from CarGurus owners, but comments on the 2008 version provide good insight. Highlights include the fuel economy, V6 engine, and roominess. One driver likes the versatility of the seat configurations, cargo capacity, and storage compartments. Another appreciates its small-car fuel efficiency combined with SUV-like functionality. The lack of a manual transmission bothers some owners, and most agree that the four-cylinder lacks in performance and acceleration.
by Ann Jackman
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