Calling something “the Cadillac of” its milieu carries as much weight today as it did when Cadillac actually earned the self-administered title, “The Standard of the World.” Calling something “the Camry of” isn’t going to catch on, not least of all because it doesn’t have the same aspirational cache, but it’s really a big compliment. The Toyota Camry may not be most popular car in the country anymore, but its legacy as a sales and segment leader is something product planners worldwide would kill for. To say the 2021 Toyota RAV4 is the Camry of crossovers is high praise, indeed—and it just so happens to come from the same maker.
To appreciate the compliment, though, you have to appreciate the vehicle for what it is. Just as the Camry was never meant to be a supercar, the RAV4 was never meant to be a rock crawler. Both are built to the same purpose: being the best all-around vehicle for the average consumer. To do that, you need a bit of everything but not necessarily too much of anything. Enough space for people and luggage to spread out, enough power not to feel slow, enough gadgets and creature comforts to feel worth the out-the-door price, enough quietness, enough styling to be attractive without being polarizing, and enough handling to make the driver feel in complete control. It’s not about being the fastest or most extreme in any way. Remember, most people buy their cars in shades of white, black, or gray. They don’t want extremes.
Speedy Enough for Most
Our instrumented test results certainly don’t reveal the RAV4 to be “extreme.” This all-wheel-drive Limited model is as fancy as a RAV4 gets, which means it’s also the heaviest given all the bells and whistles it has installed. With a 203-hp naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine under the hood, it’s no speed demon. Hell, a Camry with the same engine will smoke this thing. Still, 8.3 seconds to 60 mph is right in the middle of the competition and perfectly adequate for this kind of SUV.
That’s how it feels behind the wheel, too: adequate. It isn’t springing off the line at every opportunity, but put your foot down with some authority and it’ll get you up to speed quickly enough. For most people it will be satisfactory, but the RAV4’s available electrically boosted hybrid and plug-in hybrid models offer more speed if you’re so inclined.
We have a love-hate relationship with Toyota’s transmission programming, but in this case the gearbox performed well. It’s both geared and programmed for efficiency, but it’s also smart enough to recognize when you need more acceleration and give you the appropriate gear. It generally shifts smoothly and unobtrusively, as well, although we did note a few stiff gearchanges here and there.
The bigger issue with the drivetrain is how noisy the engine gets when you ask the most of it. Combine that with wind noise around the top corners of the windshield at highway speeds and moderate tires noise over bad pavement and the RAV4 gets a bit louder inside than it ought to at times.
Handling Itself Just Fine
People used to soft and doughy crossovers may find the ride a bit stiffer than their usual fare, but it’s a decent tradeoff to get better handling than an SUV in this class needs. Whether you’re an enthusiast who enjoys the way a car hugs a corner or just someone who feels more confident and in control when their vehicle feels agile, the RAV4 corners exceptionally well for an everyday SUV. The body leans purposefully into a corner and stays planted all the way though, even over bumps. No bouncing or flopping here. The driving experience is especially impressive when you consider its instrumented test results—0.81 average lateral g on a skidpad and a 27.6-second figure eight lap at 0.60 average g—aren’t anything special. Like the acceleration, they’re right in the middle of the competitive set.
It’s the same story with the active and passive safety systems. Toyota’s Safety Sense suite of such features checks all the boxes and each kicks in when you might actually need it to. It’s not nearly as proactive as systems from competing automakers and you won’t feel as if you have Tesla Autopilot, but it does everything it’s supposed to.
And so the story goes throughout the vehicle. Other cars may have more glamorous features, but whatever the RAV4 lacks in quantity of gizmos it makes up for in general usability. The shelves in the dashboard are a lifesaver when you have too many phones and keys and other things to get out of your pockets. There are plenty of USB ports front and rear so everyone always has power. There’s a monster panoramic sunroof on this Limited trim and a pretty good stereo, too. The distinctly textured knobs on the stereo and HVAC system make it easy to adjust settings without taking your eyes off the road.
There are some misses. Toyota’s infotainment system is slowly getting better, but the graphics remain seriously outdated and the screen is small compared to some competitors’. This becomes more of an issue when using the 360-degree camera system, as the image is pretty small.
Speaking of small, the rear doors could open wider, as on some competitors, to make more space to load kids and cargo. The reclining rear seats are nice, but putting the recline button over the shoulder makes it difficult to adjust when you’re, you know, sitting in the seat. Not being able to drop the rear seats from the cargo area is disappointing, and a button on the power tailgate that both closes and locks the doors (in addition to the one that just closes the gate) would be nice. The total absence of a power front passenger seat on a vehicle that costs 40 grand as tested is less a nuisance and more inexcusable, however.
Seats aside, the cargo area is notable for its size and squared-off proportions. Many SUVs give up a lot of cargo space to raked rooflines, intrusive wheel wells, and other packaging compromises. The RAV4 has a ton of space, seats up or down. Not messing with the roofline and holding down the beltline allowed Toyota to keep the windows big, too, giving everyone but especially the driver excellent outward visibility in all directions.
If Swiss Army Knives were still a thing outside of kitschy gift shops, you might call the RAV4 the Swiss Army Knife of crossovers, but that undersells it. Anyone who’s used a Leatherman tool or similar knows how useless a Swiss Army Knife is (except the corkscrew). The RAV4 is better than that. It’s a great compact crossover with something for everyone, up to and including folks who might deride its shortcomings. You could find a number of competitors that do one or two things better and several worse. But you go for the RAV4 because it does everything well enough.
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