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PHOENIX -- In describing what makes the redesigned 2013 Toyota RAV4 different from the model that preceded it, Toyota officials use the Japanese term "waku doki" -- which they say means a "heart-pumping, adrenaline experience."
I'm not sure the RAV4 qualifies for such a rarefied sentiment, unless French stitching on an instrument panel sets your heart pounding (I'm betting that it probably doesn't). But it's that level of detail that separates the 2013 RAV4 from its predecessors.
Of course, the detail you're most likely to notice is its new wardrobe. This fourth-generation crossover sport utility vehicle is the first RAV4 that's good-looking, reflecting Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda's wish for more emotionally engaging products.
Built at Toyota's plant in Woodstock, Ont., the 2013 model is also the first RAV4 that makes little pretense about its off-road abilities, eschewing its faux-truck styling for a sophisticated rendition of what passes for a modern-day station wagon. It's still distinctive up front -- less so out back, where you'll find that the spare tire is no longer mounted on the door.
And I would encourage you to look at where it's stashed -- inside, under the cargo floor.
Why? Because alongside the spare is a place for stowing the rear tonneau cargo cover when it's not in use. A small touch, perhaps, but it gives you the sense that every detail was considered.
You can see it elsewhere in the interior.
Look at the pillar between the front and rear doors. There, you'll find part of it has been scooped away to allow for extra elbow space. Next, look at the long horizontal vent at the center of the instrument panel. It blows air to the rear, over the heads of front-seat occupants. This keeps rear-seat occupants comfortable while costing Toyota less than running vents through the center console.
Why should you be concerned about Toyota saving money? Because it allows for a significantly upgraded cabin, where leather and leatherette trim soften the plastic and metallic surfaces. Interior ambience is noticeably improved, especially on upper trim levels. Controls are placed high and are very intuitive to use.
Speaking of trim levels, there are three: base LE, mid-level XLE and line-topping Limited. The differences come down to how much standard equipment you want.
All RAV4s have a manual tilt/telescope steering column, steering wheel controls for audio and hands-free phone. In addition, you'll find an AM/FM/CD audio system, Bluetooth connectivity, USB and auxiliary jacks, four speakers, power windows, locks and mirrors, and keyless entry.
A 6.1-inch audio touch screen, a backup camera, six speakers and a few other goodies are available on the LE model with a $1,000 upgrade package. However, it's worth noting that the LE's base price of $23,790 is just over $1,000 cheaper than last year's model.
If you also want 17-inch alloy wheels, a power moonroof, integrated fog lights, heated front premium seats, French stitching or the optional $1,170 navigation system, you'll have to step up to the $27,000 XLE.
But suppose you want 18-inch alloy wheels, a power liftgate, push-button start, upgraded seats or the optional blind-spot monitor and JBL audio system? Then the standard AWD Limited, starting at $31,700, is your vehicle.
Toyota expects 45 per cent of buyers to go for the XLE, with 30 per cent of buyers opting for the Limited.
Unless you have a limited budget, I would forgo the LE model, which has less seat bolstering than the XLE and Limited. Having sampled all three models, the difference in seat comfort is significant. The LE's seats feel stiff and unforgiving; pain starts within 20 minutes of sitting down. The other models are much more comfortable. Regardless of which RAV4 wins your heart, you'll find the seat bottoms are deeper for 2013, so there's more thigh support.
Passenger space is generous for the vehicle's size. There's ample head and leg room. Cargo space is generous. Toyota managed to maintain storage space despite the added spare tire by lowering the floor of the vehicle.
If you notice that I haven't said much about the RAV4's driving experience, that's because the changes are much less dramatic.
Available in front-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive configurations, the RAV4 is powered by a 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine mated to a six-speed automatic transmission that's used in the Toyota Camry. It's rated at 176 horsepower and 172 pound-feet of torque. The V-6 is no longer offered. If you'd like one, Toyota suggests checking out the Highlander instead.
The four is up to the task of adequately moving the RAV4, as long as you don't hit the "Eco" button, which slows progress significantly. Steering is nicely weighted, although steering feel is minimal.
All-wheel drive models now feature "Dynamic Torque Control," which measures several vehicle parameters, such as speed and steering angle. If needed, it can send as much as 50 per cent of the engine's power to the rear wheels. This happens under any circumstance, instead of simply under slippery conditions. All-wheel-drive models also have a standard Sport mode button, which sends 10 per cent of the power to the rear wheels when it's activated.
Ride quality is little different from the 2012, so bumps still can be felt. However, the cabin is much quieter and the vehicle's structure seems more rigid, which helps compensate.
Being a family vehicle, the RAV4 has an ample slate of safety technology, including stability control and traction control, along with three braking aids: anti-lock brakes, electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist.
In addition, the RAV4 now has eight air bags, two more than last year. Limited models can be fitted with an optional blind-spot monitor and a rear-cross traffic alert system, which senses vehicles approaching from either direction when backing up.
The best essence of last year's RAV4 remains intact: its perfect size and fuel-efficient drivetrain. But its less desirable traits, like the 2012 model's downscale cabin trim and oddball styling, have been ditched in favor of a less dowdy personality. Its sophisticated new looks, along with improvements in rigidity and sound deadening, make it a much more-appealing vehicle.
Whether it's the RAV4's quieter cabin, easier-to-use rear hatch, comfy seats, effortless driving demeanor, simple controls, stouter build or improved aesthetics, there's little to fault, and much to love.
You'll want to call it the RAVE4.
-- The Virginian-Pilot
-- TYPE OF VEHICLE: five-passenger front- or all-wheel drive SUV
-- ENGINE: 2.5-litre four-cylinder
-- POWER: 176 hp @ 6,000 r.p.m.; 172 lb.-ft. of torque @ 4,100 r.p.m.
-- TRANSMISSION: six-speed automatic
-- BRAKES: 4-wheel disc with ABS
-- LENGTH: 457 cm
-- WHEELBASE: 266 cm
-- CURBWEIGHT: 1,545 kg
-- MAX. TRUNK SIZE: 2,080 litres
-- TOWING CAPACITY: 680 kg
-- TRANSPORT CANADA FUEL CONSUMPTION: (L/100 km): 8.7 city, 6.4 hwy.
-- BASE PRICE: $23,790