Comfortable utility vehicle

BY Derek McNaughton. Jul 15 04:00 am

Toyota says only minor changes were made to the interior of the 2016 RAV4 over the 2015 models, but I swear an engineer snuck some extra padding into the front seats.

Sure, they’re noticeably upgraded to SofTex synthetic leather on the RAV4 SE AWD, but the fit, support and comfort of these thrones exceed any other Toyota seat I’ve ever sat upon. I want these seats. These seats reign supreme. You don’t sit on these seats, you sit in them.

The SE model, new for 2016 along with a Hybrid version, gets the SofTex treatment in front and back. SofTex is durable like leather and looks something like it. It even mimics some of leather’s qualities; the high breathability and thermal qualities of the stuff (thermoplastic polyurethane) let the material run cooler because it reflects infrared rays. It breathes — albeit slowly — unlike non-porous vinyl, which can turn a driver’s back into a stream of sweat.

Toyota says SofTex even surpasses natural leather in “seam fatigue,” abrasion, cracking and scratch tests. If anyone figures out a way to make it smell like leather, herds of cows will sigh with relief.

The seats, of course, are not the only highlight to the revised RAV4. The SE, meant to replace the old Sport, wears the most athletic attire of the RAV4 line, with LED lighting, black and polished 18-inch aluminum wheels, black trim and mirrors, unique gauges and underneath, a sport-tuned suspension. That suspension won’t beg the driver to execute hairpins like something wearing the Lexus F badge, but it will more than suffice for holy-crap-I’m-late-for-daycare driving, with only a touch of the ouchies on badly broken roads. The electric power steering holds nothing against the hydraulic racks of the Tacoma or 4Runner, though, and begs for more feedback.

The RAV4’s 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine is more willing than its displacement might suggest. Though a turbo would make this engine outstanding, the natural aspiration and 176 horsepower doesn’t demean power delivery.

Throttle response is reasonable, predictable and good for most driving. Going from zero to 100 km/h requires more than eight seconds. Sport mode — one of three selectable driving modes, along with Normal and Eco — will hold the revs higher and longer when trying hustle. Just don’t expect to keep up with an Audi Q3. Braking is sure and strong, without any spongy feel to the pedal.

The six-speed automatic transmission, while no doubt as stout as many Toyota transmissions, tends to hunt between fifth and sixth gear on the highway. Any headwind, coupled with the air-conditioning or elevation change, sends the RAV4 from a gentle 2,200 r.p.m. at 120 km/h in sixth gear to 2,700 r.p.m. in fifth. At first I thought I’d inadvertently knocked the shift lever, but no; the erratic behaviour is normal, in part because of gearing and programming of the “super electronically controlled” gearbox.

On inclines, when power is being called on, the transmission might even jump to fourth, sending the revs that much higher. Around town, however, the shifts are noticeably clean and void of any abruptness or hesitation. I suspect with some software tuning, the issue will go away.

The shift selector can also be used manually to control gear changes. Of course, the tuning is set up to achieve better fuel economy at the expense of the driving experience, and in that regard it seems to work. As it was, highway economy was excellent, ranging from a highway best of 7.4 L/100 km, with an average speed of 109 km/h, to an around-town range from nine to 11 L/100 km.

Out on the highway, there’s a noticeable amount of road noise, especially in the rear compartment and back seat. Engine noise is less than ideal, but with a price of $34,620, it helps to keep in mind the whole CUV segment rarely offers the tomb of silence normally found in luxury cars or high-end SUVs. What the RAV4 does offer, which many in this class don’t, is a locking centre differential to split the torque equally between the front and rear wheels. That’s the best setup for travelling in deep snow, so the AWD in the RAV4 really can make it worthy of its name.

That back seat, by the way, has considerably more legroom than the RAV4’s size would suggest. The seats easily tilt forward to become almost flat, creating a cave monstrous enough for a love seat: 73.4 cubic feet (2,078 L) with the seats down and 38.4 (1,087 L) with them up. The cargo hold is accessed by a proper, up-sliding tailgate instead of a swinging barn door, and the height-adjustable power liftgate comes standard on the SE (though it can be slow to open). A small in-floor compartment is useful for straps, flashlights and other road safety gear.

Other interior upgrades in the RAV4 are first-rate. The SE even gets a heated steering wheel. This alone is worth choosing this model over any lesser trim.

All RAV4s get a driver instrumentation upgrade, but the SE gets special red bits. The seven-inch touch-screen infotainment system is simple to operate, though some graphics look dated. A rear-view camera is standard and the dual-zone climate control employs proper buttons and knobs. The dash looks sophisticated, with a long sweep of soft-touch material and integrated stitching, and storage nooks are plentiful.

That’s probably the RAV4’s secret sauce that has made it bestselling in its category: Make it look and feel entirely upscale, make it capable in all seasons while squeezing the most out of a litre of fuel, and offer the kind of seats that will suit even the most demanding of princesses.

— Postmedia Network Inc. 2016

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