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Four-wheel drive comes no more fashionably than with Toyota's fifth generation RAV4. June Neary checks it out
It's intriguing to consider that Toyota's upwardly mobile statement of urban chic might well be the finest mud-plugging tool yet invented and we wouldn't know it. The trendy townies who snap up the company's latest RAV4 models are no more likely to take them to the sludge than the GTi `hot hatches` and small sportscars they probably traded in as part exchange. I thought I'd try the latest MK5 version with its frugal hybrid engine.
Both my other half and I enjoyed the high up driving position which gives a super view of the road (as well as enabling you to look down on other road users). Our nephew has been a four-wheel drive fan since the first time he came out with me on a test drive and was impressed with the Toyota's huge boot space which had room to spare for his bicycle, small friend's pushchair - and me - as we went to the park with some friends. It also fits the bill nicely if, like we do, you keep bottles, newspapers and aluminium cans for recycling. There's loads of room to load up the monthly collection (light on the bottles, I hasten to add), along with sacks of fallen leaves, to take to the dump. That's because this latest five-door RAV4 is a very different beast to the original Nineties version. Across each successive iteration, the RAV4 has got bigger and better equipped. This fifth generation model has represented the most radical change yet. Cute and chunky was replaced with bold and aggressive. The MK5 design is a whole lot more angular and a good deal more spacious than RAV4s past but remains at the more practical and family-orientated end of the mid-sized SUV market. What it lacks in funky, urban styling it makes up for in capacity and user-friendliness. Rear seats that fold flat to the floor with one pull of a lever are one reason why the RAV4's load capacity is as big as it is and it also helps that the middle row of seats can reclined. The seat folding action is particularly slick. Whereas some rivals may also claim flat folding rear seats, the reality is that you will often have to spend time dismantling the head restraints or risk a hernia from flipping seat bases up before the operation can be completed. There's none of that palaver in the RAV4, a one-handed operation seeing the seat vanish flush with the load bay floor. You get 580-litres of space in the boot - or 1,690-litres when the seats are folded.
On the move, the RAV4 is surprisingly comfortable. Perhaps Toyota have decided to acknowledge that most owners don't buy an off-roader to drive off the road and have adjusted the suspension accordingly. The self-charging hybrid powertrain's apparently new, using a re-worked Lexus-derived 2.5-litre VVT-I 'Dynamic Force' engine that puts out 176bhp, with the rest of the output provided by electrification. The 2WD variant I tried gets one electric motor mounted on the front axle and develops a combined total of 215bhp. Toyota though, expects most customers to pay the extra for the AWD-i 4x4 system, which adds a further electric motor on the back axle, upping total power to 219bhp and providing significantly increased extra traction. As with the original RAV4, the handling is impressive. No, it isn't as sharp as the GTi my other half used to drive in his carefree younger days (he said), but the RAV4 came surprisingly close. Cornering roll in some other SUVs is such that they require an entirely different driving technique. That isn't the case here. "It's just like driving a car," was his verdict. It's less manoeuvrable in the supermarket car park, even with power steering, than a car would be, but given the size and weight of the vehicle, this is a very minor point.
RAV4 pricing sits in the £30,000 to £37,000 bracket and though you still only get the one five-door, five-seat SUV bodystyle, there's otherwise a wide range of choice, assuming you're happy to have a 2.5-litre VVT-i petrol/electric hybrid engine. From launch, there was no Plug-in option. As for what you can have, well there are four trim levels - 'Icon', 'Design', 'Excel' or 'Dynamic'. Base 'Icon'-spec comes only with the front wheel drive format that'll account for a minority of sales. Otherwise, every trim level offers buyers a choice of either front wheel drive or - for £2,240 more - the i-AWD 4x4 package that most of them are expected to choose. Whichever format you go for, as usual with any hybrid car, you have to have auto transmission.
The fact that the man in my life could quite happily live with a RAV4 certainly makes it a viable option for me. Where the previous version was very much a second - or third - family vehicle, in my view, this fifth generation model could feasibly be our main family car. I rather like the thought of it.