By Andy Enright
We owe a big debt of gratitude to the Toyota RAV4. These days, we take it for granted that small 4x4s will handle, will offer excellent build quality and give us virtually car-like refinement. Yet until the RAV4 appeared, that was far from the case. This car raised the standards enormously, yet these days it's not the first name people would think of to define the compact soft roading sector. Is that because of a slippage in quality. Or has this car been unfairly under-rated in recent times? In which case it may well qualify as a used car gem. Here, we're going to put the final 2010 to 2013 version of the MK3 model under the spotlight in a bid to find out.
Rewind back to the latter half of the Nineties and if you wanted a small, sporty and relatively affordable SUV, you're probably thinking of a Toyota's RAV4. When this company's Recreational Activity Vehicle was first launched in 1994, it redefined its market sector, gaining over three-quarters of a million sales worldwide and spawning a whole host of imitators. But time moves on and competitors jealous of the RAV4's market share started coming at a tumultuous rate. By the Noughties, the RAV4 was just one badge in a massively overcrowded compact soft roading marketplace now epitomised by the Land Rover Freelander. But the Toyota still clocked up some very reasonable sales, helped by the company frequently revisiting the formula top try to keep the appeal fresh.
Toyota twice made significant revisions to the third generation model that we're looking at here, first under the bonnet and latterly in 2010 with sharper styling. With diesel power accounting for most compact SUV sales, the original 2006 MK3 RAV4 model's offering was surprisingly muddled in this respect, its two engines offering respectively either too much or too little power and in both cases failing to provide the automatic gearbox option that many buyers wanted. But by 2010, this issue had been sorted, the petrol model offering buyers the 6-speed CVT auto that was also available as an option if you chose the single D4-D 150 diesel engine by now on offer. Plus Toyota's eco-friendly Optimal Drive technology was available to both petrol and diesel buyers. As a result, potential customers, the brand hoped, would be less likely to pass up on this car's other virtues.
What You Get
Whether you select a two or four-wheel drive version of this particular RAV4 model with either petrol or diesel power, there's just a single five-door body style choice, but those choosing the car in this 2010-2013 vintage did at least get a decent 6-speed automatic transmission option. In fact, it was the only choice for customers wanting petrol power. There was a decent level of standard kit too. Even entry-level RAV4s of this sort feature a smart leather and alcantara upholstery combination as standard, together with heated front seats and smart 17-inch alloy wheels.
And, as you'd expect for this kind of money, all RAV4s of this sort come with dual-zone climate control, auto lights and wipers, power heated mirrors, electric windows, rear privacy glass, the HAC Hill Start Assist control, a 6-speaker CD stereo, cruise control and bluetooth 'phone compatibility. Safety's accounted for by seven airbags (including a driver's knee 'bag), a stability control system to help you out on icy roads or if you enter a corner too fast, anti-whiplash front seat head restraints and ISOFIX rear child seat mountings.
There are only a few other cars of this kind that can offer back seats able to recline for comfort on long journeys and/or slide back and forth (in this case by 165mm) so you can choose between prioritising rear luggage space or back seat legroom. There are also a few where these rear seats fold properly flat to create a really usable loading area. What's different with this car though, is that the whole process is so simple. There are no hernias necessary to push the things into position and no fiddly headrests to dismantle. Just a single one-handed operation that sees the seat vanish flush with the load bay floor to boost load volume from 410 to 1469-litres, one of the biggest in its class. Only the side-hinged rear door is frustrating, being awkward in tight spaces and failing to open to a full 90-degrees.
What to Look For
Not much goes wrong on-road. Make the normal inspection for signs of heavy off-road use. Since the car was never sold as an 'off-roader', you're unlikely to find that this is a problem. If the vehicle seems to have been used a lot in the mud, it's best to walk away as it isn't built to take that sort of treatment. The RAV4 has built an enviable reputation for reliability and this third generation car builds on it. There was a reported issue with the dual mass flywheel on older diesel cars but this issue seems to have been rectified in this model.
(approx - based on a 2011 2.0 XTR ex VAT) A clutch assembly is around £275, a full exhaust system around £840 (with the catalyst), front brake pads are around £50 and rear brake shoes are around £40. A radiator is about £260, an alternator around £200 and a starter motor also about £200. Not the cheapest in other words but nothing to get too worried about.
On the Road
It isn't such a shock these days to climb aboard a compact 4x4 and find yourself at the helm of a car that actually handles pretty much like an ordinary family hatch, yet still offers the 20cm higher elevated driving position that SUV buyers love. Back in 1994 when this car first hit the streets, it was a revelation. People didn't care that it was useless for anything more than a rutted farm track. For them, the RAV4 was the cake-and-eat it 4x4, the car the term 'soft roader' was first coined for. Today, it's not quite as sharp in the twisties as, say, a Ford Kuga, but it still changes directly keenly enough to surprise you if you're not familiar with this class of vehicle, impressive for something weighing over 1600kgs. It's not perfect of course, but in town, the light and slightly vague steering is less of an issue. Here, you appreciate great all-round visibility which makes this car easy to park and there's a tight 10.2m turning circle.
This RAV4 range caters both for the customer who needs no all-wheel drive ability at all (with a 2-wheel drive diesel model) as well as those who may need to tow, crawl out of muddy car parks or survive the odd icy February cold snap and therefore want 4x4 peace of mind. For this latter group, Toyota has engineered in an Active Torque Control 4x4 system which can send up to 45% of the power to the back wheels if necessary, but will more normally send up to 100% of drive to those at the front for improved tarmac-driving economy. If you are off the beaten track, a switch can 'lock' the vehicle in all-wheel-drive at speeds of up to 25mph and there's hill start as well as downhill assist controls - but don't expect hardcore features like a low-range transfer box. Horses for courses and all that.
The Toyota RAV4 never became any less relevant. It was just overtaken in the new and shiny stakes by a cluster of rivals. What becomes apparent when you spend time with this third generation car in its post-2010 guise that there really is no substitute for experience. Toyota has been at this game for a while now and it really shows in the way the RAV4 drives, the way its simple yet clever practicality just works in everyday life.
We'd choose a diesel over the somewhat thirsty petrol motor unless your driving consists of short, traffic-choked school runs and shopping trips. The diesel engine's so much more enjoyable and when coupled with the automatic gearbox, it makes the RAV4 feel effortless. Right now prices look great for lightly used examples. If you've overlooked this Toyota, reacquainting yourself with its qualities won't be time wasted.