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2009 Toyota RAV4 Sport 4x4 Review

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2009 Toyota RAV4 Sport 4x4

Back in 1996, when the Toyota RAV4 debuted as one of the earliest crossover SUVs, it was nicknamed "sport-cute". As opposed to a towering, imposing sport-ute.

And with its small size, winsome looks in two- and four-door body styles, single-range 4-wheel drive, good clearance, and 120-horsepower four-cylinder engine, the original RAV4 (that's Recreational Active Vehicle with 4-wheel drive) was the perfect vehicle for its time and helped spawn the crossover phenomenon of the following decade.

Between then and now there have been a few changes to the RAV4. The two-door version was an early casualty, going the way of other two-door SUVs whether truck or crossover. For the second generation, in 2001, the four-door grew a bit, and lost its baby fat in the styling department. The namesake four-cylinder engine gained in power, and front-wheel drive was now the standard form.

For 2006, the RAV grew up. It was still the RAV4, but for the first time a V6 engine could be put under its hood. With 269 horsepower, it moved the RAV4 out of the "cute and slow" category. The four-cylinder engine grew from 2.0 to 2.4 liters, and gained 18 horsepower to 166. The third generation RAV was completely new underneath, larger, and longer, enough so that a third-row seat was an option, with front or four-wheel drive available.

Model year 2009 sees freshened styling, a more powerful and more fuel-efficient four-cylinder engine, interior improvements, and a higher level of standard safety equipment. Modern conveniences like a backup camera, satellite radio, and navigation system are now offered as factory options, and the Sport Appearance Package for 4WD V6 models dispenses with the external spare tire mounted on the read door in favor of run-flat tires, plus other special styling cues. Trim levels are base, Sport, and Limited, as has been the Toyota convention for a while.

The stylistic changes to the 09 RAV4 work best with the Sport model, my test car for the week. In its exclusive "Elusive Blue Metallic" color scheme, and with V6 power, it's not a "sport cute" any more. It's closer to the classic hot rod hooligan persuasion, with a large engine in a relatively small vehicle. It will also carry five people plus luggage in comfort, or hold even more stuff with fewer passengers. While not really meant for serious off-road duty, the RAV4 should be at home on backwoods fire roads and the poorly-maintained and indifferently-surfaced pathways that pass for "roads" in many rural -- and urban -- parts of the country.

APPEARANCE: Although there are no major changes to the RAV4's lines, the styling themes introduced with the third generation a few years ago are further developed for 2009. The shape and details are unmistakably Toyota, but the grille, headlamps, and hood are a little sharper, for a more toned look. Prominent wheel arches add to that. At the rear, LED taillights shine brightly at night. The Sport's lack of an externally-mounted spare tire emphasizes sport over utility.

COMFORT: The RAV4's interior is spacious, stylish, and functional. All trim levels have Toyota's bright, easily-visible "Optitron" gauges, a steering wheel adjustable for both tilt and reach, at least an AM/FM/CD/auxiliary jack audio system with MP3 and WMA CD playback capability, power windows, mirrors, and locks with remote keyless entry, illuminated entry, and enough cup- and bottle-holders and power points to keep everyone happily hydrated and connected to whichever electronic gadgets they prefer. In the Sport, seats are manually-adjustable and covered with a grippy synthetic cloth; comfort is good thanks to moderately firm foam. The front seats have the high-eyepoint view that has made crossovers popular. The rear bench is split 60/40 for utility in carrying passengers and/or cargo, nothing surprising there. Each side of the seatback can be reclined a bit for comfort; both head- and leg-room are very good for the car's external size. The instrument panel gets plenty of function with its pleasing form, with an extra storage bin above the locking glovebox. Other storage spaces around the cabin add further convenience for both front and rear passengers. The side-hinged rear door makes access to the cargo area easy, and there is a bit of hidden storage beneath the regular load floor.

SAFETY: The RAV4 has a full complement of active and passive, mechanical and electronic safety equipment. Its unibody structure is built with a reinforced cabin and front and rear crumple zones and energy-absorbing materials in the doors and roof. All seating positions feature adjustable headrests and three-point safety harnesses. The front airbags are designed to deploy according to crash severity, with an occupant classification system determining front passenger presence and weight. Seat-mounted front side and first- and second-row side curtain airbags are now standard, as is the STAR SAFETY SYSTEM(tm), which includes Vehicle Stability Control (VSC), traction control, and antilock brakes (ABS) with electronic brake force distribution (EBD) and brake assist (BA).

RIDE AND HANDLING: The rigidity and reinforcement that add safety also help to improve ride and handling, as does the Sport's moderately-firm, fully-independent MacPherson strut front/double-wishbone rear suspension. Slightly lower-profile (55-series) 18-inch tires improve turn-in a bit, and the variable-ratio electronic power steering (EPS) provides computer-controlled assist when needed and interfaces with the VSC system to quicken reactions in adverse situations. The longer wheelbase, compared to earlier versions, improves smoothness on the highway with no ill effect on maneuverability. The 4-wheel drive system normally operates in front-drive only to save fuel. When necessary, an electronically-controlled center coupling distributes torque to the rear wheels, varying the front/rear distribution automatically. 4WD manual locking keeps all four wheels driven at speeds under 25 mph or until the brakes are applied, for maximum traction in slippery conditions. Also in 4WD V6 models, Hill-start Assist Control (HAC) and Downhill Assist Control (DAC) help improve low-speed uphill and downhill control on or off-road. With 7.5 inches of clearance, the RAV4 won't get far in true off-road conditions, but should be just fine on forest service fire roads.

PERFORMANCE: Nobody will kick sand in this guy's face... Even with 3700 pounds of 4WD Sport model to haul around, the 3.5-liter V6 packs plenty of punch. Its 269 horsepower (at 6200 rpm) and 246 lb-ft of torque (4700 rpm) see to that. Like all Toyota engines, it uses aluminum alloy for the block and heads, with VVT-i variable cam phasing on all cams to optimize power delivery and fuel efficiency while minimizing emissions to a ULEV II level. It transmits power through a five-speed automatic transmission with shift logic that minimizes shifting on hills and offers a manual shift mode. It's quick, with a 0-60 time under seven seconds, and reasonably economical considering the available power. EPA ratings in 4WD trim are 19/26. I saw 25 on the highway, but that dropped to 22 overall in a mix of highway and city and secondary road driving. Which is not bad at all for such a vehicle. With the towing package, it can tow up to 3500 pounds, enough for a couple of dirt bikes or personal watercraft or even a small boat.

CONCLUSIONS: The Toyota RAV4 Sport adds sport and style to utility.

SPECIFICATIONS 2009 Toyota RAV4 Sport 4x4

Base Price			$ 26,530
Price As Tested			$ 30,319
Engine Type			dohc aluminum alloy V6 with variable cam
				 phasing on all camshafts
Engine Size			3.5 liters / 211 cu. in.
Horsepower			269 @ 6200 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)			246 @ 4700 rpm
Transmission			5-speed automatic
Wheelbase / Length		104.7 in. / 178.7 in.
Curb Weight			3,699 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower		13.8
Fuel Capacity			15.9 gal.
Fuel Requirement		87-octane unleaded regular gasoline
Tires				P235/55R18 99H Bridgestone Dueler H/T
Brakes, front/rear		vented disc / solid disc,
				 ABS & VSC standard
Suspension, front/rear		independent MacPherson strut /
				  independent double wishbone
Ground clearance		7.5 inches
Drivetrain			transverse front engine,
				  automatic part-time 4-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		19 / 26 / 22
0 to 60 mph				6.8  sec
Towing Capacity			3500 lbs. with towing package

Backup camera integrated with electrochromic
  rear-view mirror				$   475
Extra Value Package - includes: 
  daytime running lights, black roof rails and
  crossbars, power tilt/slide moonroof with
  sunshade, AM/FM/XM/6CD in-dash changer with
  MP3 & WMA audio system			 $ 1,470
V6 AWD Sport Grade Appearance Package - includes:
  redesigned rear door without spare tire, four
  P235/55R18 run-flat tires, rear bumper applique
  protector, unique badges, rear door chrome accents,
  color-keyed heated rear-view mirrors with turn
  signals, stainless steel exhaust tip, chrome
  interior trim, unique door sills		$   577
Towing Prep Package - includes:
  upgraded radiator, fan coupling, 
  and alternator				$   160
Carpet floor and cargo mats			$   199
Body-side molding				$   199
Tube steps					$   450
Sport pedals by OBX Racing Sports		$    85
Emergency Assistance kit			$    70
VIP RS3200 Plus security system			$   359

MORE: Toyota Specs, Prices and Comparisons-Toyota Buyers Guide