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As Toyota surveys the frenzied clusterjam that is the current soft-roader market, it might be justified in feeling a little aggrieved. After all, it kicked this whole thing off. Until Toyota launched the original RAV4 in 1994, the SUV didn’t even exist. That car was the first real soft-roader, but look at them all now: the Nissan Qashqai and the Audi Q5, the Dacia Duster and the Range Rover Evoque and the dozens of other upstarts squeezing into every gap, elbowing in on Toyota’s once-virgin territory, nicking its sales.
That’s the problem with bright ideas: everyone wants in. Which leaves Toyota with a bit of an issue: where does the all-new fourth-gen RAV4 squeeze into the party it damn well started?
Slap-bang in the middle, that’s where. Mid-priced, mid-sized, mid-off-road, mid-sporty. Maybe this is fair – after all, Toyota invented this sector, so it shouldn’t have to shuffle into a new and weird corner to get attention. But, at the same time, the original RAV4 was genuinely revolutionary, truly different. The new one, well, isn’t. It doesn’t do much wrong, but it’s tough to find a reason you’d simply have to have one over its many, many rivals.
In fairness, Toyota is trying to swing with the times: you can now have the RAV4 in FWD flavour, albeit only with the entry-level 2.0-litre, 122bhp diesel. That said, this might be the best way to sample the RAV4 – the smaller diesel is smoother and quieter than the 148bhp 2.2 and starts £3,000 below the cheapest AWD version.
But whether front- or four-wheel-drive, the handling magic of the GT86 doesn’t seem to have permeated here. The RAV4 isn’t awful to drive; it’s just… boring. Though the steering is light and passably car-like, the soft-sprung RAV4 rolls about in the bends, tending towards rampant understeer through even the gentlest corners – understeer accompanied by a wild, haunted moan from the tyres. We’re hoping that was just an effect of the weird snow ’n’ mud rubber fitted to our test cars. Whichever way, even the dubious presence of a Sport button in the cabin can’t disguise that this is no Evoque.
It feels… big. It is big. The MkIV RAV4 is a full 86cm longer than the 1994 3dr original, and entirely cavernous on the inside, with room for a front row of international rugby players across the rear seats and a couple more prop forwards in the boot. Not that you could, legally. Despite all the space, there’s no option of a third row of seats in the RAV4: this remains a five-seater only.
Talking of boots, the RAV4’s rear hatch boasts a weird, steatopygic kink, a bum-bulge reminiscent of the old Renault Vel Satis. Whether it’s a good or a bad bum-bulge is open to debate. But hey, at least it’s unique, a quality in short supply on
the RAV4. It’s a good car this – refined, economical, bemusingly roomy – but in the packed-to-the-brim commuter carriage of current SUVs, it’ll struggle to find much space.