Toyota's RAV4 small crossover stays the course

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The 2018 Toyota RAV4 looks a lot like the RAV4 of the past many years, as a redesign came in 2013 and a freshening in 2016.

2018 Volkswagen Tiguan SEL Premium vs. 2018 Toyota RAV4 Platinum AWD, sort of: A bigger Tiguan takes on a steady-as-she-goes Toyota.

This week: 2018 Toyota RAV4

Price: $37,919 as tested (cargo mat, tonneau cover, and floor liners added about $800).

Marketer’s pitch: “Built for the weekend escape.”

Conventional wisdom: Car and Driver likes the “excellent fuel economy, spacious interior, solid safety ratings,” but “real leather not available, still not as powerful as old V-6-powered RAV4s.”

Reality: If you have a good thing going, why mess with it, right?

What’s new: Redesigned in 2013 and freshened in 2016, the RAV4 is getting a little long in the tooth.

Outside: The first generation of the RAV4 (mid-1990s) remains one of my favorite looks among the cute utes, and Toyota bills its RAV4 as the class leader.

These days, though, I find the RAV4 looks just OK from the front, and I’m not at all excited by the egg shape of the rear hatch. At least the RAV4 is not scowling at me angrily, like many Toyotas.

Up to speed: The 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine creates 176 horsepower, not enough to turn this into a speed demon. Drivers can reach 60 mph in 8.4 seconds, according to Car and Driver.

A sport mode made no noticeable difference in acceleration.

On the road: The handling is old-school Toyota small car — very vague. The steering wheel has a whole lotta play; I can move it almost an eighth of a turn without anything happening to the front wheels. Even Toyota’s cars aren’t this uninspiring anymore.

Yet the ride feels quite choppy; the RAV4 has Kia Soul-level bounciness, and that’s about the bounciest modern car out there. The RAV4 tilted pretty strongly from side to side on hard corners and curves.

Shifty: The six-speed automatic transmission offers no real shift mode, but otherwise is unfussy.

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The 2018 Toyota RAV4 interior is definitely attractive for drivers. A shelf on the passenger’s side dashboard appears useful, but beware.

Driver’s Seat: The SofTex 8-way power seat feels almost Lexuslike. It’s soft and supportive far beyond its price class.

But the supple faux leather really cries out for seat coolers. None were available in the RAV4, and when that’s a problem in December (pre-Polar Vortex, but still), then that’s a problem.

Friends and stuff: The rear seat is not as spacious as one might think. Headroom is fairly dear, and legroom is only OK. The center seat benefits from a very small hump, though, so obviously Toyota pushed everything upward.

Cargo space is 73.4 cubic feet with the seat folded down and 38.4 behind the second row. (A third row could almost fit back here, just like in the three-row Tiguan, where it almost fits as well.)

A shelf across the RAV4 dashboard appeared inviting, but I called it the siren shelf. It would lead one to believe it was a great holder for phone and other items, only to toss them into the sea when the going got rough.

Other cubbies around the gearshift were equally unhelpful, and the center console offered a deep cube that seemed difficult to access.

Play some tunes: Let’s take our minds off flying phones and enjoy the sound system. As usual, Toyota offers buttons for picking the source, and knobs for adjusting volume and tuning, yet there’s still a lot of time spent in the screen, and the screen itself is fairly small. Sound is pretty good, but still a little on the trebly side, as Toyotas tend to be.

Keeping warm and cool: The RAV4 features a noteworthy set of outer vents — circles that are completely directable and twistable via the vent flaps themselves. This old idea works, and more carmakers should offer something so simple.

Maladaptive: Toyota’s adaptive cruise control has been tricky in a couple of models now. Most cars I’ve tested have a silky-smooth radar, but Toyota (and Lexus) has offered me a couple of versions where it bounced pretty hard and adjusted speed abruptly upon noticing another car up ahead.

Fuel economy: The RAV4 hovered around 26 mpg, neither piggishly low nor excitingly high, about the same as the front-wheel-drive Tiguan.

Where it’s built: Cambridge, Ontario.

How it’s built: Consumer Reports gives the 2018 RAV4 a 5 out of 5 predicted reliability. Previous years have matched that number.

In the end: If you’re looking for something very different, or have to carry the kids’ soccer-playing friends on occasion, the Tiguan is your choice. The RAV4 remains best for those playing it safe. But neither offers inspired handling and performance, and definitely test out the adaptive cruise before buying a Toyota.

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