New entry-level RAV4 offers plenty of metal for your money, writes David Linklater

The entry-level Toyota RAV4 is best described as a Corolla wagon. Yes, I know there is already a car with that name, but it has a lot less in common with the Corolla we all know - the five-door hatchback - than this new RAV.

For a start, the actual Corolla wagon doesn't look anything like its namesake. That's because it's a special model designed for the Japanese domestic market (New Zealand is the one and only export destination), which has an enormous appetite for compact utility wagons. Usually in white with some writing on the side.

The Corolla wagon is cheaper than any of the hatchback models, which is not a bad thing, but then it is smaller and powered by a modest 1.5-litre engine. Not shared with any other Corolla.

Here in New Zealand, we have an enormous appetite for crossover-type vehicles. The RAV4 is the fourth generation of a model line that actually pioneered the whole genre, so it's off to a good start.


Now, opt for the entry-level RAV4 and you get a powertrain not offered in any other model in the range: a 107kW/187Nm 2.0-litre petrol engine with Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) and front-drive. It's very close to what you get in the latest Corolla (1.8-litre, 103kW/175Nm, CVT).

So please, welcome the new Corolla wagon, from the RAV4 division. At $39,990, the GX slots in just above the flagship Corolla hatch, which makes sense as it offers so much more metal for your money. There's a more luxurious GXL model available too, at $44,490. That's still a fair step down from the least expensive all-wheel drive model, which is priced at $47,290. Worth serious consideration, in other words.

Crossovers being something of a fashion statement (you know it's true), it's probably also worth pointing out that you'd be hard-pressed to pick a RAV4 GX or GXL in front-drive form over their AWD equivalents.

You will from behind the wheel, though. The 107kW/187Nm 2.0-litre engine has 25kW/46Nm less than the 2.5-litre powerplant fitted to the petrol AWD models. That's not such a big deal on its own, but the CVT may be an acquired taste - especially if you've sampled the excellent six-speed automatic transmission in the AWD versions.

The latest CVT technology has many fans. I'm not one of them, but the technology has certainly come along in leaps and bounds over the last five years. It's also very much favoured by Japanese makers, so even if you don't like it you'll have to get used to it. Toyota's has a particular shift protocol that makes extra effort to match engine speed more closely to road speed - something that often doesn't happen in a CVT under hard acceleration - and it definitely does a nice job of keeping the over-revving under wraps.

This CVT also has Eco, Sport and "Shiftmatic Manual" modes. The latter allows you to click between seven different steps using a pseudo-manual lever, but it's not the same as the real thing. CVT still disengages the driver compared with conventional automatic or manual gearboxes.

The latest RAV4 has a surprisingly firm chassis. Perhaps that's not so surprising given that it's really not an off-roader, so with CVT and good levels of on-road grip you won't necessarily be lamenting the loss of AWD. Or perhaps even notice at all, unless you're driving exceptionally hard or on very slippery ground. The front-drive RAV4 has a unique traction control function that acts as an electronic limited-slip differential.

Design-wise, the RAV4 treads the middle ground. Plenty of styling cues are shared with Corolla, and sheer size means the RAV4 is tremendously practical. Luggage space of 507 litres is the stuff of big-six-sedans.

Having a front-drive crossover is nothing to be ashamed of in this segment. Everybody's doing it, with the exception of two brands: Subaru (Forester) and Ford (Kuga). There's only one slightly embarrassing stat: the RAV4 can't tow as much as Corolla (800kg versus 1300kg). But keep quiet about that and it'll be sweet.