- Superb power yet great fuel economy from optional V6
- Huge cargo space with flat load floor and low load height
- Comfortable ride
- Responsive handling
- Interior has a budget feel
- Right-side hinge for tailgate impedes curbside loading
- Taller drivers are a tight fit
With so many compact crossover SUVs on the market today, it's hard to remember which brand created the idea of a small, car-based SUV. Yet it was Toyota with its then-diminutive Celica-based RAV4 that created the segment some 15 years ago, beating the rival Honda CR-V to the punch.
Of course, using the words "small" or "compact" is a bit of a stretch today, as the 2011 Toyota RAV4 is closer to a midsize crossover in terms of exterior dimensions. But Toyota has found a way to offer all that space (with seating for up to seven) while still providing impressive fuel efficiency. Indeed, today's bigger RAV4 powered by its available 269-horsepower V6 actually surpasses the fuel-economy rating of the original RAV4 with its 120-hp four-cylinder -- it delivers 1 mpg more in EPA-rated combined driving.
One of the RAV4's strengths is its ability to effortlessly make the transition from an accommodating family runabout to a pack mule. There are useful storage spaces throughout the interior and the rear seats flip down to create a cargo hold more capacious than even the midsize Ford Edge. Passenger space is also pretty good, with an optional third-row seat capable of accommodating a pair of kids. Add in the aforementioned powerful yet thrifty V6 and you can see why the RAV4 has been a favorite of Edmunds over the past few years.
That said, the RAV4 is one of the older designs in the compact crossover segment. The 2011 Chevy Equinox has a more upscale look and feel as well as a roomier backseat, while the 2011 Honda CR-V is a bit nicer inside the cabin and more responsive to driver commands as well. The 2011 Kia Sorento is also more engaging when you're behind the wheel, while the 2011 Subaru Forester is notable for its available turbocharged punch. Still, the veteran 2011 Toyota RAV4 is so well rounded that you'd be remiss if you didn't have it on your test-drive list.
WHAT'S NEW FOR 2011
For 2011, the Toyota RAV4 sees only minor changes to standard equipment and option packages.
TRIMS & EQUIPMENT
The 2011 Toyota RAV4 is a midsize crossover SUV. There are three trim levels available: base, Sport and Limited. Each one is available with front- or all-wheel drive and a choice of either a four-cylinder or V6 engine.
The base RAV4 comes standard with 16-inch steel wheels, a limited-slip differential (front-drive models only), air-conditioning, cruise control, full power accessories, keyless entry, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, height-adjustable driver seat and a six-speaker stereo with CD player and auxiliary audio jack. The base V6 4WD adds 17-inch cast-aluminum wheels.
The RAV4 Sport comes standard with 18-inch cast-aluminum wheels, color-keyed bumpers and sportier suspension tuning. The Sport Appearance package that is available on all four-cylinder and V6 4WD Sport models deletes the spare tire mounted on the rear cargo door (the model features run-flat tires instead) and adds a leather-wrapped steering wheel, heated mirrors and chrome exterior details.
The RAV4 Limited switches to the regular suspension and 17-inch cast-aluminum wheels, and adds automatic headlights (optional on the Sport), heated mirrors, hard-shell cover for the spare tire, roof rails, keyless ignition/entry, dual-zone automatic climate control and an upgraded stereo with a six-disc CD changer and satellite radio (optional on base and Sport models). All V6 models add hill-start assist and hill-descent control, which are also standard for the RAV4 four-cylinder with the optional third-row seat.
Most of the RAV4's options are grouped into packages, and their content and availability differs by the region of the U.S. in which the vehicle is offered. A third-row seat is optional on all models, as is a back-up camera with a display mounted in the rearview mirror. An Upgrade Value package for the base RAV4 includes a sunroof, roof rails, privacy glass, 17-inch cast-aluminum wheels, six-disc CD changer, steering-wheel-mounted audio controls, upgraded cloth upholstery and a cargo cover. Options available on the Sport and Limited include a sunroof, a touchscreen navigation system and a premium nine-speaker JBL stereo with Bluetooth.
The Premium package available on the Sport and Limited trim levels (though not with the third-row seat) adds leather upholstery and an eight-way power driver seat with power lumbar support. The latter item can be added separately on the Limited. V6-powered models can be equipped with a tow package.
INTERIOR & SAFETY
The RAV4's interior boasts a clean design with large, simple controls and lots of storage space. Overall interior quality is acceptable, but the Chevy Equinox and Honda CR-V make the RAV's interior look too insubstantial and budget-oriented.
Nevertheless, the Toyota RAV4 is a model of practicality. The rear seats recline and can slide fore and aft to optimize passenger space or cargo capacity. Normal seating capacity is five, while the optional third-row seat bumps it to seven. Though this seat is meant only for children, it is at least reasonably sturdy and spacious.
To configure the RAV4 for cargo, all you need to do is flip a lever on the second-row seats. There is no need to remove headrests or fold up seat cushions to get a flat load floor, and the result is an impressive 73 cubic feet of cargo capacity. The load floor is also quite low for this class, which minimizes the strain of loading a week's worth of groceries or makes it easy for a dog to climb aboard. However, the Toyota's tailgate can be an inconvenience when you're parked on the street, as it has hinges on the right side, the opposite of what you want for curbside loading in the U.S.
Antilock disc brakes, stability control, traction control, whiplash-reducing front headrests, front-seat side airbags and full-length side curtain airbags are standard on every 2011 Toyota RAV4. Vehicles equipped with the V6 and/or the optional third-row seats also come with hill-start assist and hill-descent control.
In crash tests conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the RAV4 earns a final rating of three stars, with three stars for overall front crash protection and four stars for overall side-impact protection. The RAV4 also performs well in Insurance Institute for Highway Safety tests, earning the top rating of "Good" in both the frontal-offset and side-impact crash tests. It achieves the second-best rating of "Acceptable" in the roof strength test.
PERFORMANCE & HANDLING
The 2011 Toyota RAV4 comes standard with a 2.5-liter inline-4 engine that delivers 179 hp and 172 pound-feet of torque. A four-speed automatic transmission is standard. Fuel economy for this model with front-wheel drive is 22 mpg city/28 mpg highway and 24 mpg combined, and 21/27/24 with 4WD.
A 3.5-liter V6 with a five-speed automatic transmission is optional for all trim levels of the RAV4. It produces 269 hp and 246 lb-ft of torque. In Edmunds performance testing, the RAV4 V6 4WD delivers a time from a standstill to 60 mph of 7.2 seconds -- quick for the segment. The V6 achieves an impressive 19 mpg city/27 mpg highway and 22 mpg combined for the front-wheel-drive RAV4, and these ratings change only by 1 mpg less for EPA highway when the 4WD model is selected.
Every RAV4 trim level can be matched with either front-wheel or four-wheel drive. In 4WD models, power is sent to the front wheels until tire slippage is detected and then power is also directed to the rear wheels. The torque split can be manually locked at 50 percent front/50 percent rear for driving in poor traction conditions, such as gravel or snow. With the optional tow package, the RAV4 V6 can pull as much as 3,500 pounds.
Although relatively capable off the beaten path, the 2011 Toyota RAV4 is meant for a life on pavement. Its taut suspension and precise electric-assist steering make daily errands a pleasant (although not particularly interesting) experience.
The RAV4 is not as responsive to control inputs as the Honda CR-V or Kia Sorento, but the Toyota does offer a smooth ride that's forgiving enough for commuters who drive on crumbling expressways. Road noise can be an issue at times, but wind noise is well controlled.
If we were to buy a 2011 Toyota RAV4, it would have to come with the optional V6, which generates nearly 100 hp more than the inline-4 engines offered by other models in this segment and yet also matches these four-cylinders in fuel economy. The RAV's four-cylinder version is a reasonable choice for most buyers, though, as it provides adequate power for day-to-day driving.
Spacious, comfortable and easy to drive, the 2011 Toyota RAV4 is a top pick for a small-to-midsize crossover SUV, especially if you want a V6 or a usable kid-size third-row seat.