Over the years, the compact little runabout that established and defined the car-based sport-utility-vehicle segment had become one of the smaller commuters in its class and one of the few that did not offer a six cylinder engine as an option.
The 2006 RAV4 has gained both inches and cylinders to remain competitive, which means that this once smallish vehicle has gone from one end of the spectrum to the other and not with mere incremental gains. It’s a whopping 14.5 inches longer, 3.2 inches wider and rides on a wheelbase that has grown by 6.7 inches. The added space has provided room for the segment’s first and, thus far, only third-row seat. More size means about 400 pounds more overall weight, which, for some drivers, might test their patience with standard 2.4-liter four-cylinder that gains just five horsepower (to 166) for 2006.
Of course, that leads us to the big news, that the RAV4 is now available with an optional 269- horsepower 3.5-liter V6 (borrowed from the Avalon sedan) that allows it to seriously outgun absolutely anything in its class and even many larger vehicles. Both engines receive automatic transmissions (no manual is offered).
Four-cylinder models are rated to tow up to 1,500 pounds, while V6 models can haul up to 3,500.
Even with its extra size and bulk, the new RAV4 is still considerably smaller than vehicles such as the Toyota Highlander and the Ford Explorer but it hardly qualifies for “cute ute” status any longer. Visually, the style has grown up, too, with a more up-to-date and beefier appearance.
The added width becomes evident with less shoulder-rubbing than before. The big difference is in the second row where there’s real room for full-size people. The additional space is right where buyers will be able to use it.
The second seat slides forward and back, allowing a choice of more cargo room or more leg room, depending on the immediate priority. The seat also flips and folds flat atop the cargo floor, either with a lever on the side or a remote handle in the cargo area. The third seat is really an occasional piece that’s good for short bursts with small children. It folds flush to the floor when not required. Models not equipped with the third row — the way the vast majority of RAV4s will no doubt be ordered — come with a large covered storage bin beneath the cargo floor.
On the safety front, the RAV4 comes with standard anti-lock brakes and electronic stability control to keep the vehicle traveling where the driver intends. The top of the three-model heap — the Limited — adds hill-start assist (to keep the RAV from rolling backward when taking off on an incline) and downhill assist (to keep the RAV from freight-training forward down a steep grade) as well as side-curtain airbags.
In an interesting development, the stability-control system works in conjunction with the power steering to encourage proper driver action in an emergency. In the initial stages of a skid, if the driver makes the proper steering input (i.e. in the direction of the skid) the power assist remains in effect. If, however, the driver moves the wheel in the wrong direction (i.e. away from the direction of the skid), the power assist is removed and the steering tightens up.
Although front-wheel drive is standard, a new optional “slip-and- grip” all-wheel-drive system replaces the previous full-time unit. It operates in front drive until wheel slip occurs, at which point some power is diverted to the rear.
The new independent rear suspension uses horizontally mounted shock absorbers to help make room for the third-row seat. The result is a more car-like ride and arguably the best handling in the segment.
Although the proportions remain the same, there is nothing small about the newest RAV4. It approaches the size of a Highlander and when equipped with the V6 it actually feels stronger. It’s a big move for a small sport-utility vehicle.