COAL–2013 Toyota RAV4 AWD Limited: Mom, in Memoriam

I’m not having a good 2020.  Most of us aren’t.  We’re isolated, disrupted, nervous about finances and health.  We’ve been shown just what a fragile illusion our booming economy and disaster preparedness was.  The richest nation on earth, ground nearly to a halt by some protein-encapsulated RNA that jumped the species barrier. My mother spent years in healthcare, first working the overstressed and underappreciated role of registered nurse before moving on to analytics so she could see her child during normal daylight hours.  She lived alone and retired two years ago to spend time with her young grandkids and be the independent, bustling, and dynamic person that she always was.  She was supremely competent in every situation life threw at her.

When this virus hit, she knew how and why to hunker down and ride it out.  Two months ago a close friend of hers asked me to do a welfare check on her after a disconcerting radio silence.  When I did, I found that a household accident had taken her.  She was 67.

My life has since been subsumed with the disassembling of hers.  Documents, utilities, subscriptions, unclosed accounts, clothing, furniture, stockpiled canned goods and paper products.  I’ve been forced to tell stranger after stranger on the phone of her death and receive the canned condolences, because that’s what you’ve got to do to get paperwork rolling.  It’s exhausting.  I’ve spent months mulling over years now lost, the perspective and advice my young daughter will never receive.  Months trying to ignore the way she was taken out of the game decades early.  Note that I’m intentionally glossing right over the personal emotional impacts.  We were close, I’m the only child, and she formed a tight bond with my children despite her fierce independence.  I’ve since learned from her friends of how frequently she spoke of us, how exceptionally proud she was of us.   You can guess what this is like.

As executor, one of the items I’m tasked with is her 2013 Toyota RAV4.  The bright red Gramma-mobile, this fit both her extroverted personality and disciplined frugality.  It has low miles because she preferred the light rail for getting downtown to her various social and volunteer events.  It now sits in my driveway.  After months of heavy tasks, heavy thoughts, heavy writing, I need some frivolity.  I’m ready to review this car.  Why?  Because I need to see it as a thing and not a person.  Because before we can divest ourselves of it, I need to remove the emotional attachment.  Mom would appreciate seeing me come out of the fog, and she can’t get mad at me for saying mean things about it now anyway.

So as a thing, what is it?  What is this conveyance we see before us, so common that we don’t really see it at all?  A compact crossover.  What does that mean?  In this case, an AWD Corolla-platformed wagon with Camry passenger volume, Camry powertrains, supra-Camry pricing, and Corolla fit, finish, and refinement.  It held the market position of a Camry wagon…unless you wanted the Camry V6.  In which case there’s the Highlander, which was a Camry-platformed wagon with Avalon passenger volume, Avalon pricing, and Camry fit, finish, and refinement.  The pattern here is that you paid a class up relative to the sedans upon which they were based, gave up some refinement and material quality, but scored AWD and the trendy form factor.  It is not a compromise that has appealed to me, but it is market gold, Jerry. Gold!

I think of the RAV4 as the mathematical average of the 4Runner and Camry for buyers who want both yet neither.  Conveniently, we own a 2016 4Runner and a 2016 Camry XSE, so we have just the yardsticks against which to measure it.  Although my weeks with it have given me full acceptance of why this class of vehicle is popular, I don’t particularly like this thing.  At all, really.  I’m irked by flaws that time and familiarity are not smoothing over.

We must acknowledge that this is a very good crossover.  People buy them because they want SUVs that act like cars, and by that standard this RAV4 is nearly impossible to make an argument against.  It acts like an SUV in all the ways most people want small SUVs to act like SUVs.  The 38 cubic foot cargo hold is down 20% from the 4Runner but exceeds the Jeep Grand Cherokee.  The rear seats fold flat for 73 cubic feet of volume (beating the JGC again), 43 inches of width between the wheel wells, and a low liftover height.  Unibody construction allows some brilliant interior packaging and the RAV4 is among the best of the breed in extracting maximum volume from the footprint.  This is a handy little moving van that hauled some bulky stuff.

The AWD system doesn’t compare to the 4Runner’s part-time low-range 4WD off road, but it requires no driver input for winter traction and that’s really all anyone wants from it.  You can engage the locking center differential for 50:50 distribution between axles for low-speed situations, and that is somewhat unique and probably never used. It is at odds with the modest 6.3 inches of ground clearance.  However, with stubby overhangs and a 29 degree approach angle, it allowed us to easily scale a steep loose-sand stream crossing to an isolated rental property for a family weekend with Mom a few years ago that I, in retrospect, am immensely grateful for.  A sedan or minivan couldn’t have done it.  So stripes earned.

Down on ground clearance to Subarus, but a better approach angle

The RAV4 also acts like a sedan.  This is to say that it doesn’t act like an SUV in all the ways most people don’t want their small SUV to act like an SUV.  It has the easy-breezy drivability of a compact car.  Everything is approachable, friendly, and low effort.  Freeway manners and handling are far more direct than the 4Runner.  You slide right into the seats rather than climbing up or dropping down.  Big rear door openings and a higher seating position ease the loading of car seats. The backseat is huge, and the front is roomy and airy.  I don’t have to exert myself or engage with the vehicle much at all, it practically operates itself.  All of this is by design, the classic crossover formula that has won over buyers by making daily life easier.  Home run, it is no wonder these sell.

Sitting behind myself at 5’11”.  Always match your pants to the upholstery.

However, there are big compromises.  Remember that an average is also a dilution of the extremes, and any merit those extremes may have.  The 4Runner is in another universe of off-pavement capability, towing, and mechanical durability under hard use.   At the other end, the Camry is tangibly superior to the RAV4 on pavement.  Steering response and body control are sharper, the ride is less compromised, it’s far more confident in turns and on 80 mph freeways without sacrificing any comfort to the RAV4.   I often drive a winding mountain road early in the morning to a local trailhead, and our Camry is surprisingly enjoyable to chuck through the curves well over the limit.  This RAV4 simply isn’t, even if the ultimate pace probably is not far off.

Big doors, big legroom, bring on the rear-facing carseats

Nothing about the driving experience is memorable except for the harsh suspension tune that enables this tall wagon to contradict its center of gravity.  Abrupt road bumps are met with a jarring THWACK! from the rear end.  The ride is generally busy and nervous.  Too much wind rush and road roar enter the cabin on the freeway, though not at classic Honda levels.  On the plus side, the structure feels quite solid and flex-free given the modest Corolla platform and I haven’t heard any squeaks or chronic rattles.

The ergonomic HVAC array means these get tucked forward of the shifter where they are hard to reach

The RAV4 uses the same 2.5L four-cylinder and 6 speed automatic as the Camry, but the additional curb weight and reduced sound insulation make it feel like a full class down.  I’m frequently modulating the accelerator to counter the transmission’s aggressive upshift logic, trying to get it to respond in the more intuitive manner of the Camry, trying to get it to build revs in this heavier car just a bit longer so it doesn’t completely fall out of the power band on the upshift.  It feels sluggish in the aggressively yo-yoing traffic of the suburban expressway in a way I can’t explain from the decent 8.5 second 0-60 time that is only a half second off the sprightlier-feeling Camry.  Sport mode helps, but shifts become harsher and you have to push the button at each startup.  Don’t ever touch the Eco button.

None of the three needles move very quickly

There are some peculiar NVH characteristics with the 2.5L.  Whether in the Camry or here, it makes vacuum cleaner noises when operating below 3000 rpm or so.  It whirs and it groans, it hums and it moans.   In the Camry, the vacuum is operating in the next house…very distant and unobtrusive.  In the RAV4, it’s hoovering the bedroom down the hall, and it gets irritating.  The solution is to drive it a bit more assertively, so it revs above this weird low-rpm zone and sounds more normal.  It still spins up very smoothly, but whatever they yanked out of the hood and firewall took the Camry’s aural refinement with it.

Fuel economy is pretty good, rated 22/29 mpg city/highway.  I didn’t have trouble achieving 31-32 mpg during my 70-75mph freeway runs.  That’s excellent compared to the burn rate of the 4Runner, but the Camry will get 37mpg under the same conditions and is far less sensitive to headwinds that can drop the RAV4 mileage in a hurry.

The red and two-tone interior look nice on approach

The tan Softex imitation leather pairs with the dashboard brightwork and exterior red paint in a way that leaves a good first visual impression.  It’s a pleasant material to touch.  Toyota smartly put a big swath of it across the center dash, right in line of sight and right where your hand naturally comes into contact with it when pressing the starter button or using the ergonomically excellent climate control array.  The door armrests have it too.  It’s nice.

This panel is tilted perfectly for your hand

That may have been where all of the interior budget went.  Even in this top-shelf Limited, everything else is hard plastic.  The gated shifter moves with cheapness, the center console armrest is inexcusably flimsy, and if the climate and volume dials have sat in the sun they squeak and bind when turned due to the thermal expansion.  That’s a new one on me.  The glovebox is unlit and unlockable, the doors lack puddle lamps, the passenger seat is 4-way manual, only the driver’s window has auto up/down, the heated seats are only 2-way.  Both front doors resonate with a cheap whango! when closing.  These are flaws generally not present in our 4Runner and Camry.  The memory driver seat earns back a few points.

I don’t like the compromised nature of this car, but is that a crossover problem or a Toyota problem?  Both.  Some of this stuff is just baked into the formula.  Yet, I think you could have done better with two or three competitors in 2013 if the long term durability this RAV4 has locked down wasn’t your top priority.  I’d be looking at the Forester, Escape, and CX-5, in that order.  They’ve all got substantial flaws, but a varying list of pros that align more with my preferences.  The rest of the field was bleak. The CR-V was as exciting as a bowl of oatmeal and the interior was also cheap, so the decision between Toyota and Honda was GE vs. Whirlpool.  Nissan? No. Chevy? No. Hyundai and Kia? Rapidly advancing, but not there yet.

The 2013 RAV4, in typical Toyota fashion, nailed most fundamentals for the segment.  It is an exemplary long-term transportation and utility tool for those who do not care about the minutiae that some car people thrive on.   However, it provides little else.  Perhaps nothing else.  There was a time when the RAV4 was spunky and fun, and larger Toyotas were unusually refined.  This one is neither.  It has the original RAV’s economy vibe without the character, the large Toyota price and competence without the refinement.  I’m generally a vocal defender of the brand and tend to scoff when enthusiasts project their niche criteria a little too strongly onto everyday vehicles, but I’m joining their chorus here.  Toyota could have done better, for the enthusiast and non-enthusiast alike.  As an average of 4Runner and Camry, I feel the sum has been divided by a factor greater than 2.

This was cathartic to write, Mom.  It helped me peel away the emotional association with this car so I can handle it as a commodity, rather than feeling as if we are erasing part of you.  You didn’t seem to identify very strongly with it, even if your fiscal discipline and future time orientation were evident here.   I would have liked to see you ripping away from stop lights every now and then in a 3.7 Mustang or bright red Accord V6 coupe for the same general price as this left-brain choice.  Maybe even splurged a bit for the 5.0 GT or a practical 328i xDrive wagon.  You deserved it.

Ah well, look who’s projecting now.  Your priorities were elsewhere and rightfully so.  You were a refutation of the tired enthusiast trope of boring cars are bought by boring people.  Unlike this practical runabout, you were a character who will be fondly remembered for a long time by a lot of people.  See you on the other side, Mom.  We miss you.