COAL: 2011 Toyota RAV4 AWD – Uncommonly Good




(First posted 1/5/2014) The RAV4 is one of those cars that for some reason I’ve always liked but especially so in base form.  It’s always seemed fairly sensible and doesn’t try to be something it is not.  So as we were sitting around at Christmastime 2010 and started seeing the current lease deal on TV, I realized that I might actually be happy with the “teaser” version that was being offered for $199/month…

So we talked about it and decided to take a look.  The thinking was we were going to unload the Honda Civic Hybrid and the Tahoe soon anyway (but not just yet) and that this might now be a good car for around town and other duties.  Upon arriving at the local dealer, I met the internet sales rep who was a no BS kind of guy.  He confirmed what I had seen on TV and showed me half a dozen RAV4s that fit the spec.  He offered keys to whichever I wanted to try, so we pointed at the first one in line and my wife and I took it for a ride.  Nice, actually very nice.  When we got back I asked if they had a black one (they did) so I said OK, let’s do this.


After a short bit of paperwork (no hassles whatsoever) and a few signatures, we were on our way.  It was that easy.  Amazing how two people who were starting over, had both quit their jobs, and with no current income had no problem getting financing on a car just because their credit was excellent. Our old house in CA was closing that day as well so we had cash to show, but I kind of thought they would want more than they did.  

Back Camera

First day of ownership, safely tucked in garage

So what did we get?  Well, for $199/month over a 4-year term with nothing out of pocket, except for the government fees and taxes, we now had a brand new Toyota RAV4 with AWD, a 2.5liter 4cylinder engine, 4-speed automatic transmission, gray cloth interior, stability control, airbags everywhere, power windows/locks, AC, CD player, cruise control,  floormats, 17” wheels, tinted windows, and roof rails.  Not what comes to mind when I think base, but the minimum standards have apparently increased quite a bit. I believe the roof rails, the 17” steel wheels, and tinted windows were actually part of some kind of value package that was discounted back to zero on the sticker.


RAV4s for North America are assembled both in Canada and Japan.  Ours was from Japan which I did not expect; I figured here in Colorado we’d get the Canadian one instead.  In Japan, the RAV4 is built at Toyota’s sprawling Tahara plant, which is apparently their highest quality plant and which also builds the flagship Lexus LS460, amongst many other models. 


The engine is a 2.5liter 4cylinder that is also used in the Camry of all things as well as the Scion tC and probably others as well.  This engine produces 178hp@6000rpm and 172lb-ft of torque at 4000rpm.  There was also a V6 available, and when I asked the salesman about it, he told me that I should drive the four cylinder first.  If I liked it, I was told NOT to try the 6 because if I did, I would want that.  Good advice, so I have never driven the six cylinder but it is interesting to note that for a time the RAV4 with the V6 was the fastest car Toyota offered in the US.  Perhaps that says more about the company’s absence of sporty offerings for several years.

Anyway, the engine was great.  Smooth, refined, willing to rev and very quiet when cruising.  The transmission was also good.  I don’t know why everyone is always going on about how horrible a 4-speed transmission is.  These are usually the same people as those moaning about how expensive new cars are.  In my mind, this particular one, at least, is a well developed, proven, reliable design that is probably inexpensive to build and repair compared to a newer design with up to twice as many ratios.  If it’s not broken, why change it?


Since I had chosen a black one, the unpainted plastic door handles and mirrors blended right in.  On the upper level Sport and Limited versions they are body color and interestingly, Toyota offers all three trim levels with both engines and both drive configurations (2WD/AWD), not something that every manufacturer does.

I actually like the 17” steel wheel design (as I do on the CRV competitor as well).  It is large enough to look decent and the style looks like someone actually did what they could rather than just stamping out something round and made of metal.  As a bonus, it comes with a matching 5th one mounted to the tailgate under a hard plastic cover: no space saver here!  That hatch is side-hinged, but still hung correctly for right hand drive markets, which sucks when you are parallel parked and need to load or unload curbside without a ton of room behind you (such as when another car is parked there).


The cabin did not have many frills, but was no-nonsense and very functional.  The steering wheel felt good and had controls for a mini trip computer built in.  The audio system sounded fine, the HVAC controls were manual dials (yay!) and visibility was excellent.  The dual glove boxes were also a nice bonus, very handy.  As a bonus, the rear seats could slide fore and aft, either creating more leg room or more cargo room.  We did not have the 3rd row option that was available.


One thing I was never thrilled with but figured I could live with (erroneously, as it bothered me the entire time I had it) was the seat fabric.  It was a light gray color with a hideous pattern.  The upper trim level had much nicer fabric (or leather).  I always thought about buying a leather kit, but my wife always said it was a waste on a leased car.  I suppose she was right, but the few hundred dollars would have done wonders for the interior, if only in my mind.


The AWD system is an automatic one with a twist.  Normally the car is front wheel drive.  As soon as it detects slip, it routes some power to the back which then results in good forward progress in snow and icy conditions.  However, there is a button on the dash just to the left of the radio that locks the front and back together (electronically, I assume) up to 25mph, at which point it disengages.  This is a very useful feature when driving in deep snow or in very heavy weather (but only in slow speed conditions) as it precludes having to wait for front slippage.  No matter what any manufacturer says, transferring power between axles is never instantaneous and there is always some lag time. 


When we bought it, it was right around the time that Toyota had their “troubles,” and the company introduced a free maintenance program for a 2-year, 25000 mile term for every car.  With oil changes spec’d at 5000 mile intervals, this was a nice little perk.  I was a little surprised, however, that soon before the first oil change, the AUX input jack for my iPod stopped working.  I ignored it until the oil change, then mentioned it and it turned out that they had to order a new jack so I had to return a few days later for a second visit.  Not a big deal, but also not something I’d ever heard of failing.


I took my two bigger kids skiing in it a few times and it was great heading up into the Rockies.  My daughter rediscovered her susceptibility to nausea so there were a few fraught incidents of trying to get the car to the side of the road in a huge hurry.  Of course, once we started carrying a “kit” consisting of a few plastic bags, towels, wipes, and spare clothing, most of that went away.  Weird how once you properly prepare, the event never happens.

Back Camera

My daughter and I took a road trip in it the summer of 2011.  My mother was a Camp Host at Lake Kintla in Glacier National Park for the season (for you non-campers out there, a Camp Host is to a real Ranger as a Mall Cop is to an LAPD officer – but they do carry Bearspray so don’t mess with them.)  We decided that it might be fun to surprise her, so we decided to do a father-daughter trip for a week.  Properly provisioned with a tent, sleeping bags, and lots of s’more supplies, we headed north. 

Back Camera

I thought this was in the Deep South!

The RAV4 liked to cruise at a steady 80-85mph with no problems, while returning 26 or so mpg as long as the terrain was more or less flat.  We headed through Wyoming and into Montana.  I was very surprised to see signs for Little Big Horn as I had always assumed that Custer’s Last Stand had taken place in the Deep South. 

Back Camera

On the way home, we stopped off there; it is a very interesting place to spend some time and learn its history (beyond what I picked up in 8th grade history class) and see the National Cemetery as well.

Back Camera

On the second afternoon we reached Glacier National Park.  My mom had been here before and from what she told me, I recalled that Kintla Lake is the most remote lake, the other side of which is actually Canada.  The road in is an unpaved, unmaintained dirt road that, although being only 12 miles long, takes over an hour to get through.

Back Camera

So we found the proper turn off and at first there was just a well graded wide dirt road with good sight lines.  Soon enough, I was attempting to drift the little RAV4 through the sweepers until my daughter yelling at me to stop put an end to that.  After about 15 minutes the road turns rocky and then there is a general store.  After that, the road gets really bad with many mud and potholes, bad ruts, and trees overhanging it, the trail is only one car width for much of its remainder.

It took us over an hour to get through.  Not being an off-roader I was quite proud of my accomplishment and the RAV4’s performance.  I didn’t see how anyone could have done it in a lesser car.  After we got to camp and pulled into an empty campsite I relived the epic adventure in my mind while unpacking the car. I felt like quite the explorer as all the other cars I saw in the camp were comprised of Jeeps, a couple of older Land Rovers and a few large 4×4’s.

Back Camera

The feeling was short lived as ten minutes after we arrived, two ladies showed up driving an older Subaru Impreza.  It got worse as five minutes after that, an ’80s-vintage Buick Regal with wire wheel covers and four shirtless young guys arrived while towing a trailer loaded with several canoes.  So much for my accomplishment.  Later, more regular cars arrived just to rub it in.

Back Camera

Canada is visible in the back of the picture around the bend in the lake. Many of our regular readers are beyond that mountain.

My mom was not there initially but about an hour later, I heard my daughter yell “Grandma!” and there she was, returning from a hike.  She was very surprised and delighted to see us.  We spent the next couple of days there canoeing, fishing, and constantly looking around nervously for bears.  

Back Camera

Somewhere in Montana or Wyoming, this is a huge wind turbine blade in a town near a giant wind farm, this blade got damaged in shipping and was installed in a park. There was no wind the day we were there.

When it was time to go we packed everything up again and drove back out the terrible road and then headed back towards home but spent less time on the interstates and more on the highways in order to see more sights.  It was a great trip, with good quality time with my daughter and no issues with the car.

Back Camera

Montana; Dinosaur Center and Rock Shop. Oh, and Bathroom. Not to be missed…

A year and a half after we had gotten the car we were quite settled in our new town.  We were moving to another house in the same subdivision, our work (yes, we had started working again!) was going well and we were ready to move on car-wise.  So as I had done in California the last time I leased a car, I looked into selling it and realized that as opposed to California, if you sell a leased car, you cannot transfer title directly to the buyer. First for an instant it becomes yours, ALL of the sales tax comes due from you, then the buyer receives title and they pay tax AGAIN.  This is ridiculous but there was seemingly no way around it unless I either was or used a licensed dealer. 

Since I had a buyer lined up, I approached an acquaintance of mine who was a licensed car broker.  He said he would be willing to facilitate the transaction for $500 which I calculated would get me out of the car without losing anything.  This was acceptable to me as other local dealers I checked with all wanted more even though I already had the buyer in hand.  Greedy bastards.  Ultimately, my friend ended up sending me a check for around $1100, which apparently was money returned by Toyota Financial Services as it appears that they will sell a leased car to a dealer for less than they will let you, the owner, pay the lease off for directly.  In any case, I was happy with how it turned out. 


In the end, the RAV4 was a great car, one I would not hesitate to recommend to anyone, including my mother (and I did but she got a Subaru instead).  It looks good, is built well, is durable and economical, with proven materials and excellent resale value.  What more could you want?