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Old 04-18-2007, 01:00 PM
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Arrow Toyota's RAV4 grows up

Like people, vehicles create first impressions. My initial reaction to Toyota's RAV4 wasn't particularly favorable when we were introduced in the winter of 1996.

The RAV4 had just become America's first compact, crossover SUV and I spent a week with it that included six hours on the highway. I wasn't terribly impressed with my traveling partner, who was small and noisy. And with just 120 horsepower under the hood, he was a bit of a wimp.

But like the scrawny guy who turns into a muscular bodybuilder, the RAV4 has grown up. The third-generation RAV4, which debuted as a 2006 model, is substantially bigger, stronger, and more refined than its predecessors.

Its increased size was the first thing I noticed. The new RAV4 is around 14 inches longer and 3.2 inches wider than the second-generation model, and that one was noticeably larger than the original. The additional size translates into much more passenger room, an extra 5 square feet of cargo room and available third-row seating.

Yet the RAV4 is still classified as a compact SUV and it lives up to that billing in both purchasing and operating costs. The least expensive model in a lineup is $21,000. That's considerably more than the original RAV4, but what hasn't gone up in price over the past 11 years?

Gasoline prices certainly have, so RAV4 buyers will be happy to know that the enlarged vehicle still gets good gas mileage. The most economical model, a two-wheel drive with four-cylinder engine, earns a 24 city/30 highway mpg rating. And even the thirstiest 2007 RAV4, which I drove, is rated 21 city/28 highway.

That is surprisingly close to 22/27 mileage rating of the 1996 RAV4. Actually, surprising may be too mild a word because the original earned its rating with a 120-horsepower four-cylinder engine, whereas my test vehicle had a 269-horsepower V6.

The V6 enabled it to live up to its "Sport" designation, propelling the RAV4 from zero to 60 mph in under 7 seconds. I recall the original taking a couple of hours to reach that speed.

That exaggeration aside, the third-gen RAV4 is the first available with a V6 and it provides a dramatic power boost over the new model's other engine choice, a 166-horsepower four. It also adds about $2,000 to the RAV4's price, give or take a few bucks depending on the trim level.

The Sport falls between the Base and Limited models in price and standard equipment. Its $26,000 starting price may surprise first-time RAV4 shoppers but it includes a lot of features in addition to the peppy engine.

I'm sure the four-cylinder is adequate but given the comparable fuel economy I'd order my RAV4 with the V6. It truly gives the buggy a vibrant personality. The test vehicle was not only quick off the line, but it passed effortlessly on the highway. In both regards it feels more like a sport touring sedan than a compact SUV.

The engine's smoothness and quietness also contributed to a sense of overall refinement that elevates the third-gen RAV4 to a new performance plateau. Passengers are well isolated from wind and road noise and treated to a comfortable ride on all road conditions.

It all adds up to a package that is far more appealing than the original RAV4. I'm still not a fan of the side-hinged tailgate which seems less convenient than a liftgate or the external spare, both of which date back to the original. But the RAV4 has changed so dramatically in nearly every other way that it bears little resemblance to the original and that's just fine with me.

Scott Wasser is a freelance auto writer who has been reporting on cars and motorcycles since 1988. E-mail him at carguysw@aol.com. 1/3/?*=(( I_5 1/3/?*=((

Source: [url=http://www.pennlive.com/business/expresstimes/index.ssf?/base/business-1/1176697067105230.xml&coll=2]Penn Live[/url]
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