THE first thing that struck me about the latest, fifth-generation of the Toyota's popular RAV4 is its size.
When it was first launched in 1994, it was a diddy, compact ‘soft-roader' while it is now a full-size family SUV.
And, while most things have increased in stature over the last 26 years, the RAV4 looks rugged and muscular, definitely not portly.
The new RAV is chunky and angular, I still have the more rounded edges of its earliest predecessor.
The fifth-generation RAV4 was originally available with just a 2.5-litre, four-cylinder petrol-electric ‘self-charging hybrid' engine mated to an electric CVT transmission, however a plug-in version has just become available.
Now offering 215bhp in front-wheel drive form, it is more powerful, more responsive and more efficient than its predecessor. While the official combined fuel economy for the Toyota RAV4 Hybrid is 51.4mpg, with CO2 emissions of 105 g/km, I achieved a creditable 47.7mpg.
The RAV4 is underpinned by the first use of Toyota's new GA-K platform in an SUV. With its low centre of gravity and significantly increased body rigidity, it not only helps improve handling and ride comfort but also offers a spacious interior and class-leading load space.
A reduction the front and rear overhangs means the new model is shorter overall, but the wheelbase has been slightly increased, so the cabin is more spacious. To add to the RAV4's new purposeful, wide stance, overall width has grown by 10mm and the front and rear tracks have been increased.
This means there's more elbow room for rear seat passengers, more spacious rear footwells and the opening angle of the rear doors has been increased to make getting into and out of the vehicle easier.
While perhaps not ‘luxurious' the RAV4's cabin is a nice place to spend time in with plenty of soft touch surfaces, including the dashboard and door panels, and pleasingly tactile switchgear. There's also plenty of useful and easily accessible storage for the driver and front passenger.
With all seats in place, the cargo area has a capacity of 580 litres, 79 litres more than the previous generation RAV4. The load space behind the rear seats has been made larger and more user-friendly thanks to a fully flat floor and a length extended by 60mm.
Toyota says with the rear seats folded, it can accommodate a 29-inch mountain bike without any wheels having to be removed. Not being a fan of two wheels I can't comment but I wouldn't disagree.
Because of its TNGA underpinnings and the fact the RAV4's new body is 57 per cent more rigid, its handling is now much better.
It's surprisingly capable on twisty roads for an SUV, with much less body roll than you'd expect. Response from the electric power steering has been improved by moving the assist motor from the column to the rack.
The result is a more direct feel to the driver as the steering loads up, the front end turns in crisply, and gives more faithful line tracing through corners.
Adjustments have also been made to the rear suspension to provide better ride comfort.
The noisy CVT gearbox is still a sticking point for me, due to its lack of instant response and tendency to rack up the revs with very little result but, adopt a smooth, relaxed approach and it's much more amenable.
The RAV4 is available in four equipment grades - Icon, Design, Dynamic and Excel, with generous equipment across the range.
The Excel version features dual-zone air conditioning, rear parking sensors and camera, automatic headlights and wipers, an eight-inch touchscreen infotainment system with sat nav, keyless entry and ignition, a powered tailgate, front parking sensors and 19-inch wheels, with leather upholstery, heated front seats with electric adjustment on the driver's seat, a heated steering wheel, and headlight washers.
All RAV4 models get Toyota's excellent Safety Sense 2 battery of gizmos as standard, so it was a cinch to score the full five stars in the Euro NCAP crash tests.
The package brings intelligent adaptive cruise control with lane departure warning and steering assist, a pre-collision system including pedestrian detection, automatic high beam headlights and road sign recognition.