The 2016 Toyota RAV4 Actually Deserves Its Popularity

Get ready for an AWD, Toyota-badged gut-check.

2016 Toyota RAV4
Toyota

Prolechariot is a series about vehicular value. It's about slapping your needs and wants on a wall, grabbing a fistful of darts, cocking your arm back and trying to strike as many of your targets as possible. In other words, it’s about making the second-largest purchase decision most Americans face, and making it right. Prolechariots are cars for the rest of us, and Jonathan Schultz is driving them. Up this week: the 2016 Toyota RAV4 XLE AWD.

Check your wallet, America. Is there $34,264 in there? Hey, congrats! That buys one of those fancy “Cadillac” health plans (for a year), 12,930 Venti coffees at Starbucks (non-iced), 263 yearlong digital cable-internet combo packages, or a new car at the nationwide average price. As consumers, we sometimes stumble into financial obligations without scrutinizing our motives or the merits of our purchases. Want some coffee? Make it a 20-ouncer. Twelve home-decorating channels? Turn on; spruce up; tune out. A sale on shoes we’re only mildly interested in? Lace up, sneaker-freaker.

Toyota

For many years, that was Prolechariot’s view of Toyota RAV4 customers. Take the world’s largest carmaker by sales volume, engineer a vehicle that splits the difference between a Land Cruiser and a Corolla, swing wide the dealership doors, and watch the drones fall into line. Prolechariot presumed that RAV4 buyers sleepwalked to the showroom, put their money down, and motored away in one fluid motion, without so much as a test drive.

Sometimes, it’s not just humble pie you must eat, but cyanide. The 2016 Toyota RAV4 XLE AWD, which Prolechariot spent a recent week with, does not indulge every Prolecharian impulse, but then again no compact crossover—with possible exceptions of the Kia Sportage SX and Mazda CX-5—will be mistaken for a Miata. Rather, the RAV4 makes the ultimate case for the compact crossover by being quite good at everything that's asked of it.

Like the Camry, which The Drive’s wrench-in-residence Benjamin Preston felt compelled to defend last year, the RAV4 might be considered an unimaginative—if not outright lazy—purchase, especially when more engaging and compelling products are out there. Yet few of those products are as suited to the raw, thankless business of Quotidian American Existence as the RAV4.

Toyota

Mmmm… suitability is soooo sexy, the droll Prolecharian says. But can you actually enjoy a RAV4? In the case of Prolechariot’s test model, that is the $29,095 question.

Here are the five things you need to know about the 2016 Toyota RAV4 XLE AWD.

1. It Hauls

Prolechariot doesn’t regularly load dirt bikes into the hatch area of its compact crossovers, but the bed height of the RAV4 nevertheless makes the cogs turn mischievously. Real talk: It was my wife who noted the ease of loading bundles, strollers, and the like behind the RAV’s 60/40 rear bench seat. The aperture is massive and low—a clean, judiciously carved opening unsullied by some marauding exterior designer’s idea of what a D-pillar should look like.

At minimum, you’re propping up a plywood ramp and wheeling the lawn mower in for servicing. Or maybe smuggling 32 beach balls. Whatever. It works. With 73.4 cubic feet of cargo space behind the front seats—more than the Nissan Rogue SV, a crossover that can be equipped with a third row—the RAV4 can haul.

Toyota

2. Toyota Can’t Fool a Prolecharian

Few mainstream carmakers, Nissan notwithstanding, make more perplexing interior design decisions than Toyota. For every piece of ingenuity brought to the ’16 RAV4—cup holders that can accommodate a travel mug's handle, a smooth-acting four-inch TFT screen between the tach and speedo, a discreet cubby cutout above the glovebox—there is always something a little . . . off.

For Prolechariot, that something is a puffy protrusion on the RAV4 XLE’s dash, where the engine start button and HVAC controls live. There are no airbags housed in this thing, no apparent braces or any other rigidity feature. It’s just a slice of baleen blubber grafted onto the instrument panel for styling’s sake—and in our XLE AWD, it was covered in the most offensive pleather this side of a ’78 Mitsubishi Sapporo. Not cool.

Overall, though, the RAV4’s cabin won’t make you wonder where your 29 grand went. Toyota deigned to sprinkle soft-touch materials liberally throughout the ’16, a welcome departure from the chintzy plastic smudge magnets previously found in RAV4s. The leather-wrapped wheel and cloth bucket seats look and feel game for some hard wearing.

And like Ford, with its Sync multimedia system, Toyota seems to have finally shaken out the goblins from its Entune mousetrap. Icons are clearly distinguishable at a glance, with smooth, hiccup-free operation between apps.

Toyota

3. RAV4: Adventure-mobile?

In New York, where Prolecharians eke out a meager but proud existence, the bazooka-strafed streets and highways offer good facsimiles of what would pass for soft-roading in the rest of the country. Don’t think gravel road; think gravel road after a rainstorm, with washboard ridges and protruding rocks. Big ones.

In high summer, the RAV4 XLE reckons with the previous winter’s legacy. (For a refresher, see this, this and/or this.) Prolechariot’s RAV was lugging roughly 130 pounds of dead-weight all-wheel-drive equipment, but from what the RAV showed us in the dry, it should make a fine winter mobile (provided a set of Blizzaks or similar, of course).

Summer in the city means cross-streets and avenues chopped to bits by regrading equipment, and the RAV4 XLE was quiet and unflustered by the variable surfaces, its all-seasons an extension of its deftly calibrated MacPherson strut and double wishbones. Glinting in the July sun, the RAV’s Black Currant paint would befit a Lexus GX riding on dubs. The look is rich, and even the RAV’s arachnoid new face, peeking out over a 28-inch approach angle, gives the car an aggro and distinctly Dakar flavor.

4. It—gasp!—Goes

Prolecharians might be surprised to learn that Toyota still equips its best-selling models, the Camry and RAV4, with conventional six-speed automatic transmissions, thus sparing drivers the worst tendencies of CVTs: thrash, noise, and smothered torque. The six-speed in the RAV4 XLE is no paragon, prone to getting flummoxed in low gears by hills and the urban shuffle, but it reads unambiguously the message beneath a heavy right foot.

The 2.5-liter four could be mistaken for a Subaru boxer, so eager is it to hit the meat of its torque band, and at a surprisingly high 4,100 rpm. Press the Sport button (tucked like an afterthought below the dash’s baleen blubber) and the transmission will even let you use that thrust. There’s more than enough to merge, overtake, and beat fellow motorists off the line.

Prolechariot’s charity runs dry, however, at the steering rack. Toyota claims that selecting Sport tightens things up, but there was no appreciable improvement to the wheel’s default limpness and detachment. Remember those irregular road surfaces? The wheel barely swings beneath a Prolecharian’s palms. What we would give for half of the Mazda CX-5’s steering feel.

Toyota

5. Which Brings Us to: Desirability

As presented, the 2016 Toyota RAV4 XLE AWD is at the vanguard of mainstream compact crossovers. It’s well executed inside and out, with a bombproof Toyota badge on its nose. It can compete on price, packaging, or power with anything in the sub-$30,000 neighborhood. And yet something sticks in a Prolecharian’s craw.

Is the RAV4 not contrarian enough? Does its sheer popularity diminish its undeniable strengths? Prolechariot is at a crossroads. To effectively dismiss a car because it sells well is to be no better than the stooge who gave up on his favorite band because their song was featured on “The O.C.” Prolechariot is not that guy, and yet the soundtrack playing when we drive the RAV4 is the Billboard Hot 100.

Maybe that’s because we Prolecharians do scrutinize our purchases. We seek out whatever satisfaction—concrete or ephemeral—we can, because the luxury of regret is not ours to savor. Cars that stroke our ego, that afford us some thrills (however cheap), and that also deliver value tend not to proliferate like bunny rabbits. That’s why we’re here, after all.

The 2016 Toyota RAV4 XLE AWD is indeed a damn fine compact crossover. We just hesitate to call it a damn fine Prolechariot.

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2016 Toyota RAV4 XLE AWD
PRICE (as tested)
: $29,095
POWERTRAIN: 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, 176 hp, 172 lb-ft torque; six-speed automatic transmission; all-wheel drive
MPG: 22 city / 29 highway
TOYOTA'S FAVORITE SHOW ON HGTV"Get It Sold"