SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — If there is one thing you can say about the outgoing 2012 Toyota RAV4, it’s distinctive with a clunky spare tire hanging off the side-opening rear gate in most versions.
But Toyota hopes to make a styling statement with the redesigned 2013 model, which it was showing off to journalists here in the desert last week.
Gone is the spare tire on the tailgate, which now opens in the typical way. The front end has a “bolder, more aggressive look,” says Toyota, and the new model got a raft of improvements from stem to stern.
Bill Fay, general manager of the Toyota division, predicts sales for the new model will be up 25%, to more than 200,000 next year, from the 160,000 the company is on track to sell of the outgoing model this year.
Pricing for the new model starts at $24,145 with shipping, an increase from $23,495 for the base 2012.
Toyota needs the new RAV4 to be a hit. Midsize cars and compact crossovers are the two hottest segments in the auto industry right now, and many shoppers consider vehicles in both segments before buying. The Camry midsize sedan and the RAV4 are Toyota’s crown jewels in those categories.
But the compact crossover field is a lot more crowded now than a few years ago, when RAV4, Ford Escape and Honda CR-V had it largely to themselves. Every major automaker now has an entry — even German luxury brands — and their models have gotten much stronger. Toyota says both the number of models and the overall sales for the segment have tripled since 2000.
The outgoing RAV4 was outsold through the first 11 months of the year not only by CR-V and Escape, but also by the Chevrolet Equinox. Nissan’s Rogue wasn’t far behind.
The new RAV4 should have a head start on success. Since the first one in 1995, Toyota has sold more than 1.5 million RAV4s and about 80% are still on the road, says Toyota. The company is betting that many of those current owners are ready to replace theirs with a new one.
“What this is going to do is help Toyota not lose customers to others,” says Edmunds.com analyst Jessica Caldwell, who drove the new RAV4 here last week. “It’s going to keep people in the Toyota family.”
To do it, Toyota engineers went through the 2012 model to find features to improve, starting with putting the spare tire out of sight under the rear end and giving RAV4 a modern liftgate with a new rear spoiler for better aerodynamics.
In addition, the 2013 RAV4 has:
• Better fuel economy. It will be rated at 24 miles per gallon in city driving, 31 mpg on the highway and 26 overall. It’s a 2 mpg improvement on the combined rating. The all-wheel-drive version is expected to come in at 22/29/25.
• Six-speed transmission. RAV4 keeps the same 176-horsepower 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine as the outgoing version but replaces the current four-cylinder model’s outmoded four-speed automatic with a six-speed. The powertrain is smooth, though not overly peppy. A “sport” mode button tightens the steering and holds the gears longer. Toyota says the new RAV4 accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in 8.9 seconds, 1.3 seconds faster than the 2012.
• No V-6. No third row. The six-cylinder engine option has been banished. So is the option of a tiny third-row for kids. Still want a V-6? Toyota says its larger Highlander SUV will do for V-6 fans. And it offers a third row, too.
• Two more air bags. In an age when automakers always seem to find a way to pack another air bag in family vehicles, Toyota increases RAV4’s from six to eight, adding a knee-level one for the driver and a seat-bolster bag for the front passenger.
• New standard features. The formerly optional display screen, now 6.1 inches, and backup camera are standard.
• New safety features available. Now optional is a rear cross-traffic alert system that will beep when it senses another vehicle coming while the RAV4 is backing up.
• More space. The cargo area is increased by about 2 cubic feet. And the seats are thinner, which makes for more rear legroom.
• Quieter ride. Winding through the desert hills, the noise level was low. And Toyota says it reshaped RAV4’s mirrors to cut wind noise.
• Fancier interior. Some of the seat combinations now are two-toned, and the interior has been gussied up with details such as a soft-touch panel with “French stitching” that runs across the dashboard. It’s attractive, but it does make it hard to reach the sport- and economy-mode buttons underneath.
Toyota thinks the more popular version of the new RAV4 will be the XLE trim with more standard equipment than the base model, including a sunroof, at $25,135 to start. The fanciest version is the Limited, which starts at $27,855 and has larger 18-inch wheels, push-button start and Toyota’s fancy infotainment system, called Entune. All-wheel drive adds $1,400 to any of the models.
Still, RAV4 isn’t a luxury barge. The upscale version doesn’t come with leather seats. Instead, it has an upscale plastic.
Toyota’s Fay says target buyers include young couples with kids, active single people and empty-nesters. With a target market that large, Fay, says it’s likely that Toyota will use a Super Bowl ad to kick off the 2013 RAV4’s sale campaign.
Will it win back leadership in the compact crossover segment for Toyota? It’s got a shot, says Caldwell, who says the redesign is “a compelling package at the price point.”
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