Gas cost half what it does today, V8 engines were increasing in popularity, and Ford ruled the smoking-hot SUV segment with its popular Explorer when Toyota introduced the first RAV4 for the 1996 model year. Small, powered by a fuel-efficient four-cylinder engine, and made for driving on the road rather than off of it, the RAV4 duked it out with the Subaru Outback for the honor of creating the “soft-roader” segment, though the term “cute ute” clearly referred to the original RAV4’s tidy, emasculating design and not the Outback’s butched-up station wagon getup.
Fast-forward a decade, and the soft-roaders, the cute-utes, the sport wagons, the crossovers – whatever you call them – represent the fastest-growing market segment in America. Ford’s Explorer, still a fine SUV in its own right, is almost flat-lining, living on the life-support of big rebates and low-interest financing, while the RAV4 and the Outback have been joined by dozens of competitors from every corner of the globe. Yet, despite a surge in segment interest by consumers, the original crossover SUV, the Toyota RAV4, has been virtually invisible to every American short of sorority girls, single female professionals, and divorced moms. Thanks to its cheeky design, conservative horsepower rating, and small size, the Toyota RAV4 became the ultimate chick truck – despite the fact that it was fun to drive, a smart buy, and a terrific value.
That explains why the redesigned 2006 Toyota RAV4 is bigger, more aggressive looking, and equipped with an optional V6 engine that makes almost as much horsepower as the V8 engine in a heavier Ford Explorer. Men are figuring out that a V8 and a low-range transfer case don’t actually make up for any perceived shortcomings, and do, in fact, create them in the form of a lighter wallet, a rougher ride, and a lower resale value. Know anybody shopping for a used Dodge Durango R/T in this day of three-buck unleaded? Neither do we. Toyota couldn’t have known what would happen to the price of oil when it embarked on the RAV4’s redesign several years ago, but its timing for this new sport-ute couldn’t be any better.
Longer, wider, roomier, and available with an optional third-row seat good for seating pre-teen children, the 2006 Toyota RAV4 gets a styling upgrade designed to make it more appealing to men. Meaner looking up front, with flared fenders, a stylish greenhouse, and bigger wheels, the new RAV4 keeps its full-size spare tire hanging on the rear cargo door for added ruggedness. Inside, there’s a ton of storage space in various nooks, crannies, and bins, and if you skip the third-row seat there’s a storage well under the cargo floor that can swallow a medium-sized suitcase. Brushed silver trim and Optitron gauges are other key interior design elements. You can even get one with leather upholstery and a rear DVD entertainment system.
Under the hood, a choice between a spunky four-cylinder or impressive V6 engine is available, either connected to a shift-logic automatic transmission – the manual gearbox dies with this redesign. The standard 2.4-liter inline four makes 166 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 165 lb.-ft. of torque at 4,000 rpm, driving power to the front or all four wheels through a four-speed automatic transmission. This combination is good for EPA city/highway fuel economy ratings of 24/30 with 2WD and 23/28 with 4WD, and we recommend that you try this RAV4 first, because once you’ve tapped the optional V6, there’s no going back. The stunningly strong 3.5-liter V6 makes 269 horsepower at 6,200 rpm and 246 lb.-ft. torque at 4,700 rpm. A five-speed automatic routes power to the front or all four corners, and can blaze from a standstill to 60 mph in under seven seconds, according to Toyota. Fuel economy with the V6 is rated 22/29 with 2WD or 21/28 with 4WD, but we managed just 18.5 mpg thanks to heavy right feet that simply could not resist the V6’s charms. Both engines receive ULEV2 emissions certification and run on regular unleaded fuel.
Riding on a four-wheel independent suspension with front and rear stabilizer bars, the 2006 Toyota RAV4 is equipped with MacPherson struts up front and a trailing double wishbone design in back with diagonally-mounted shocks for a larger and lower cargo floor. To keep the RAV4 pointed in the right direction, Toyota’s Star Safety system comes standard, including stability control, traction control, and a four-wheel-disc antilock braking system with electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist. Electronic power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering guides standard 16-inch wheels and tires (17- and 18-inch wheel/tire combos are optional), and if you select a RAV4 with 4WD, you’ll get an on-demand system that automatically apportions power as conditions warrant. Sticky situations can be remedied by locking the power split at speeds under 25 mph, and many 4WD versions come with Toyota’s Hill Start Assist Control and Downhill Assist Control to give the RAV4 a bit more off-roading capability than it has had in the past.
Buyers can choose a 2006 Toyota RAV4 in Base, Sport, or Limited trim. Every RAV4 includes a driver’s seat height adjuster, a cell phone holder, ambient lighting for the front cupholders, and lots of interior storage spots. Other standard features include air conditioning, a stereo with a CD/MP3 player and an auxiliary jack, power door locks with remote keyless entry, power windows, power side mirrors, 10 cupholders, three 12-volt auxiliary power outlets, a tilt and telescopic steering wheel, and cruise control with a brake deceleration feature. Select the Sport model for 18-inch alloy wheels shod with 235/55 tires, a sport-tuned suspension, color-keyed exterior trim, fender flares, fog lights, roof rails and crossbars, smoked headlight lenses, unique dark charcoal fabric, and a full hard spare tire cover. Limited models get 17-inch aluminum wheels, heated side mirrors, a six-disc in-dash CD changer, dual-zone automatic climate control with air filter and pollen control, an engine immobilizer, footwell lights, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, an eight-way power driver’s seat, privacy glass, a cargo tonneau cover and utility net, and a chrome grille.
Safety is a new Toyota priority, so all RAV4s come with three-point seatbelts and height-adjustable headrests for every seating position, and occupant sensing and classifying advanced front airbags as standard equipment. Front side-impact airbags and two-row side curtain airbags cost extra. Other options on the base model include a six-disc CD changer, roof rails and cross bars, 17-inch wheels and tires, a third-row seat, a cargo cover with utility net, and a tow package that increases towing capacity to 3,500 pounds on V6 models. Sport versions can be equipped with the cargo cover/utility net and the tow package plus a power sunroof, JBL premium audio with nine-speakers and a subwoofer, and steering wheel audio controls. Options for the Limited add leather upholstery, heated front seats, a rear DVD entertainment system, and unique Blizzard White Pearl paint. The standard warranty is a 3-year/36,000-mile bumper-to-bumper plan enhanced by 5-year/60,000-mile powertrain protection and 5-year/unlimited mileage rust perforation coverage.
We drove two different 2006 Toyota RAV4s nearly 1,000 miles collectively, both decked out in Sport 4WD trim. One was a four-cylinder model that saw mostly highway driving in the New England region, the other was a V6 that spent its week traveling a wide variety of roads in southern California. The 2006 Toyota RAV4 turns out to be imperfect but nevertheless one of the best vehicles in its class, and certainly worthy of consideration by a more diverse range of buyers than it has in the past. If small SUVs are on your consideration list, you owe yourself a test drive in the capable Toyota RAV4.