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.