Model: RAV4 XLE
Exterior color: Barcelona Red Metallic
Interior color: Black
Engine: 2.5 liter, four-cylinder
Transmission: six-speed automatic
Fuel economy: 24 mpg city, 31 mpg highway
Dealer: Capital Toyota
Price (as tested): $26,723
The Wall Street Journal this week flashed a greed light to auto-buyers. The auto industry is expected to move 15.5 million vehicles this year, according to the newspaper, a level not reached since before the financial crisis in 2008.
That means there is pent-up demand in the market, and value-conscious buyers are streaming back into showrooms. Toyota, the prototypical value brand, expects to post a 5 percent sales increase this year.
Nothing screams value in the Toyota line like the RAV4, a compact SUV that virtually invented the small crossover segment back in 1996. Redesigned for the 2013 model year, a new fourth-generation RAV4 is just beginning to show up in area car stores.
We snagged a Barcelona Red copy at Capital Toyota on Lee Highway earlier this week, and took it on a spin on I-75 in mid-afternoon traffic.
STYLING AND COMFORT
When it comes to design updates, Toyota often prefers subtle, not sensational, changes. The sheet metal of the new RAV4 is bolder than the out-going model, but contains no dramatic flourishes that might quickly grow stale. The facia is a bit more aggressive on the out-going RAV4, with swept-back headlights that give the front-end more swagger. Ample cladding in front gives the RAV4 a rugged profile.
The signature design feature is a tiered beltline that morphs into a shelf on the liftgate, which for the first time opens skyward instead of left to right. A power liftgate is available on the upscale Limited trim.
Inside, the RAV4 is one of those vehicles that benefits from years of thoughtful ergonomic design. The seats fit comfortably, the right-sized steering wheel invites your grip, and the side mirrors are oversized to compensate for a rearview mirror angle that is pinched by the rear-seat headrests.
My favorite design wrinkle is a padded shelf on the dash that angles the heat and air buttons outward, like the keys on a piano.
Our test car was in XLE trim, which adds a sunroof, alloy wheels and front seat upgrades to standard (LE) features such as a rearview camera, reclining rear seats and Bluetooth.
Our test car also came with a navigation system and Toyota's fine Entune infotainment system, a $1,030 option package.
Head room in the back seats is ample. The RAV4 has room for five passengers, although the back bench would be most comfortable for two adults and a smaller third passenger. There are 73 cubic feet of cargo space behind the back seats.
Before, the RAV4 was available in both four- and six-cylinder models. But for 2013, Toyota has dropped the V-6 variant. The 2.5 liter, four-cylinder is plenty stout, though, making 176 horsepower.
On our test drive along I-75 South, the RAV4 felt solid and handled securely on a windy day. The four-cylinder engine should have plenty of power for most drivers. Highway merging was easy.
The new RAV4 has just over six inches of ground clearance -- it hopped a curb at the dealership like a champ -- and can tow about 1,500 pounds.
The very best thing about the RAV4 is the unmistakable feeling that you could be driving this car 10 years hence, with 200,000 hard miles on the odometer, and it would still be solid and reliable. It's hard to put a price tag on that.
Our test car came with a sticker price of $26,723. The government estimates the new RAV4 will get 31 mpg highway and 24 mpg city.