What better place to test the all-new 2006 Toyota Rav4 than in the place it is likely to be used the most: the Costco parking lot. Riding a new platform for its 2006 model year, the new two-door Rav4 looks sportier than its predecessors; its wider stance is noticeable both in the exterior styling and improved handling when thrown into corners. With the Sport package, the Rav4 comes with standard 18-inch 5-spoke alloy wheels, tuned suspension, flared fenders, and that most indispensable of sports feature: color-keyed door handles.
Our Rav4 Sport tester came with the baseline 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine with Toyota's VVT-i variable valve timing system. An upgraded 3.5-liter 269-horsepower V-6 is available for the Sport and is probably worth an additional couple of grand to those looking to match the Sport's performance to its exterior styling. The standard engine is not bad; thanks to the Rav4's relatively small frame and light weight (it's categorized as a compact SUV), it still displays decent pickup and acceleration in the midrange, although throttle response from standing is a little sluggish. The standard auto engine also has only four gears, which further limits responsiveness around town.
For a 4x4, the 2006 Rav4 Sport is admirably efficient The EPA rates it at 23mpg city/28mpg highway, which is a lot better than many cars, let alone SUVs. Some of the credit for this impressive gas mileage must go to Toyota's VVT-i, which adapts valve timing to minimize emissions. Another gas-saving feature is the Rav4's on-demand four-wheel-drive system, featuring an electronically controlled coupling that distributes torque between the front and rear wheels. This enables the car to switch between two- and four-wheel drive according to road conditions, thereby increasing fuel efficiency.
On the cabin-tech front, the Rav4 is equipped with good audio lineup; our car came with an optional 440-watt JBL stereo with a six-disc (MP3 and WMA-friendly) changer. The upgraded system has nine speakers, including a subwoofer in the rear cargo door, which together make for an immersive audio experience. We did get a little distortion when playing pack MP3s at high volume, but we can't be sure whether that was the stereo's fault. On the subject of MP3s, the Rav4 Sport also comes with an auxiliary input jack in the central storage console for hooking up iPods and other portable devices.
Other than the stereo, there was little to play with in terms of onboard electronics. Our Sport came with every available factory option, and there was no navigation system or hands-free calling interface in sight. Those wanting some fancier in-car tech can splash out on the Rav4 Limited, which offers a rear-seat DVD entertainment system as an available add-on.
One of the most expensive options on our Rav4 Sport was the driver and front-passenger side airbags and the front- and second-row roll-sensing curtain airbags, which add an extra $650 to the base price. We are not big fans of optional airbags (if a car has the facility to incorporate airbags, we think they should be included as standard), but that is a point for another blog entry. Most of the standard safety features on the 2006 Rav4 Sport come as part of Toyota's Star safety system. They include traction and stability control, ABS with brake-assist and electronic brakeforce distribution, driver and front-passenger frontal airbags, and a tire-pressure monitoring system.
Our test model, in Barcelona Red, based at $23,275 and, with all the options, checked out at $26,753. In its 2006 incarnation, we predict that the Rav4 will continue to appeal to those wanting a stylish, zippy, lite SUV.