First Drive Review
With its 2016 mid-cycle enhancement of the fourth-generation RAV4 that was introduced in 2013, Toyota has expanded the appeal of the range to both environmentalists and enthusiasts alike. For those whose mien leans green, there’s the new RAV4 hybrid we recently reviewed; for those more interested in driving satisfaction, there’s the machine shown here, the new RAV4 SE.
While the SE gets all of the cosmetic updates enjoyed by the entire 2016 RAV4 lineup—a higher hoodline, new headlights, simulated skid plates front and rear—it also gets its own distinguishing touches. Those include a more aggressive-looking honeycomb insert in its grille, LED projector-beam headlights, unique 18-inch wheels, and a front “skid plate” that juts forward prominently like the lower lip of a giant, glossy carp. There’s also a special S-Code paint design, which replaces the lower black bits with silver ones and can be combined with Super White, Black Sand Pearl, or Electric Storm Blue paint on the rest of the body panels.
Inside, the SE gets contrasting stitching on its SofTex (artificial leather) seats and shifter. The seats themselves have slightly larger side bolsters as well as eight-way power adjustment and seat-position memory for the driver. The available interior color choices are Black and Black/Cinnamon combined with a black headliner and Gunmetal Gray trim.
Such cosmetic touches are all well and good, but where, you might wonder, are the SE’s performance upgrades? The energizer under the hood is the same 2AR-FE engine introduced in the last-generation RAV4 and used by every other member of the line except the hybrid. The transmission is also the shared six-speed automatic, but in the SE it comes with paddle shifters to facilitate manual gear selection.
The biggest mechanical changes are in the suspension, which has been made more athletic all around, thanks to stiffer springs, larger anti-roll bars, and firmer damping. We’re not talking Porsche 911 here, but compared with the regular RAV4, the difference is palpable.
On a brisk drive through one of Southern California’s twisty mountain roads, the upgraded suspension provided excellent body and wheel control at high speeds and handled midcorner bumps very well, even when the body was heeled over. And the structure of the RAV4 felt very solid, never emitting any creaks or groans.
Brake feel also is excellent, as it is in most current Toyotas, with a solid pedal and linear response. We’re interested, however, to see whether stopping distances improve from our tests of the current generation once we get our gear onboard the 2016 models. Unfortunately, the same excellence in feel can’t be found in the steering, which is a little sticky on-center and doesn’t return very quickly on the highway. However, the stiffer suspension does help the SE turn-in more responsively than the standard models can manage.
With no engine changes, there’s no straight-line performance improvement. When we tested a current-generation 2013 RAV4 AWD with this engine, the car achieved zero to 60 mph in 8.2 seconds and covered the quarter-mile in 16.5 at 85 mph. That’s not a rocket, but it’s plenty quick enough to more than keep up with traffic. The SE’s paddle shifters make it easy to keep this engine in its powerband, but the shifts are still on the lazy side, whether you are operating the transmission in manual mode or its automatic Eco or Sport modes.
Otherwise, the SE is much like other RAVs. The new instrument cluster, with the information display between the speedometer and tachometer, looks good and is highly legible. And the higher dose of standard electronic features is appreciated. We’re less sure about the mystery-fiber trim panels that adorn the doors and the center console.
As in all RAV4s, rear-seat space looks good on paper with 46 cubic feet, but when you try the seat, you’ll find the H-point is pretty low and that most folks’ thighs don’t contact the cushion. Luggage space, however, is very good, and the lift-over height is admirably low.
Nobody builds a truly sporting entry in the compact-SUV segment—at least outside of the luxury makers—and the RAV4 SE is no exception. We’d say this model handles most similarly to the Mazda CX-5, which is our class favorite, but picking a winner between the two will require a direct comparison test. For those buyers who are in the Toyota family and want a compact SUV that performs with a bit more precision than most, the SE is a good choice.
To get one, you will pay above-entry-level pricing, as the SE slots between the previous top two RAV4 trims—XLE and Limited—in the lineup. That means a base price of $30,165 for the front-drive version and $31,565 with all-wheel drive. For that price, you get a good level of feature content and creature comforts. Consider the improved road manners a worthwhile bonus.