Pressure from cost-conscious mums and dads has forced the hybrid car company to go diesel with its new RAV4.
Toyota has sold a diesel-driven RAV in other countries for more than five years and finally bows to showroom pressure this week as part of the arrival of a solid fourth-generation update of its top selling compact SUV.
The new RAV is better looking, a little sharper to drive, has more obvious concentration on quality, comes with more equipment and - not surprisingly - gets a sharper price line. The starting sticker is $28,490, a cut of $500, but it still costs at least $35,490 to grab one of the new 2.2-litre turbo diesels.
The RAV needs to be good to compete with a number of other recently-updated SUVs, led by the roomy Honda CR-V and the very impressive Subaru Forester that surged to the top of the Carsguide rankings last month. On that front it's very good, but not great.
There is a predictable lineup of front and all-wheel drive models with various transmissions, amounting to more than a dozen individual choices. The basic GX has regulation standard equipment including Bluetooth, although there are seven airbags, while the fully-loaded Cruiser is a mini luxury SUV.
But it's the back-pedalling on diesel, which Toyota Australia has attacked over recent years while promoting its growing range of hybrids, that is the big breakthrough on the 2013 RAV4.
"It's market demand. People want diesels. If there was a hybrid model of the RAV we would take it," says Matt Callachor, sales and marketing chief for Toyota Australia. And there is one real flaw in the diesel drive - and it's massive - the towing capacity.
The RAV diesel is rated at just 500 kilograms, less than a baby Yaris and way lower than the 2000kg for similar cars sold in Europe, as Toyota engineers in Japan rule that extreme conditions in Australia make extra weight a potential problem for reliability. "We're working to get it changed," is all Callachor will say.
Every new Toyota now arrives with more equipment for the same money, or less, and the RAV range is no different. The showroom stickers are $500 to $1000 better than before, Toyota also claims the diesel model is as sharply priced as any of its rivals, and there is more equipment.
To put things in focus, buying a RAV today costs 21 weeks of average weekly earnings, compare to 40 weeks when it first hit Australia a full 20 years ago. "Cost is a major part of the experience for people in this class," says Callachor.
Servicing is capped at $170 for each visit through the warranty period, a program that Toyota began and has now been copied by all serious value brands. But anyone worried about flat tyres will be paying an extra $300 for a full-sized spare, as well as sacrificing 70 litres of baggage space.
Regardless of the diesel towing blunder, Toyota Australia is forecasting record sales for the new RAV and - given the relentless surge of SUV sales in Australia - there is no reason to question the prediction.
There is nothing breakthrough or outstanding in the new RAV4, which is solidly improved across the board. There is a bewildering choice of models, including front and all-wheel drive, that's made no easier by the addition of the diesel. There are also six-speed manual and automatic gearboxes, as well as a seven-speed constantly-variable transmission in the 2-litre front-drive model.
"There are 16 models in total. We have a RAV4 for every type of buyer," Callachor says. There are efficiency improvements - with economy as good as 5.6 litres/100km on the diesel -and little things like an extra 41 millimetres of extra knee room in the back.
Safety also gets a couple of extra ticks and off-road drivers will appreciate things like the hill-start assist and downhill-assist package that makes driving far less stressful in the bush.
The chief engineer of the RAV4, Makoto Arimoto, talks about everything from extra strength in the body to a lower centre of gravity, the new top-hinged tailgate, semi-reclining back seats and even LED running lamps and HID headlamps on the flagship Cruiser.
"We decided to return to basics. This means we went to the source, visiting the homes and garages of 250 SUV owners around the world and asking them about their motoring needs," Arimoto says.
So the bottom line for development is three words: powerful-youthful-dependable inevitably, since every Toyota press event since the arrival of the 86 coupe has tapped the rich vein of driving focus, Arimoto also talks enthusiastically about Brand T's Waku-Doki. That's "It's fun to drive," says Callachor.
The new RAV4 has obvious family ties to the latest Corolla, which landed towards the end of last year. That means an edgier overall design and a new nose with a more aggressive approach that will migrate throughout the Toyota family.
There are crisper lines everywhere and the dashboard has the personality that's missing from the Corolla, with a combination of shapes and angles that makes it more Gen-Y than retirement home. The new seats are more supportive, also sitting lower, and the steering column is finally sited to suit Australian drivers.
The clamshell rear doors are gone and the spare now rides beneath the boot floor, a bonus unless you go full-sized and lose those 70 litres. The load height is lower and there is a wider opening for shopping centre runs. On the numbers front, the car is 55 millimetres shorter, 10 narrower and 15 lower, but the track is pushed out by 10 millimetres.
"We anticipate a five-star safety rating from NCAP without a couple of weeks," says product planning boss, Mark Dobson, cutting to the chase. "Toyota has increased RAV's body strength and crash worthiness. The new RAV has increased side and impact protection, as well as roof crush and pedestrian protection.
And, at last, Toyota is trumpeting the ISOFIX baby seat mounts that are now fitted in the RAV4. There are predictable electronic assist systems, rear-end parking radar on the basic GX and cameras on the other models, and also an electronic limited-slip differential for the front-drive models, in addition to traction control. It's to help dig out of difficulty, presumably if the driver forgets they don't have an all-paw model.
The new RAV is better, that's for sure. It looks sharper, the cabin quality is up, and practical changes like the new tailgate will be welcomed by all sorts of buyers. But it's not as improved as the latest Subaru Forester, which is more sublime in the ride and feels roomier inside.
The RAV has great seats and it's nice to finally be able to get the right setting for the steering wheel, while the petrol-manual package delivers exactly the sort of driving response I expect. But the throttle return is lazy and annoying, instead of snappy crisply back when I change gears. It's the sort of thing that I expect in a lacklustre Proton, not a cutting-edge Toyota.
The other big niggle is a ride that's too jiggly for me. The car has great steering and good cornering grip, but wants to hop and skip over potholes and dirt-road corrugations. A short off-road run in one of the new automatic diesels shows the RAV is even more impressive for bush work, with genuine uphill grunt and enough grip and control for anyone who doesn't need LandCruiser skills.
On balance, the fourth-generation RAV4 is a solid job from a company that has made its name and fame with everybody cars that do the job without fuss or bother. But the ride is disappointing and the tow rating for the diesel is flat-out bewildering. The RAV4 is almost certain to become the sales leader in its class but, for me, it's not as good as the new Forester.
A nice change for the RAV4 with plenty of improvements. But it's not as good as the Subaru Forester and the diesel tow rating will be a deal breaker for a lot of people.
Price: $28,490 - $46,490
Warranty: 3 years/unlimited km
Resale: 61 per cent
Service interval: 12 months/15,000km
Safety: 7 airbags, ABS, EBD, EBA, TC
Crash rating: 5 stars (forecast)
Engines: 2.0-litre petrol, 107kW/187Nm; 2.5-litre petrol, 132kW/233Nm; 2.2-litre diesel, 110kW/340Nm
Transmissions: 6-speed manual and auto, 7-speed CVT; FWD or AWD
Thirst: 5.6-8.6L/100km, 149-200g/km CO2
Dimensions: 4.57m (L), 1.84m (W), 1.71m (H)
Spare: space saver (optional full-sized $300)