2013 Toyota RAV4: Up Close

Recent Toyota redesigns have proven a hodgepodge of styling, leading to a mixed identity. The fourth-generation RAV4 is no exception. It's more interesting than post-refresh Highlander, but the stacked materials — a plastic-backed faux upper grille, real lower grilles and a wraparound bumper treatment that looks like giant plastic fangs — don't really come together. The rear evokes a better take on the GMC Terrain's steeply raked tail.

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The inside does better, with handsome execution of Toyota's progression toward overlapping layers rather than a single wraparound panel. Spanning the center in the RAV4 Limited example was a French-stitched faux-leather panel, which comes standard in the XLE and Limited. It puts the lower-grade stitching in the Camry and related Lexus ES to shame, and I hope Toyota at least switches to this stuff in the Lexus in years to come.

The base RAV4 LE has a Camry-grade level for this element, though, a Toyota official told me. Another cool touch: The steering wheel has an imitation of the leather-covered center hubs found in upper-crust luxury cars. It's molded into the plastic here, but a half-decent imitation nonetheless.

The front and rear seats afford decent legroom and good headroom, though the latter sits a little bit low to the ground. It also lost some utility in this redesign: The old RAV4's second row adjusted forward and backward, as well as reclined; it also had release levers in the cargo area to send the seats down. The redesign has easier reclining adjustments — they're at hip level instead of shoulder level — but it loses the forward/backward adjustment and cargo-area releases.

Overall length is down 1.2 inches, but Toyota promises similar interior room, with maximum luggage capacity of 73.3 cubic feet. It looks that way — the tall cargo area has a low lift-in height, and Toyota ditched the old swing-gate for a conventional liftgate, which will require less clearance behind the car to open. The casualty is the vast under-floor cargo compartment in the old RAV4. It now has a spare tire that Toyota used to mount on the rear.

Ditched is the RAV4's optional third-row seat, which Toyota said nobody bought. But spokesman Sam Butto said 10% to 15% of shoppers did spring for the improbably quick V-6, so it makes less sense why the automaker dropped that.

Even in its seventh model year, the outgoing RAV4 remains the fourth-best-selling small SUV on the market. That's just one spot down from way back in 2006, the first full year it was on the market. Toyota faces hot competition to move up to third again; it would have to displace a redesigned Honda CR-V and Ford Escape, or the well-received Chevrolet Equinox. I suspect the all-important mpg race will play against the automaker. Redesigns are supposed to leapfrog the competition, and the RAV4's 24/31 mpg (with front-wheel drive) is merely competitive, not out ahead.

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