Toyota’s small 1996 RAV4 started a big revolution. Here was the first SUV to be based on a car-like unibody instead of a traditional truck frame. The idea was to appeal to buyers who wanted utility and all-weather traction but seldom went off-road. The RAV4 was a huge success, and it spawned numerous copies. Well, now there’s an all new RAV4 for 2006. Will it turn the SUV market on its head again?

The third generation 2006 Toyota RAV4 is not just improved, but completely restyled, more powerful, and yes, bigger and more versatile than ever. The 104.7 inch wheelbase is nearly 7 inches longer, while overall length is up 14 inches. With its outside spare tire, the “compact’ RAV4 is now only a half foot shorter than a Hummer H3. But that length lets RAV4 be the first compact SUV with 3-row, 7-passenger seating.

The previous RAV’s cute-ute styling has been replaced by sleek, sporty, modernly rugged good looks that fit its longer frame perfectly. As do the wheels, 17-inch standard and 18s with the Sport package.

To go with its tougher take, Toyota has given the RAV4 more power with a first time optional V-6. An all-new twin-cam 3.5-liter design with variable valve timing generates best-in-class 269 horsepower and 246 pound-feet. Maximum towing is now a hefty 3,500 pounds.

But a lot of buyers will probably go for the base 2.4-liter twin-cam 4-cylinder. This upgraded I-4 makes a very adequate 166 horsepower, up 5, and 165 pound-feet of torque.

Transmission choices are all automatic. A gated-shift 4-speed for the I-4, and a 5-speed with the V-6. As before, the drivetrain connects to either front-wheel drive or single-speed on-demand four-wheel drive. In auto mode, torque shifts to the rear when starting off or when slip is detected. A manual Locking Switch splits torque 55% front/45% rear for low speed going in tougher conditions, made even easier with 7.5 inches of ground clearance, and Hill-Start Assist and Downhill Assist control on most models.

While all sounds most promising for rotten winter weather, our first turn at the RAV4 wheel came in sunny Santa Barbara, California. Naturally we ran for the V-6 and were not disappointed. It’s strong, smooth, and fast. Toyota estimates 0-60 should take only 7 seconds.  And it’s even pretty efficient. EPA fuel economy ratings are 20 City and 26 Highway with four-wheel drive.

One surprise is the RAV4’s very firm, most un-car-like ride. Indeed on all but the smoothest paved roads it felt sports car harsh. And we found road noise was quite intrusive. On the other hand, the RAV4’s four-wheel independent suspension, with front MacPherson struts and rear double wishbones, shines on twisty roads. It’s tight, agile and entertaining.

The RAV4’s new electric power steering works with the standard Electronic Vehicle Stability Control plus Traction Control to provide just the right amount of assist for any driving condition. And though we did more driving than stopping, we were steadied by the four wheel discs with standard ABS and Brake Assist.

A look inside the new RAV4 proves its gen-up status, too. The multi-level dash with metallic-trim and bold switchgear should really appeal to younger buyers. Standard features across all models, Base, Sport, and Limited, include tilt steering wheel, CD stereo, and rear seat DVD player, which will be appreciated by both the second and third row occupants. The 60/40 second spot now has fore/aft adjustment and backrest recline. The optional 50/50 split third row is expectedly tight, but small children probably won’t mind crawling on their hands and knees over the fold-only second row to get there. Ditch the third row or keep it folded for 36.4 cubic feet of storage, 73 cubic feet with all seats down. Big for its class, but not the biggest.

And neither are prices, although they are up. Base prices without freight for the new RAV4 are $20,300 for a 4-cylinder 4X2, and $21,700 for a 4X4. V-6 models start at $22,335 for a 4X2, and $23,735 for a 4X4.

Times change, and so has the RAV4. What started as a great small idea is now a bigger and still impressive effort. It’s very much in tune with what buyers now expect from any new utility. That is the biggest possible versatility in the smallest, most efficient package possible. While the 2006 Toyota RAV4 is not as revolutionary as the original, it will clearly leave its mark.



  • Engine: Twin-cam 3.5-Liter V-6
  • Horsepower: 269
  • Torque: 246 Lb Feet
  • 0-60 MPH: 7.0 Seconds
  • EPA: 20 City/26 Highway MPG