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Low on the dash reside the three rings of the automatic climate control. They look busy and complicated at fast glance, but the button layout proves logical over time. The system likes it chilly, however. Asked to hold 73 degrees for a two-hour drive, it let the cabin fluctuate between 68 and 71 as measured by our test kit's weather thermometer.
Also, the monochrome liquid-crystal display above the controls somehow remained hard to read in direct sunlight and shadow. That's a feat, though one also repeated by the vanishing radio display above. And the upmarket JBL-enhanced stereo with six CD slots and nine speakers is not wired to accept satellite radio. Maybe later, says Toyota. Happily, the audio system does have a 3.5mm auxiliary jack for iPodophiles.
Opt for the rear-seat movie theater—a DVD player with a nine-inch ceiling-mounted screen (available only in the Limited V-6)—and there's a handy 110-volt AC jack that sprouts on the back of the armrest to keep laptops and cell phones charged. Of the two glove boxes, the upper one springs open and closed with a pushbutton and the gyrating of springs and counterweights. Neat!
As a compact family bus, the RAV4 exceeds. If you opt for the seven-seater, the third row splits 50/50 and tumbles backward into the floor on spring-loaded hinges. You can lower or raise it easily with your other hand holding the dog's leash in about, oh, six seconds. Raised, the third-row seat provides space adequate only for kids; adults will get a close look at their own knee caps.
Go with the five-seater RAV, and the middle seats are cross-your-legs comfy, especially since the backrest tilts to three positions and the bottom slides fore-and-aft for better legroom. Pull handles in the cargo area topple the two halves of the middle seatbacks like ducks collapsing in a shooting gallery. Unlike on the old RAV4, which sacrificed its unprotected rear door to minor fender benders, the back bumper now stretches from fender to fender. The side-hinged hatch remains, and heaving TV sets onto the low load floor is weakling's work. The rear glass doesn't open separately.
After only a few Camry-quiet miles, the '06 RAV4 makes a convincing case. A thick-rimmed steering wheel feels sporty and delivers sharper response at the helm than we're accustomed to in a Toyota. Electric power steering is usually an omen for numbness, but Toyota has somehow infused the RAV's motorized rack with real precision. A brainy all-wheel-drive system—with just 7.5 inches of ground clearance, the RAV is for all weather, not all terrain—helps here. It senses lateral g and ramps up the torque to the rear axle through its electromechanical clutch pack. With the rear end pushing, corners pass by at unexpectedly high speeds, thanks to the confidence inspired by restrained body roll and muted understeer.
The RAV's ride remains one of relaxed compliance, owing to a stiff structure, gentle shock tuning, and unaggressive 225/65 street tires (that are still capable of 0.83 g on the skidpad but cringe at serious off-road work). If you're feeling less relaxed, the V-6 supplies gobs of punch power when you want it, and sometimes when you don't—the throttle is touchy off idle, the squirt from the line a little racy if you're not judicious. Our fuel card reported 16 mpg overall, but we feel duty-bound to disclose that it was set mostly during hard mountain driving. Four discs do the hard mountain braking. In testing, the electronic panic assist repeatedly reduced 70 mph to 0 in a proficient 180 feet.
If you're among the great majority who will go for the four-cylinder engine, we have impressions but not test numbers. The four is solid, smooth, and adequate, injecting just a faint buzz into the serene cabin. On paper anyway, it's only a slightly better hedge against oil prices (27 combined mpg on AWD models versus 26 for the V-6). Toyota boasts a shift logic in both the four- and five-speed automatics that keeps the transmission from hunting on uphill grades. Nevertheless, in California's Santa Ynez Mountains, our four-cylinder trilled in and out of overdrive so fast that we reported it to Toyota as a likely software glitch. Another consideration: The RAV's towing capacity is just 1500 pounds with the inline-four but more than double at 3500 with the V-6 and its optional towing package.
Toyotas can be so benign, so vanilla, that they'll slip right through your hands without leaving an impression. Not the new RAV4. This is such a handsome, useful, and startlingly competent driver that it's hard to imagine a do-it-all vehicle that does more with such aplomb. We still don't know exactly how to classify the RAV4, except as fairly marvelous.