Toyota RAV4

Toyota's RAV4 has gone back to the drawing board to help keep it at the top of the lifestyle SUV class it created

Competition is tough in the compact SUV sector - and the RAV4 has really raised its game. With more cabin space and some brilliant new diesel engines, it's a solid all-rounder that will be painless to own. Add to that its car-like driving experience, commendable off-road ability and excellent kit, and it adds up to a great-value package.

On sale this month, the new model aims to extend its predecessor's reign as the best-selling compact SUV in Europe by beating opposition which is tougher than ever before. None of this has been lost on Toyota's engineers, though, and the third-generation RAV4 is fresh from the ground up.

The car is bigger, features an electronic four-wheel-drive transmission and a new range of engines - including a powerful 175bhp turbodiesel.

But before you get behind the wheel, it's clear that the RAV4 has lost some individuality - which is a pity. Its soft, generic SUV shape means the newcomer is no head-turner, lacking the sportiness of its predecessor, or the ruggedness of a Land Rover Freelander. However, it's 145mm longer and 80mm wider than the old car, and boasts interior space any rival would be proud of.

Thanks to a rear bench that slides fore and aft, there's lots of passenger room. Compact rear suspension means vast boot space, too - up to 1,469 litres with the rear seats folded. Only the impractical side-opening tailgate stands out for criticism.

Equipment levels are generous, and even base XT3 models get air-con, an MP3 player-compatible stereo and alloys. Higher spec versions get a six-disc CD changer and sat-nav, too.

Beneath the skin are more comprehensive changes. All new RAV4s get Active Torque Control (ATC) - a system which drives only the front wheels most of the time, diverting up to 45 per cent of power to the rear wheels when things get slippery. XT4-trimmed models and above get traction and stability control, too, plus Hill-start Assist Control (HAC), which holds the car stationary briefly after the handbrake is released. The RAV4 drives like a big estate car, although the seating position is higher, and there's a bit more body roll. Together with a comfortable ride and well weighted steering, it's a competent performer.

As well as a revised 4x4 system, the RAV4 gets two new engines: a 150bhp 2.0-litre VVT-i petrol with a five-speed manual gearbox and a 2.2-litre D-4D diesel in 134bhp and 175bhp power outputs. Both of these have six-speed manuals.

The top-spec D-4D 180 will provide strong performance, but most buyers will be more than happy with this D-4D 140, which offers a wide spread of usable power and decent pace. With good refinement and 42.8mpg combined fuel economy, it's no surprise it's tipped to be the best-seller.

When sales get underway, the RAV4 range will start at £18,995, rising to £26,995 for the flagship D-4D 180 diesel. Factor in the Toyota's best-in-class residual values, and the newcomer is going to be hard to beat.

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