Toyota RAV4

With more than 20 new off-roaders due to be launched in 2006, car builders can't afford to make mistakes when it comes to design

The RAV4 has grown up - it's bigger, better built and more refined than ever, and deserves to top the class. We really like its modern interior, and the 134bhp diesel is the pick of the range. The Toyota is still fun to drive and promises best-in-sector residual values - so the next Land Rover Freelander will have to be good to match it.

For the new Toyota RAV4, there's everything to lose. Its predecessor was the best-selling compact SUV in Europe, and this third generation of the original 'soft-roader' has to maintain that position in the face of forthcoming competition from another crucial debutant in 2006: Land Rover's new Freelander.

We have already driven the RAV4 in Portugal, but how does it shape up on British roads? Coming from an international launch, it's always interesting to see how a new model looks alongside domestic traffic. And while the chunky, soft shape is easy on the eye, we still think it's a pity Toyota's stylists didn't put some extra 'attitude' in - this is a lifestyle SUV, after all, and it could do with a more butch appearance.

Still, great leaps have been made inside. As you would expect of Toyota, material quality is superb throughout, with soft leather and tactile plastics. But what really stands out is the dashboard, with a bold centre console and classy orange instrument dials.

The driving position is spot-on, too. Based on a new platform, the RAV4 is much bigger than the car it replaces, while up front there's lots of space. In the back, head-room is vast, and only the tallest passengers will find knee-room tight. It's worth pointing out, however, that although the Toyota has grown, it's still shorter than the Honda CR-V and Nis-san X-Trail - both of which offer more passenger space.

Nevertheless, the sliding rear bench is a neat touch, and the boot capacity is competitive, at 586 litres with the seats in place and 1,469 litres with them folded. If only the Japanese company had fitted a split tailgate, instead of an awkward side-opening rear door, the RAV4 would score even higher.

Where its predecessors have always gained top marks is on the road - and the newcomer is no different. The RAV4 still delivers the sharpest, most car-like experience in its class. The steering is accurate and well weighted, body roll is minimal and it's fun to drive.

And while the price you pay for this agility is a firm ride on bumpy UK roads, otherwise refinement is excellent - particularly when you factor in the engine. With just over 100 miles under its belt, our car's 134bhp 2.2-litre D-4D turbo-diesel felt tight, but it was quiet and offers a usable, wide powerband.

Claimed fuel economy is 42.8mpg, and this XT4-spec model is very generously equipped as standard; the tally includes climate control, a six-CD multi-changer and Toyota's sophisticated Integrated Active Drive four-wheel-drive system. So if you're after an off-roader this year, the new RAV4 is one of the best choices on the market.

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