2014 Toyota RAV4 XLE review: Looking again at Toyota’s small crossover-SUV

2014 Toyota RAV4 XLE

2014 Toyota RAV4 XLE

We drove the fourth generation when it was introduced as a 2013 model but haven’t had the opportunity since then to get behind the wheel of Toyota’s smallest SUV for a week long drive. That drought just ended with a week spent in a 2014 Toyota RAV4 XLE.

The XLE is the midlevel trim of the RAV4 lineup, sandwiched between the RAV4 LE and the RAV4 Limited, and as such, it lacks the max lux—or at least as much max lux one gets in a small mass-market  crossover-SUV. As the fourth generation of the RAV4, it grew from a small, somewhat awkward looking vehicle that presaged what a crossover would eventually be, and then grew to where the third generation had an optional third-row seat that really wasn’t very useful, at least for anyone larger than a small child.

Toyota revisited reality for gen four of the Toyota RAV4. Gone was the third row seat, and the RAV4 lighter by some 200 lbs, the optional V-6 of the 2013 RAV4 was eliminated as well. On the other hand, a full battery-electric has been added to the lineup.

2014 Toyota RAV4 XLE steering whee

The 2014 Toyota RAV4 XLE steering wheel is well shaped for comfort, with buttons for audio and driver information. Cruise control is on a stalk on the steering column. (click to enlarge)

With the V-6 gone, the 2.5-liter four-cylinder is the only gasoline engine left, and the six-speed automatic the only transmission available. If it seems like too few choices, well, Toyota has a whole lineup of other alternatives, a total of seven, including the RAV4, with the next larger crossover/SUVs being the Toyota Venza and the Toyota Highlander. The Venza starts at $29,205 with a 2.7-liter four-cylinder, with the option of a 3.5-liter V-6 (the same engine, incidentally, as in the Toyota Avalon). The Highlander is available with the same engine selection as the Venza but an entry price of $29,215, but while both have the option of all-wheel drive, the Highlander has standard seating for eight (2/3/3) while the Venza has room for five.

But back to the 2014 Toyota RAV4. It’s available with front or all-wheel drive—those who went through the snowy winter of 2014 certainly appreciated the latter—and our test model was suitably equipped, though our test RAV4 arrived after the epic and unending snow had finally stopped and mostly melted. Unless we were in Southern California or perhaps, oh, Brownsville, Texas, we’d think all-wheel drive would be a no-brainer. After all, what would it be like to be stuck in the snow in an SUV because it doesn’t have all-wheel drive?

2014 Toyota RAV4 instrument panel

The 2014 Toyota RAV4 instrument panel is simple, with a large central speedometer. with a tachometer on the left, fuel gauge on the right and LCD information screen on the speedo face. (click to enlarge)

For better fuel economy, the RAV4 with all-wheel drive operates essentially in a front-wheel drive mode until front wheels slip. At that point, the electronically-controlled center differential can send up to 50 percent of the engine torque to the rear wheels automatically. For particularly slippery conditions such as deep snow, the center differential can be locked manually at 50:50 for maximum traction. It’s not for dry road use, and it disengages at 25 mph to prevent damage to the drivetrain.

The 2014 Toyota RAV4 AWD has not only an “Eco” button but also a Sport mode. In Sport mode, torque transfer to the rear wheels starts when the driver turns the steering wheel, going to a 90:10 front/rear torque distribution. This reduces torque loading on the front tires, helping to balance cornering.  If understeer occurs anyway—as determined by the various onboard sensors— torque transfer to the rear can go as high as 50 percent. That decreases front tire loading even more for better balance and improved lateral grip.

The Eco mode upshifts the transmission earlier, getting the engine into lower rpm as a fuel-saving method. We couldn’t feel it, though no doubt something was going on down there. We did, however, notice Sport mode made in managing the transmission, holding gears longer and reducing “hunting” by the transmission, shifting up and down as the driver gets on and off the gas on a winding road. It’s usually in a lower gear, too, which isn’t good for gas mileage. It defaults to normal mode whenever the car is restarted, so if you want to play Mario Andretti in your RAV4, you’ll have to push the Sport button every time.

2014 Toyota RAV4 engine

Only a four-cylinder engine is available in the 2014 Toyota RAV4. (click to enlarge)

As per usual for a model’s second year, the Toyota RAV4 doesn’t get many changes, though it does pick up Entune Audio as standard for the base LE model up through Limited. Included in Entune are a 6.1-in. touchscreen, AM/FM/CD, Bluetooth hands-free phone connectivity and audio streaming, iPod connectivity and control, USB 2.0, AUX mini-jack, and six speakers. A backup camera is standard on all trim levels and displayed on the screen.

Moving up to the RAV4 XLE  garners 17-in alloy wheels, premium front bucket seats, a power moonroof, heated power outside mirrors, fog lamps, an auto up/down (for the driver) power windows, automatic climate control and a cargo cover. The XLE (and optional on LE) also brings Entune Audio Plus, which includes HD Radio with iTunes tagging, plus HD Traffic and Weather in metro areas.

The RAV4 Limited has Entune Premium Audio standard. Premium adds navigation and the Entune App Suite. According to Toyota, “This level of Entune leverages the user’s mobile smartphone to provide a richer in-vehicle experience with fully integrated access to navigation, entertainment and information services. Engaging mobile apps include Bing, iHeartRadio, MovieTickets.com, OpenTable, Yelp, Facebook Places and Pandora, plus real-time traffic, weather, fuel prices, sports and stocks.” It’s optional on the XLE, and our tester had it. The system is easy to use, with a combination of hard buttons on either side of the screen, and touch screen buttons, although it’s no doubt because we’re spoiled, but the 6.1-inch screen is beginning to look small compared to competitive models.