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2014 Toyota Rav4 limited AWD: Updating the first "cute ute"

by: TOYOTA MOTOR SALES USA, INC. - The 2014 Toyota Rav4 is once again ready to take on the world.Is any automobile more influential today than the Toyota Rav4? The original mass-produced Ford Model T, perhaps, but the Rav4 was the first compact crossover, the type of vehicle that has practically replaced cars, station wagons, minivans and large sport utility vehicles on American roads.

But strangely, despite being so innovative at first, the 2014 Rav4 does not offer as many features as some of its competitors. It only comes with one engine, a 2.5-liter inline four, and does not offer a more powerful turbocharged or V6 option. And it does not offer a third row of seats, like some others.

Instead, Toyota seems to believe that the redesigned Rav4 first unveiled in 2013 has enough strengths to compete effectively in the hotly-contested compact crossover field. And company officials may well be right. The current Rav4 looks stunning, has ample interior room, and feels very well made. And the contemporary dash that seems to float before front seat occupants is a thing of beauty.

Rav4 stands for Recreational Active Vehicle with 4-wheel-drive, although it has always been available with just front-wheel-drive. When it was first introduced in America in 1995, the Rav4 was almost dismissively labeled as a "cute ute," short for cute utility vehicle. It was eventually challenged by the boxy Dodge Caliber, which was described in advertising as "Anything but cute."

But guess what? The Rav4 is still around and the Caliber isn't. A whole lot of other compact crossovers are out there, however. Practically every manufacturer is offering one or more, ranging from affordable to luxury models. Ironically, one exception is Dodge, which has ceded the compact crossover market to Jeep, which is now offering the all-new Cherokee and slightly larger Compass and Patriot, both of which started out related to the Caliber.

It's easy to understand why compact crossovers have become so popular. Originally based on cars and featuring their own unibody structures, compact crossovers offer impressive interior room, reasonably good gas mileage, and improved visibility because of their higher ride height. And they can be ordered with all-wheel-drive, a welcome feature in the Pacific Northwest. Subaru even offers some with standard all-wheel-drive.

The redesigned Rav4 is slightly larger and much more stylish than the previous model, with a chiseled exterior and upscale interior. Although Toyota also dropped the optional V6 engine and optional third row of seats, the Rav4 retained the automatic transmission, declining to adopt the Continuously Variable Transmission that more and more manufacturers are moving to. That's a good thing, since some CVTs are noisy and unresponsive. It allows the Rav4 to offer adequate acceleration and decent fuel economy, though not the best of either in the crowded field.

Although the Rav4 does not offer an optional engine, three driving modes are available by the push of a button. one is Eco, which improves mileage but dampens the engine response. Another is Sport, which increases performance at the expensive of mileage. And of course, the default mode is in between those two.

The ride in our Limited AWD model was very solid and quiet. The premium feel was boosted by such options as a leather interior, upgraded stereo system, sunroof and remote opening rear hatch. All these extras helped push the price to more than $28,000. But that's less than what genuine luxury compact crossovers go for, despite having many of their amenities.

Some writers have criticized the 2014 Rav4 for not being very exciting. But most compact crossover buyers aren't looking for thrills, they're looking for practicality, value and a little style, and the Rav4 delivers those in spades.

Facts and figures (all models)

• Model tested: 2014 Rav4.

• Manufacturer: Toyota.

• Class: Compact crossover.

• Layout: Front engine, front- or all-wheel-drive.

• Style: Five-door SUV.

• Engine: 2.5-liter inline 4 (176 hp, 172 lb-ft);

• Transmission: Six-speed automatic.

• EPA estimated city/highway/mileage: 24/31/26 (FWD); 22/31/29 (AWD).

• Price: Beginning at approximately $25,000 ($28,135 as tested).