- The Washington Times - Friday, July 24, 2009

The Toyota RAV4 has undergone several changes for 2009, including a more powerful base engine, more safety content and lots of interior upgrades.

The RAV4 — offered in Base, Sport and Limited trims — has a 2009 model-year starting price of $21,500 and tops out at $27,810 for the Limited 4WD. Even at the base price point, the RAV4 is one of the best safety-equipped vehicles in the compact SUV segment. All models come with stability control, traction control, anti-lock brakes and six airbags.

The RAV4 has a reinforced cabin and energy-absorbing materials on the doors. This Toyota has earned the highest possible five stars in government crash testing in the driver’s side frontal category (four stars in the front passenger category) and five stars in side-crash testing for both the front and the rear seats. Toyota added a new standard safety function on the 2009 RAV4: Its front-seat active head restraints are activated in a rear impact to move closer to the driver’s and passenger’s heads to prevent whiplash. In the second row, the head restraints are height adjustable — and all positions get the three-point seat belts with pretensioners.

The RAV4 is a diversified compact SUV lineup. There are so many possibilities that it is entirely possible to customize this vehicle to meet the needs of small families, large families or the single person.

The RAV4 is standard as a five-passenger vehicle, but a third row is offered as an option on the Base and Limited models. The 50/50 Split-and-Stow third row accommodates two small individuals and folds flat in the rear cargo deck. One of the nice features about the second row, which has a 60/40 split format, is that the seatbacks recline and the seating base slides fore and aft to optimize leg stretch.

The RAV4 has a standard front-wheel-drive configuration, a four-speed automatic transmission and a new, more powerful 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine. The four-cylinder generates 179 horsepower and 172 foot-pounds of torque.

The model I drove was the handsomely and smartly styled Sport. I liked the clean look of the exterior without the tailgate-mounted spare tire and its covering. This is an optional delete item on the Sport package. When buyers choose to not purchase the spare-tire mounting, their RAV4s are shod with run-flat tires.

The Sport has distinctive styling cues, such as a stainless-steel exhaust tip, color-keyed sideview mirrors with integrated turn signals, roof-mounted antenna, privacy glass and fender flares. The RAV4 is solidly planted for handling the chores of everyday driving and is a modest trooper in off-road exploration with a ground clearance of 7.5 inches.

The 4WD Sport had a base price of $26,530. Equipped with notable options, the 4WD Sport carries an out-the-door price of $30,165. A big-ticket option was the $900 power tilt/slide moonroof with sunshade. The Sport is equipped with a 3.5-liter V-6 engine that is mated to a five-speed automatic with EPA ratings of 19 miles per gallon city and 26 miles per gallon highway.

The V-6 has a horsepower rating of 269 at 6,200 rpm and produces torque of 246 foot-pounds at 4,700 rpm. The Toyota features a new uphill/downhill control that reduces shift-hunting in the upper gears when accelerating up a winding hill. Downhill, engine braking is enhanced with automatic downshifts, which also improves fuel economy.

The RAV4 is so well-contented that it even has a tilt/telescoping steering column on the base model. It is one of the most desirable compact SUVs on the market.

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