• Auto Trader tests new version of Toyota SUV
• On sale now, with first deliveries in March
• Choice of two- and four-wheel drive models, priced from £22,595

It’s been almost 20 years since Toyota revolutionised the SUV market with the RAV4 – a car that blended hot hatch and 4×4 to great effect. Since then, successive models have grown to become more of a family car, and 2013 brings the fourth-generation model, which continues that development.

The most obvious changes to the car are the way it looks, with the front end adopting the new Toyota family face that has already appeared on the latest version of the Auris hatchback. This new model may not stand out like the original RAV4, but it is at least smart and inoffensive, with top-spec models looking that little bit smarter, thanks to their extra chrome trim on the bumpers and front grille.

The interior is also all-new, but here Toyota has been rather less successful, particularly with the choice of materials. There’s too much cheap-looking, hard-feeling plastic on view and some very disappointing details: the digital clock on top of the dash and the fuel-filler release, for example, are not worthy of a car that costs well over £20,000.

On the other hand, there can be no complaint about how much room there is inside: in the front, there’s more than enough space for a six-foot driver, with a wide range of adjustment on the driver’s seat; and, in the back, the RAV4 is one of the biggest in its class. No matter what the size of the front-seat passengers, a couple of six-footers will fit in the back in complete comfort, which makes the Toyota more than a match for the likes of the Honda CR-V and VW Tiguan.

The boot, too, is excellent, and with a 547-litre capacity, bigger than the Mazda CX-5’s. Fold down the 60/40 split rear seats – easily done thanks to the one-touch folding mechanism – and you get up to 1746 litres (more than in a Honda CR-V) and an almost flat boot floor. Very impressive.

There are three engines to choose from, but we’re yet to drive the 2.0-litre petrol unit. Mind you, we don’t expect many buyers will drive, either, preferring instead to choose one of the two diesel units and deciding between two- and four-wheel drive. That said, even the 4WD model runs in two-wheel drive most of the time, only engaging all-wheel drive when necessary.

As you would only expect, the 2.0-litre two-wheel drive model has lower CO2 emissions and better fuel economy, but the four-wheel drive model (with its larger, more powerful 2.2-litre engine) has better performance and still returns decent economy, averaging 56.5mpg compared to the 2WD’s 64.2.

Both engines give good, flexible performance, with the 2.0-litre unit particularly strong below 2000rpm. That’s good news, because the engines’ low-rev strength means you rarely need to work them hard, something which only serves to show how noisy both engines (and the 2.2 in particular) can be. Otherwise, refinement is good, and there’s only a little wind noise from around the door mirrors at the legal limit on the motorway.

The RAV4 is pretty good around town, too, with light steering making it easy to manoeuvre. The raised driving position gives a good view out to the front and rear, and your vision is only limited to the rear three-quarters, where the thick rear pillars and small windows conspire to block your view.

On the open road, it’s clear the RAV4 has been set up with the accent on comfort – fair enough, given its role as a family car. The handling is safe and secure, with plenty of grip and the steering turning keenly into corners.

There’s very noticeable body roll in corners, though; and, although it’s generally well controlled, in a succession of corners taken quite quickly, the body’s movement can struggle to keep up with the car’s changes in direction, throwing the car around uncomfortably.

To make matters worse, we also found that, even with this soft set-up, the suspension felt rather lumpy. It’s a trait that could be even more pronounced on British roads, which we know are more challenging than the Spanish roads of our test drive.

Should you buy the new RAV4? Well, it certainly has excellent space and practicality, but we’re disappointed with the quality on show, and some rivals have it beaten in important ways.

For example, for the same money as the RAV4, you could go for the more prestigious badge of the Audi Q3 (but sacrifice a little space); then, there’s the lower CO2 emissions and better fuel economy of the Mazda CX-5; or, you could consider a Hyundai Santa Fe or the new Mitsubishi Outlander, both of which offer seven seats.

20 years ago, the original RAV4 was a ground-breaking and revolutionary car, but when you consider the 2013 version, it’s clear that the rest have caught up with it – and in some ways, overtaken it. Today’s RAV4 is big, but it’s not particularly clever…

By Andy Pringle

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