The Toyota RAV4 has enjoyed a niche as an entry-level SUV since its introduction in the late 1990s, with the Land Cruiser/Land Cruiser Prado as the top rung in the Toyota SUV lineup. But since the Fortuner and its diesel engine/4x4 all terrain capabillity arrived on the scene in 2005, the RAV4 has taken a backseat to its IMV (Innovative international Multi-purpose Vehicle) line brother. In late 2008 Toyota introduced the newest update to the RAV4 lineup, intended to go head-to-head with the Honda CR-V and maintaining its crossover SUV branding. Can it still attract buyers, given a high price tag and a modest power-to-weight ratio?

The RAV4 lent for this test drive was a P 1.805 million 4x4 VVT-I model, clad in black and sitting on 7JJ x 17-inch alloy rims and Bridgestone Dueler H/T 687 225/65R17 rubber. The exterior hasn't changed much, but is slowly looking angling more towards the rugged Fortuner crowd in order to attract male buyers as well as the female crowd (which comprises a majority of the SUV's purchasing segment). The nose looks less snub-ended than its 2006 predecessor, the rims look more suited for the occasional non-tarmac excursion (due to their thick spokes), the inlets on the faux mesh grille are larger, the foglights are bigger and the tailights now have added LED (light emitting diode) displays so that motorists and people behind the RAV4 can see it and act accordingly.

The cabin also seems like the '06 version's layout and features were retained, but with a classier and lighter ambience (especially when it comes to the dashboard plastics). More visible brushed metal now adorns the middle dashboard and the gauge cluster still sports virtually the same layout as the previous model's, but with light gray trim at its edges for better visibility. Just like its precursor, the interior can swallow five people comfortably, regardless of height or girth. The rear seat backrests can be folded flat (either from the back row itself or from the cargo area, thanks to some ingenious levers right below the loading bay side glass) to handle odd-shaped cargo, and when the rear seats are upright the back swallows a balikbayan box and three large travel bags. The 2-DIN head unit ditches the cassette tape-and-CD combo for a purely CD-MP3 CD approach, plus a much better layout and volume/frequency controls on the steering wheel. The only bad news here is that the audio entertainment needs help at both treble and bass ends (the sound actually needs an amplifier to improve quality), and door storage is narrow.

Then there's the driving experience. The 2.4L inline four was retained, moving its 1,585 kg of curb weight with much effort on all sorts of roads, netting a 188 kph top speed and 6.93 km/l on a week of mixed driving. You get into the powerband at around 3,500-3,700 rpm; at a notch below 5000 rpm is just noise. Not helping much either is a lively a/t (read: short second gear, tall third gear), but the tranny's willing to downshift at one half pedal effort. However, on inclines it's best to use third or even second gear, depending on slope severity. The part time four wheel drive (despite giving more torque bias to the rear wheels in certain conditions) is adept more for hard earth and pebbly roads, not for mud and river crossings.

Despite its looks the RAV4 is no lumbering behemoth on turns. Traction breaks at 70-80 kph, with scarce yaw. The ride is comfortable, and the nastiest bumps and humps just don't unnerve whoever's inside. A small steering wheel makes steering feedback a tad blunt, but the feel is light, and the unit's turning radius rivals that of compact passenger cars. There are a plethora of airbags, from the entire front dashboard to the b-pillars to the d-pillars. The brakes have good bite, but the handbrake requires a near 35 degree pull for passable grip. And much like the '06 model, the foglights' brightness can substitute for the headlights anytime.

No doubt the current RAV4 is a great SUV, but its price and its gas-only variants have made it the odd one out in Toyota's SUV lineup. With its Fortuner and the Land Cruiser/Land Cruiser Prado brethren getting more attention, the RAV4 has now been moved to the sidelines.