It’s not the best compact SUV out there. It truly isn’t – and a group test we recently published, written by the guys at Autocar UK, concurs – and they didn’t even really test the vehicles for serious trail capability. But then, it kind of is the best compact SUV out there. Let me explain why.
As with with many things in life, the “best” is not always what is “right” for you – the best may be out of your reach, it may not have the same priorities as you do or simply isn’t going to fit well into your lifestyle.
The Toyota RAV4 will likely be the best selling compact SUV out there. And this, I believe, has far less to do with the Toyota badge than we may assume. Buyers and writers alike are quick to comment on how much of Toyota sales is down to the badge – and while a lot can be said for their strong reputation, it’s not all about reputation. There’s a strong vein of logical thinking behind their line up, which is the reason why motoring writers can criticise them for outdated products as much as they/we like, but everything will keep going right for them on the dealership floor.
I may not be the biggest fan of the Toyota Hilux – a view I’ve been largely criticised for – but that does not mean I can’t see the brilliance behind it. These hardy, near-legendary bakkies are old tech, which means they break less, because there’s less to break. You get what you pay for in longevity and after-sales service, parts-availability across their massive dealer network and, of course, and do pay a little bit for the badge. But the brilliance of the Hilux is that it’s not the best bakkie on our roads – not at all. But, to sell the volumes they do, it doesn’t have to be. It just has to be the best bakkie for buyers. The two aren’t the same thing, and this dawned on me recently when I was again criticised for my belief that the Hilux isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I was told that I must be wrong because this guy’s friend’s brother’s uncle’s whatever had just bought 1000 Hiluxes – for the second time – for his business. High sales do not a good product make. Sales mean the product is the right product, and Toyota understands that. It’s about giving the market just what they need and can afford, sticking to the right priorities for high-volume buyers and not faffing about too much with the minorities – like those buyers willing to bet their buck on new and overwhelming technology. The Hilux sells because it’s the perfect blend of value-for-money/practical/durable/Toyota-badge for our market. The same now seems to go for the Toyota RAV4.
Well lets start by saying I’m biased – the RAV4 has always been a favourite of mine (we’re all biased, by the way, because we’re human). The reason for that is not because it’s the best little off-roader out there. I have other favourites too, and some are better, some are worse. Each have endeared themselves to me because of a specific element. I love the RAV4 because of how it makes the driver feel – it’s not mind-numbingly controlled, and if you’re a driver’s driver, it allows you an incredible amount of freedom to play… safely. And, the new RAV4 is no different in that aspect. It’s just good enough to keep you on the road, but it’s got just enough kit that it will make you work for your driving pleasure, with high driver input and the most dynamic handling I’ve yet to experience in a car with this Japanese badge.
And that’s just it – it’s the perfect car for me. We are often asked “what’s the best off-roader?” It’s truly a frustrating question, because the best off-roader (or car, or sportscar, or donkey kart!) is the best vehicle for you. The RAV4, with it’s handling, versatility, just-high-enough ground clearance, what is arguably the best manual gearbox they’ve made and the Toyota trusted reliability, is probably the best SUV for a lot of people. It’s also ridiculously affordable for what you get.
Toyota makes sure that their vehicles are versatile – widely capable to an extent that’s good enough for the highest number of buyers. Here, by capable, I really mean suitable – in terms of everything from fuel efficiency to practicality and cost of operation. The things that matter to buyers are not the things that always matter to motoring media, because we’re a group of people virtually obsessed with the mechanical and technological brilliance of vehicles. We love the advancement, the development and the mechanics of cars and the motoring industry itself. Whilst – especially in the 4×4 industry – we have great reverence and respect for the engine that’s been going for 500 oookm, it’s the new stuff that gets us going – that’s what is important to us.
But, car manufacturers don’t make their vehicles for the press. They make them for the buyers – and they’re more aware of what buyers want than we realise. Toyota, then, is exceptional at reading their market – and Toyota South Africa especially so in this regard. Things like not introducing the 4Runner, holding the new Hilux back until it will stand up to the cult-like followings’ standards and waiting to introduce the Aygo – their timing has been perfect every time, and their sales records have proved this time and again.
The RAV4 is perfect for the current market – where buyers are painfully aware of fuel efficiency (enter the RAV4 2.2 diesel’s great fuel consumption), cost-of-operation (lower service costs, part costs and fuel costs), safety (airbags, VSC standard across the range) and budget (the entry level is now cheaper than the previous range for what is likely a much more versatile and affordable-to-run vehicle). They’ve also hit the nail on the head with the “SUV” element of the RAV4, as families become more aware of how little they use their expensive 4×4 drive train, and how much it adds to the price tag. It has just enough kit (average ground clearance, centre differential lock, two models with permanent AWD) to get you through the thick sand in the Kalahari (see our July issue), but it handles like a family car around town because it’s not weighed down by a heavy chassis.
Overall, the balance in terms of features, kit, cost and capability that Toyota have achieved with the RAV4 couldn’t be any more perfect for the market it’s been introduced to and the time at which it has been introduced. It’s not the fastest, the most off-road capable, the best ride or the most spacious of the SUVs – but it does each of those things well enough in equal amounts, and that’s why it is the best compact SUV on our market at the moment. The badge, of course, doesn’t hurt.
And the Hilux? Well, if they’re working as hard on the incoming model as they did on the RAV4, I predict it will be equally suitable and dependable, restrained but capable, to appeal to the widest audience possible with the durability that they’ve bet their name on. I can’t wait to drive it.