BRAVE New World; TOYOTA'S SOFT-ROADER COMES OF AGE.. IT'S STYLISH, RELIABLE AND EVER-SO SLIGHTLY DULL

Article excerpt

Byline: RICHARD HAMMOND

HA HA, Toyota Chav4. That's the nickname given to Toyota's 'soft-roader', the Rav4 and it's a good one.

But I suspect it's got more to do with the ease of rhyming Chav with Rav than anything to do with the actual car.

The name does have a meaning though, as well as an unfortunate rhyme:

Recreational Activity Vehicle 4-wheel drive. Those marketing folk really earn their keep, don't they?

Toyota launched the Rav4 in 1994 and has since sold 650,000 of them.

Although the Rav4 was quite happy to go off road if you asked it to, its real purpose was to provide the looks, image and - most importantly - driver's view of a traditional off-roader without the roly-poly handling and bang-crash ride.

It worked rather well. I loved the first and the second generation of them. Indeed, for my money, it was the only lightweight off-roader worth looking at.

Now there's a third generation Rav4 and it's quite a bit different.

First, it's bigger, more angular and much more grown up, inside and out.

Disappointingly, the new car is being built only as a five-door model. It's a shame because the three-door Rav4 made up for in street cred what it lost in practicality.

The new Rav4 is also a whole lot more expensive than the old one.

Toyota is obviously aiming a little bit higher with this new generation because the top of the range T180 model costs a whopping pounds 26,995. You can get a Land Rover Discovery for that.

Price aside, the new Rav4 drives extremely well. You completely forget you're driving a 4x4 because it feels very much like a cross between an MPV and a brisk family saloon.

The ride quality is better than the old model's and it steers better, too.

On a decent stretch of twisty road there's actually fun to be had with it. The original Rav4 had a permanent four-wheel drive system but on the new one you have the choice.

If you're not struggling up the side of a mountain and are instead struggling up the high street, you can leave it in two-wheel drive and enjoy improved fuel consumption. …