Among car owners and enthusiasts, there seem to be two camps of people, Toyota-lovers and Toyota-haters. I know there are a bazillion and one ways to categorize people otherwise, but stick with me for a moment.
For a long time, I've been in the latter camp. Most of the Asian leviathan's models have been motorized appliances for the better part of the last two decades. The last time a Toyota model got my pulse racing was the 1998 Supra, the last year that iconic model was sold in the U.S. Toyota's models have been deliberately off my shopping list for a new car for as long as I can remember...until now.
My wife and I just recently moved into a 3 bedroom condo in south Orange County, and discussion of starting a family has become a predominant theme. Yes, I fear I am coming down with the dreaded "suburbanitis." Naturally, the next phase of this ailment is getting a practically-minded vehicle to fit this new station in life.
For budgetary and space reasons, our shopping list is limited to small-to-midsize crossovers and SUVs. After careful deliberation, research and discussion with my wife, the final candidates are, in no particular order: Mazda CX-7, Subaru Forester, Toyota RAV4, and the 2010 Chevy Equinox.
Although my knee-jerk enthusiast instinct would be to go straight for the CX-7 or Forester, I threw the Toyota in for good measure because I knew it had the most available horsepower (269) and best fuel economy (19/27) in its class. It also happened to have the highest rated towing capacity at 3500 pounds (tied with the Chevy).
So far, in the interest of not overly exciting salespeople, we have not driven any of these vehicles yet. So behind-the-wheel impressions will have to wait. But back to the main story...
I must say the Toyota is an extremely compelling package in terms of practicality and capability. Sure, it's not rated to tow 10,000 lb, and won't seat a family of 10. But for the cute-'ute class, it's a standout in many areas. First of all, the cargo load height in the back is exceptionally low, yet it still maintains a reasonable amount of ground clearance. It almost seems like an optical illusion at first. But for my shorter-stature (5-ft- tall) wife, it's an important consideration. Likewise, whereas almost all other vehicles in this segment feature a conventional top-hinged hatch, the Toyota sticks with its tried-and-true side-hinged swing-out door. Also shorter-stature friendly. My only major concern with this configuration is the ease of use when parked on a steep incline or decline.
And for such a tidy-sized package (barely over 180 in. long) the RAV packs an impressive amount of passenger and cargo room. There's even a 7-seat option for those with munchkins. Although admittedly, the rearmost seats are quite snug and leave negligible cargo room. Get a Highlander or jumbo-sized Sequoia if you want a semi-hospitable third row. We're probably going to go for the five-passenger model.
I often hear vehicles measured by the rubric of how well it handles on a racetrack. Let's be honest, the RAV will probably never get within 50 miles of a racetrack, with the possible exception of towing an ultra-light travel trailer to camp out trackside. Sure, I appreciate something that's fun to drive, and with 269 horsepower hauling a relatively light 3600 lb, it should amply deliver in the power department. (The V-6 RAV has been routinely clocked in the low-to-mid 6-sec range).
My wife and I are both curious about the new Chevy Equinox (which should be arriving in showrooms within the next few months). On paper, it's an impressive package, and packs plenty of available bells and whistles. I know by virtue of its heavier weight and lower power, that it won't have the same straight-line thrill factor as the RAV, but in every other measurement, it's competitive. I would love to give the home team a chance to earn our business. But I can tell you from being a lifelong import owner, as well as being very impressed by the Toyota, it's going to be an uphill battle. In a few months, if we end up buying, I'll have a full report on our final decision.