When Toyota launched the RAV4 in 1995, it also introduced the world to the crossover SUV - an automobile that blended the versatility and commanding visibility of a utility vehicle with the comfort and driving dynamics of a car. In the years since, crossovers have exploded in popularity to the tune of 45 million sold. The desire for smaller vehicles and higher fuel economy are just two factors that have led to an increased number of such crossover SUVs, from 10 models available in the year 2000 to more than two dozen today, Toyota says.

Fast forward to now and the aging RAV4 is still selling well but finding itself amid ever-improving competitors such as the Honda CR-V and Ford Escape. Both of those vehicles have recently been revamped, and new and improved models from Hyundai, Subaru and even Mitsubishi are around the corner. Finally it's the RAV4's turn, and we got a chance to preview the vehicle in pre-production form before it goes on sale in early January with a starting price around $24,000.

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This new model marks the fourth generation for Toyota's smallest SUV, and many of the changes are welcome and noticeable from the get-go. The cumbersome swing-out rear door now opens upward and is far easier to use. The automatic transmission gains two gears for a total of six to improve fuel economy and drivetrain responsiveness. Of course, the changes include fresh styling inside and out.

Some things are also MIA for the newest RAV4. Trims are scaled down to just three choices: LE, XLE and Limited. The tiny third-row seat option is out due to low demand. Also gone is one of the RAV4's biggest motivators, literally and figuratively: the option of a strong V6 engine. Toyota says fewer trims to choose from will make the buying process simpler, while the decision to drop the V6 was due to its falling take rate of some 35 percent at its peak to around 15 to 20 percent today (V6 lovers can blame gas prices).

We tested all three trims of the 2013 RAV4, and models with both the standard front-wheel drive and all-wheel drive. The latter is a $1,400 option on all trims, and one Toyota says the majority of its buyers choose thanks to the vehicle's popularity in states where it snows.

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Our first impression of the 2013 Toyota RAV4 can be summed up in one word: Balanced. Our test models felt more dynamic than the Honda CR-V (though a bit less comfortable) but not as sporty as a Ford Escape or Mazda CX-5. Acceleration has been improved over the outgoing 4-cylinder model, but it's no rocket. The cabin is quieter. New Sport and Eco modes make the 2013 RAV4 feel more agile or sip less fuel, according to the driver's whim. The transmission is responsive and eager to shift, but maybe a little too eager at highways speeds, as we experienced some hunting between fifth and sixth gears. Notified of this, Toyota execs again pointed out that these were preproduction vehicles, and that the vehicle's artificial intelligence control may not have adapted to the various drivers testing the vehicle.

Then there is the new exterior styling and interior fit and finish. Both are major improvements and play key roles in returning the RAV4 back into contention with the category's best. Two-tone seat colors and a cantilevered dash with a 6.1-inch color touchscreen are highlights. We also enjoyed the crispness of the standard rear-view camera, but wished for more brightness in general from the screen. Amid the Arizona sun where we were testing the RAV4, the vehicle's screen washed out.

Whether the new RAV4 will have enough oomph to sell the 200,000 or so units sought by Toyota remains to be seen. What it already has going for it, though, is a strong history of reliability and value. In fact, Toyota boasts that of the 1.7 million RAV4 models sold since it created the crossover category in 1995, 80 percent are still on the road.


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