If you believe the television commercials, there’s a gateway to outdoor adventure that magically appears when you buy an SUV. Kayaking, biking, camping next to pristine creeks; the “active SUV lifestyle” sure looks grand but most folks’ reality actually orbits around trips to the grocery store and sitting in rush hour traffic, albeit with a slightly elevated view.

In our experience the Toyota RAV4 handles the humdrum of daily existence quite ably. But how does the Toyota of compact SUVs deal with a real-deal, as-seen-on-TV outdoor adventure? We found out on a recent downhill mountain biking trip to Big Bear Lake, a mountain village located due east of Los Angeles. Here’s what we learned.

Room to Roam

Downhill mountain biking is a fast, fun way to enjoy the mountains when they’re not covered in snow. It’s also a great way to injure oneself, making a helmet, pads, and ideally cool-looking riding gear a smart investment. Cramming three days’ worth of gear for five guys into the RAV4’s cargo area took some finagling but it did fit. Impressive. Beyond the cargo area we appreciated thoughtful storage nooks throughout our Toyota’s interior, including a nice-sized glove box, a handy rubberized cell phone holder at the base of the dash, and wide-mouth bottle holders in the lower door panels. 

But unlike inanimate cargo, people tend to complain when crushed into tiny spaces. We can verify that five average-size dudes will fit in a RAV4, a feat facilitated by the RAV’s flat rear floor. Limiting the crowd to four would’ve improved comfort greatly, but if you need to drag five people and their gear to the mountains it is certainly possible.

Favorite Features

The drive from L.A. to Big Bear takes about two hours in favorable traffic. During that time we noted some major RAV4 strengths. First we were shocked by our test car’s fantastic-sounding JBL Greenedge audio system. Our group included three musicians, and our collective ears judged it to be one of finest audio systems on the mainstream market. Beyond that the RAV4’s dash layout is utterly logical, particularly the climate controls that angle smartly toward the driver like in an airplane cockpit. Similarly the Entune infotainment system features an intuitive split home screen that displays navigation and audio info at the same time, removing the need to switch back and forth. The navigation system also includes embedded speed limit info, a handy feature on mountain roads where speed limit signs are often difficult to see.

Good Driver

Speaking of mountain roads our SE model's firmer suspension helped us make up quite a bit of time on the long winding climb to Big Bear. We actually caught and passed a Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG whose driver seemed pretty surprised to see us fly by...and subsequently pull away. The V6 offered in years past might be gone but the current model’s 4-cylinder engine still feels plenty quick, even at 7,000 feet with five passengers and a loaded cargo bay. When not harassing unwitting Mercedes owners, the RAV4 drives with an effortless quality, thanks to a neutral driving position and comfortable, supportive seats.

Better Safe

In keeping with the modern fashion the RAV4 can be equipped with advanced safety aids. As attentive drivers we didn’t get much use from the blind spot monitoring and lane keep assist features, but an electronic safety net never hurts. We did however take advantage of the RAV4’s adaptive cruise control, which made freeway segments of our journey a bit more relaxing. During jaunts around Big Bear’s quaint downtown we also utilized the optional 360-degree camera system. Providing an unimpeded view around the entire vehicle the system helped avoid parking mishaps…because if you’re going to crash it better be while jumping a bicycle.

Impressive Efficiency

Where efficiency is concerned we didn't perform a formal fuel economy test, but by trip's end the on-board computer logged an average 26.3 miles per gallon. Having completed a 7,000-foot climb with passengers, cargo, and a decidedly un-aerodynamic bike rack strapped to the liftgate, that’s a commendable number.

Trip Summary

In considering the RAV4’s efficient, easygoing nature and pragmatic interior, it occurred to me that SUV adventures come in two forms. One: Where the SUV creates the adventure. Two: Where the SUV enables the adventure. The Toyota RAV4 falls into camp two. You wouldn’t take it rock crawling, over vast dunes, or into the wilds of Africa, but like a great assistant it quietly handles the details, freeing you to enjoy adventure on your own terms.

In this case the Toyota RAV4 carried us and our gear to downhill mountain biking nirvana with zero fuss, competently disappearing into the background. With no logistical challenges to manage we turned our attention to trivial indulgences, like riding bikes off jumps and between trees at unwise speeds. In the end we enjoyed a memorable, thrilling, and miraculously injury-free trip. Perhaps those outdoorsy SUV commercials aren’t empty promises, but rather tantalizing invitations.


...and here's the obligatory slo-mo jumping video:


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