Next time you’re at the hairdresser, stylist or barber, it might be interesting asking them what they drive.
In my experience, most people who’ve had the opportunity to untangle my tousled locks have been less interested in discussing where I’d been for my holidays and prefer instead to spend the time in between snipping, talking about what cars I’ve been driving and what they should consider for their next set of wheels.
It’s interesting that somewhat dismissively – and unfairly – the Toyota RAV4 was, in its early years, referred to as a hairdresser’s car.
Quite what that label was down to is lost in the mists of time, but it was probably because it was the first of the so-called soft-roaders, or maybe because when it arrived it was stylish and far from run of the mill.
It had the raised ride height and look of a scaled-down SUV, but was unlikely to be called upon to do anything more challenging than dodge the trolleys at the local supermarket.
It was the first crossover when it arrived here in 1994 and introduced us to a new kind of car, aiming to combine the rugged stance of an SUV with compact dimensions and the handling ability of a hatchback.
Toyota has now decided the time has come for some big changes to what is still the world’s best-seller in spite of competition from almost every other manufacturer.
The latest fifth-generation bears the same name – derived from Recreational Activity Vehicle – but is a completely different beast.
According to the marketing people it now stands for Robust – with great handling and ability in rough road conditions; Accurate – improved visibility and storage with great efficiency, range and safety in a Vehicle which has the option of even more advanced four-wheel-drive.
It’s lower, longer, wider with a higher ride height and it’s faster, quieter and more fuel efficient.
At its heart is an all-new platform with core strength of a low centre of gravity and a lightweight and strong balanced chassis that gives its driver big rewards in exceptional handling and stability.
Every component has been made lighter and positioned lower down in the vehicle – everything from the engine to the seats. The fuel tank now lies in front of the rear axle so that its load is spread evenly between the wheels which helps achieve flat, stable performance.
Changes to the electric power steering means there’s a more direct feel, especially through corners.
It’s still unique in its class with its self-charging, hybrid powertrain – the choice of almost all customers in Western Europe and even more so in the UK. Just three years ago, 88% of RAV4 owners opted for a diesel engine. By last year, that had plummeted to just 4% with 91% choosing a hybrid version.
The latest self-charging hybrid system makes its debut in the new RAV4. Key components, including the power control unit and the nickel-metal hybrid battery are more compact and lighter, and the transaxle and transmission have been engineered to reduce electrical and mechanical losses.
On the road, the car feels confident and happy to provide exactly the power – either conventional petrol or electric – whenever needed, although there is a noticeable contrast in sound when alternating between the two. The CVT auto transmission is less whiny than before and is superbly smooth in its delivery.
I spent most of my time in a two-wheel-drive version, but managed to squeeze in some off-roading in a four-wheel-drive model with a new automatic limited-slip differential control called Trail Mode designed to ensure the best possible grip on poor surfaces.
If it detects that a driven wheel has lost contact with the ground on uneven surfaces it automatically brakes that wheel and sends torque direct to the one which has grip. It is impressive and provides greater security for adventurous types who’ll know they should still be able to keep going no matter how tough the going gets.
The new version also looks pretty good with a powerful, beefy front end that emphasises its increased width. On the inside, too, it feels very spacious.
Rear seat passengers have an extra 40mm width, larger footwells and because of the bigger opening angle of the back doors, getting in and out and seeing to little ones in child seats has been made easier.
The load space behind the rear seats is larger with a reversible double-deck, fully flat longer floor, while 60-40 split seating means the space can be adapted for more cargo room.
With the rear seats folded down you can even get in a 29-inch mountain bike – without having to take off any wheels.
There’s a quality feel to the cabin with soft-touch surfaces on the dashboard and door panels and the switches and controls come easily to hand. A lot of work has been done to improve visibility. The low-set instrument panel helps to give the driver a clearer view of the road ahead and by moving the door mirrors further back, vision to the side is better, too.
A powered tailgate is standard across the range except for the entry level Icon grade, but the hands-free foot operation is not yet an option for UK models. Also not coming to us, for the moment at least, is a smart camera-operated rear-view mirror which still gives a clear picture of what’s behind, even if the loadspace is crammed full or if the back window is obscured by road dirt.
The RAV4’s role may have changed, but it is still an impressive machine with lower emissions, more power and greater tax savings than its rivals, including the VW Tiguan, the Ford Kuga or Honda’s CR-V.
And it’s likely to prove popular with hairdressers and many others besides.