(Pocket-lint) - When Toyota launched the first Rav4 in 1994 it gave birth to the whole soft-roader, crossover format. Given it opened the way to all kinds of horrors we've seen from other manufacturers in the segment, it'd therefore be easy to hate it. But the Rav4 has always been a little different, a little bit fun and had a bit of a different style.
Until now. When it first appeared at the LA motorshow last November, generation four of the Rav4 had stopped being the stand-out model in the crowd, and instead had morphed into a "hey me too" family-friendly SUV. To our eyes it had no distinguishing features from a Honda CR-V, Kia Sportage, VW Tiguan or the hundreds of other small family crossover/SUVs you'll have seen on the road.
Cars tend to fall into one of two categories, whether or not they're good or bad: there are those that you expect great things of but that fail to live up to such lofty hopes, and; there are those that you have no great expectation, but that surprise you with their sheer competence and occasional brilliance. Does the Toyota Rav4 surprise and fall into the latter category?
A face only a mother could love
After some jitters over the past few years, Toyota's new bosses wanted to give the brand some flair, some reason for you to really want one of its cars.
They've done that in two ways: firstly, by making sportier cars that are more fun to drive - may we point you towards the GT86 - and secondly; by creating more distinctive, standout designs.
READ: Toyota GT86 review
That's why the Rav4 is no longer a softly-surfaced, headed-for-the-beach kind of SUV. Instead it features sharp body creases, cliff-like lamps and the new Toyota corporate face graphic, which is supposed to make it more identifiable and distinctive.
That's definitely been achieved, but at what price to overall aesthetics? While the Rav4 is not a badlooking car, as such, the Kia Sportage has it licked in just about every exterior design department.
Designed for the family
Step inside the Rav4 - yup, it's that big - and, on the face of it, things don't improve a lot.
The dashboard design is busy - with a dashboard form that's a combination of the sharp and the soft. Start to touch the plastics and textures and you're likely to be genuinely shocked by the crudeness of it all - particularly if you've sat in anything from the VW group recently. There's not the slush-moulded this and the soft-touch that of the German brand to be found here.
Instead, in the Rav4 we find hard, shiny plastics and mouldings, old-fashioned grains, a gambit of uncoordinated finishes - gloss here, matte there, shiny, hard, soft. It's all just a bit odd.
But then you get the car on the road, and once driving it - actually living with the thing - you realise that while there's a man somewhere in the finance department who clearly knows the cost of everything but the value of nothing, the work of the designers and the engineers shines through. Why? Because the cabin works brilliantly.
There is a place to put everything. Your phone, your keys, your drinks.
The cup holders - clearly designed for American beverage sizes - are huge. But that's no bad thing. We've lost count of how many cars we've tried to jam a 1-litre Evian sports water bottle into recently, only to give up and throw it on the passenger seat… where it inevitably leaks.
The stereo and heater controls are easy to reach, clear, and aren't compromised for right-hand drive. The gauges on the dash might look crude, but it's very easy to see what's going on and tell what speed you're doing at a quick glance.
The boot is also huge, the seats have a one-flick lever to fold them down and, in general - while it's lost some of it's old character - the Rav4 appears to have gained a lot of family-friendly features.
Like we say, when driving the thing, you'll discover a lovingly engineered quality to everything that moves - the pedals, knobs, gearshift and switches all work with the same weight of movement and beautiful damping. Call us daft, but it rather reminded us of the Porsche 911 in that regard. No, we never thought we'd be comparing a Japanese SUV to the quintessential German sports car either. But we just did.
An on-the-road surprise
On the road the Rav4 is a true surprise. It drives really well. The ride is perhaps a little too hard, which is a shame, but other than that this 2.2 diesel engine goes with surprisingly alacrity.
The powertrain is exceptionally quiet for a diesel too, and punches with real shove in the mid-range. A friend who followed us in his hot-hatch on one journey, expressed surprise about how hard we was having to try to keep up. We had simply been "making progress" - with no complaints from the passengers, as the car corners fairly square and with little roll for an SUV. That's the trade-off for the firm ride.
Perhaps all of this swift progress is why we failed to beat 40mpg during our test average, although this could also have something to do with the lack of standard-fit stop-start. We thought that was something of a surprise considering this is a brand new model, even more so when you consider Toyota's Prius-inspired green credentials.
No limit to the equipment
Aside from the Rav4's green-technology omissions, our mid-range Icon model is well equipped. Our test model came with just two options - metallic paint and Toyota's slightly fiddly, if very effective, "Touch and Go" touchscreen satnav system. It's decent value at £750 and not only gives you satnav, but the ability to do online searches, get live traffic info and speed camera warnings. It can even display your smartphone's texts and twitter on the screen, and it's a sinch to synch up.
Regardless of whether you upgrade the system to include the navigation functions, you get DAB radio and the novelty in this day and age of a long-wave channel on the radio.
You also get a back-up camera, dual-zone climate control and an electrically powered boot in this mid-level model. Cruise control, electric folding mirrors, Bluetooth and a bouncy-castle's worth of airbags also come as standard.
So unless you're desperate for leather seats, we don't see much point in upgrading to the top-of-the-range model.
The Rav4 arrived in our lives for one week and we had low expectations. One week later and it'd won us over - a genuine surprise for the decent driving experience.
We expected the Rav4 to be impressively built, to be well equipped and to deal effortlessly with five people and taking a load of old carpet to the dump. But we didn't expect it to be quite so refined and sophisticated to drive, or to offer a turn of speed and a cross-country pace that means you can surprise plenty of other people on the road.
But is that enough to mean you should buy one? The problem for the Toyota is that you're spoilt for choice in this market. We were equally impressed by the new Honda CR-V, Mazda CX-5 and the Kia Sportage. Any of them would make a great car for the average family.
It all comes down to personal brand preference, overall cost and the way the car looks. If you're juggling such points then do remember that the many things the Rav4 does well aren't all instantly apparent to the naked eye. It's that old adage: don't judge a book - or, er, car - by its cover.