For a new generation of adventurous souls or those who simply liked the looks or versatile interiors, there was a new breed of compact SUVs to tempt them, and leading the way were the Toyota RAV4 and Suzuki Vitara.
Now both of these models have recently undergone generational change so CarPoint decided to test them back-to-back.
Price and Package
When it comes to price, there is nothing in it between the two cars with both the entry-level RAV4 CV and the V6 Grand Vitara both priced at $31,990 in five-speed manual guise with a $2000 premium for the automatic versions -- a four-speed for the RAV4 and five-speed for the Vitara.
Of the two, with an overall length of 4600mm, the new RAV4 is slightly bigger being 130mm longer and 5mm wider than the Vitara though both share an identical 1695mm height. Underneath, the monocoque chassis of the RAV4 with a wheelbase of 2660mm is 20mm longer than the "built-in ladder frame" of the Vitara. The extra overall length of the RAV4 gives it a slight advantage in terms of interior space with a little more legroom in the rear than the Vitara, and both cars feature a second-row seat that splits 60/40 and folds to increase the already decent luggage space. There are plenty of storage cubbies throughout both cars while the RAV4 also gains a substantial rear underfloor storage area.
Up front, the seats in both compact SUVs are reasonably comfortable and supportive although over time the Vitara's driver's pew seemed to lack a little lumbar support. Getting a good driving position was easy in both with each car featuring seat height and steering column adjustments for both rake and reach.
On the spec front, standard kit in what is a base model RAV4 includes power windows and mirrors, air-conditioning, remote locking and cruise control. The audio system on the RAV is a single-slot radio CD that is MP3-compatible and while the sound quality from the six speakers was good playing CDs, the FM radio reception was poor with a constant background crackle on most stations. There are no such problems with the Vitara's single CD system but while the car is the range-topping model with power windows and mirrors, air-conditioning and remote locking, a major omission is the lack of cruise control.
In terms of safety kit, both are fitted with dual front airbags and anti-lock brakes with the Vitara having front discs and rear drums while the RAV4 has disc brakes all 'round. Externally, the biggest difference equipment-wise is the size of the wheels with the RAV4 riding on 17-inch steel wheels while the Vitara sits on 16-inch alloys.
Under the bonnet, there are substantial differences in the engines with the RAV4 featuring a 2.4-litre four-cylinder while the Vitara gets its power from a 2.7-litre V6. However closer inspection of the figures reveal that there is not a hell of a lot in it with the RAV4's peak outputs of 125kW @ 6000rpm and 224Nm @ 4000rpm; not that far shy of the small V6's maximums of 135kW @ 6000rpm and 250Nm @ 4500rpm.
With the Vitara weighing in at 1640kg, it carries a weight penalty over the RAV4 of 50kg which tends to dampen any extra oomph it might have in the engine department. Neither engines are overly strong considering the size of the vehicles they are being asked to propel, but off the line the RAV4 actually feels a little more responsive to right foot pressure.
Both engines need to be revved to coax the most out of them and get these compact SUVs moving but thankfully they are reasonably smooth and refined and only become more audible at the high end of the rev band.
The down side of driving these cars harder, however, is that they both become very thirsty. Toyota claims an official combined ADR 81/01 fuel consumption of 9.1l/100km versus the Vitara's test figure of 11.6l/100km but on CarPoint's real world test we struggled to get 400km out of a tank for either car, which translates into a consumption of around 15l/100km.
Although the Vitara's auto transmission features an extra ratio, in standard mode it tended to be a bit reluctant to kick down but switched to 'power' it was more responsive and able to make the most of the engine's mid-range torque. No such issues in the RAV4's smooth four-speeder although under hard acceleration, the shifts in both transmissions become fairly noticeable.
Apart from the engines, the other big difference between the two cars is in the four-wheel drive systems. The RAV4 was previously a full-time system, which is now part-time, while the Vitara has gone the other way.
Toyota calls its system Active All-Wheel Drive and it uses an electronically controlled electromagnetic coupling to distribute torque to the axle with the most grip. Under normal conditions drive is through the front wheels with power sent to the rear axle when a range of sensors determine that traction losses are imminent. These sensors control torque split based on information on the vehicle’s longitudinal and lateral acceleration, steering wheel angle, throttle position, accelerator pedal angle, engine revs and relative speed of the four wheels. At speeds of under 40kmh, the centre differential can be locked to provide an even split of torque for off-road conditions.
The Vitara's 4-Mode system drives all four wheels all the time with the torque split governed by a torque-sensing centre differential. This can also be locked for high-range four-wheel drive while a transfer case offers the additional attraction of a full set of low-range ratios for rough off-road terrain.
On the short gravel sections of CarPoint's test route, both systems proved to be unobtrusively effective ensuring plenty of grip and useable drive forces on the wet slippery road surface.
On the Road
With relatively high bodies, the suspension tune in both cars is on the firmer side to reduce body roll and maintain stability but there was a noticeable difference in the ride quality between the RAV4 and the Vitara.
Over short sharp ruts, the RAV4's front MacPherson strut and rear double-wishbone suspension offers enough compliance to ensure the ride remains comfortable. Over bigger road irregularities, the firm settings mean that it does bounce around a bit but never so much as to be unruly.
Cruising the highway in the Vitara, its front MacPherson strut and rear multilink setup proved to be comfortable with a good, firm and solid ride quality. However, once you head off the smooth tarmac, the car's firm ride becomes far more obvious with small ruts and bumps felt through the seats and body.
Both however, offer solid, predictable and well-controlled handling with no more pronounced body movement than you might expect. Although the Vitara's off road-style higher profile 225/70 16-inch tyres were prone to squealing a bit through corners they never felt like they were about to let go.
With little difference in the price and package and both featuring fairly anonymous styling, the choice between these two competent compact SUVs probably comes down to intended use. On the road -- be it the smooth highways or lesser quality urban tarmac -- the RAV4 feels more refined and composed. But if you are planning to head off into uncharted territory the Vitara, with its full-time all-wheel drive and low-range ratios, would probably give you a little more confidence in the ability to get out beyond and back again.