There’s not much point in owning a 4×4 unless you’re going to test its ability, so it should be no surprise that within days, I’d taken the RAV4 to explore some local lanes.
Originally, I was just planning to go for a drive. I’d discovered that you can remove the roof panels and store them on the inside of the rear door and fancied a roof-off blast. Wales didn’t disappoint.
But this road, in the area known as Nant-y-Moch, leads to a few greenlanes. Well, it is a 4×4 after all. Perhaps a quick exploration was in order!
I opted for a lane I know quite well, though the problem is, these lanes change all of the time. Vehicles can change the terrain but to be honest, it’s water damage that can really destroy the lanes. You never know quite what you’re going to be driving into.
First off, let’s talk a bit about the RAV4’s off-road kit. It has permanent four-wheel drive, which is pretty unusual for a Japanese 4×4. Most have a part-time system, as do later RAVs. Happily, there is a lockable centre differential, like on 1980s Land Rovers. This prevents you losing all your power through one spinning wheel. If the wheel is spinning at one end with a locked diff, equal power will still be sent to the other axle. Not that axle is the right word to use here, because the RAV4 doesn’t have any. It has fixed differentials with halfshafts and independent springing at each corner. That does leave things like wishbones looking a bit vulnerable, though ground clearance really isn’t too bad.
There is no low-ratio gearbox though – the transverse engine layout really doesn’t allow it. That’s what really defines this as a soft-roader. A low-ratio gearbox gives much lower gears, which give greater control off-road. It means you can crawl along at less than walking pace – very handy if inching your way over tricky rocks. The RAV4 has a very low first gear compared to a normal car, which gives reasonable control of pace when climbing. I soon found it offered very little control at all when descending. With a proper low box, you can put it in low first, take your feet of the pedals and the vehicle will slowly crawl down a hill (grip permitting). All nice and safe. Not so the Toyota…
Descents always look far less dramatic through the lens, but this was eye-opening stuff. I couldn’t just remove my feet from the pedals, because it just can’t crawl downhill. I had to start using the brakes – a big no-no really as this can (and indeed did) induce skids. The lack of ABS didn’t help, and nor did the road-bias tyres. That are quite worn. I was having to constantly adjust the brake pedal pressure to suit the grip, but certainly did not feel entirely in control. I also found I had to jump out and survey the land ahead more often than I would in a ‘proper’ 4×4. I’m not yet used to where the RAV will scrape and catch. Which it did, a few times, despite my efforts. Thankfully, it has solid bash plates underneath.
It does feel rather vulnerable, but in a way, that makes it more of a challenge, and therefore more fun. I see lots of 4x4s in these parts that have a ridiculous amount of kit – most of which is unnecessary. The diff lock works well though and it successfully completed a couple of tricky climbs with only minor scrabbling – that despite a perilous lack of grip. I’ll certainly be looking to take it greenlaning again once I’ve got some decent tyres sorted out.
The odd thing is returning to surfaced roads and being behind the wheel of something that feels nimble and keen in a way most 4x4s do not! The bias is definitely more towards road than off-road, but the RAV4’s off-road ability should not be ignored.
Oh and don’t worry. I have a new driver’s wiper arm on the way, so I can ditch the single-wiper look!