Pages Navigation Menu

Our New Dog Adventure Vehicle

This is a re-post from our other (non-dog) blog,

Why we have been Looking for a New Car

Our 2008 Honda Fit is pretty awesome. Not only does it have the nice looking sport package, but it gets awesome gas mileage. On our latest trip to Reserve, where most of the road is 65 miles per hour, we got 38 mpg. And that was fully loaded (two humans, two dogs, rockhounding equipment and jugs of water) and with our roof racks (which slightly reduce gas mileage). When we go 75 mph on I-10, we still get 34-36 mpg. Around town, 30-32 mpg.

It’s fuel efficient, functions properly, holds all the animals, has seats that fold all the way flat (something we have found in a grand total of ZERO other cars) and looks nice. It has taken us on many great adventures and cross-country roadtrips.

However…since moving to Silver City, NM, we have found that the low clearance combined with the long nose (part of the sport package) limits our ability to access certain wilderness locations. Additionally, with only front wheel drive, we have nearly gotten stuck a couple of times in remote places.

Thus, the main qualities we have wanted since moving here include:

  • Higher clearance
  • All wheel drive
  • Strong air conditioning that can reach the dogs in the back (or have separate vents back there)
  • Automatic transmission…but after test driving the first 4-cylinder Rav4, I found it utterly gutless. Even though our Fit is only a 4-cylinder vehicle, its manual transmission allows it to be driven in a sporty fashion. Unloaded, it is even zippy.
  • So after discovering what an automatic feels like, we added the requirement that it had to be a V-6.
  • Preferably light colored for better heat reflection

Because we travel with our animals, we very easily fill the Fit. We have a cooler in the back, a crate (Sydney) and bird cage to the left, and Trooper to the right. We stack stuff on the cooler and next to Trooper.

Why we Chose the Rav4

We did not want a giant SUV. After all, we were really just looking for an off-road version of the Fit. Our neighbor just bought a Toyota Tacoma and we liked the look of it. It is the crew cab with a bed topper. After some thoughtful discussion, however, we realized that having a fully conditioned space was a smarter option for traveling with the pets. Putting them in the bed of the truck would mean they would be exposed to heat and cold extremes. And the backseat would be reserved for Fred and perishables. So that idea did not make it far.

The RAV4 is in the same class as the Honda CR-V, Ford Escape and Nissan Rogue. If you want to read an impartial review of how these vehicles compare, you may want to go elsewhere on the internet. We examined these cars in the context of our particular needs.

The RAV4 received extra points right off the bat because of Toyota’s incredible reliability. We wanted a car that, when properly maintained, can be trusted to get us in and out of remote wilderness locations. We knew that to be the case, in general, with Toyotas. They also have wide-spread support should we want to travel south.

The Honda CR-V has no V-6 option and a low towing capacity. Honda also has markedly less support for an overland expedition around the Americas.  Eliminated.

The Ford Escape has rear drum brakes, which are noted to be not as awesome at breaking as disc breaks on all the wheels. Strong and reliable braking would be essential for towing. Eliminated.

The Nissan Rogue made it further in the intellectual comparison that any of the others. Then we discovered that due to not having a transmission cooler, there were numerous examples on the internet of people with overheated transmissions. The only vehicles that were without problems tended to be the ones with a particular trim package that included a transmission cooler. Because used cars in that trim package were few and far between, we moved on. Eliminated.

We also briefly considered a Nissan Xterra because a used one was available at our local dealership. It looked like such an awesome adventure vehicle.  And it is – but like a Jeep Wrangler – it seems designed for offroad use first and foremost. It does not have great gas mileage and would not be the best vehicle for long roadtrips. Eliminated.

This is our typical arrangement of objects and animals for adventures. Box to hold stuff, loose dog and crated dog.

Rav4 Generation Changes

The most standout features that changed over time were the ground clearance, the backseats and the appearance.

Based on how the ground clearance changed from the first to the third generation, it seems that Toyota forgot who their target market was. They started strong – at 7.5 inches – and then dropped to 6.7″. A few years later, it is like they realized that move was crazy and they went back to 7.5″. The latest generation, however, confuses the matter entirely by dropping down to 6.3 inches. From the first generation to the fourth (current) generation, the ground clearance was: (1) 7.5″ (2) 6.7″ (3) 7.5″ (4) 6.3″.

The backseats also went through several iterations. (1) Folded flat but were nearly a foot higher than the rest of the vehicle, like a step (2) Flip forward to rest behind the front seats or could be taken out altogether (3) Fold nearly flat and (4) Fold nearly flat. For car camping and hauling animals, we wanted seats that folded flat. Additionally, it was an added perk that 2006-2010 vehicles had backseats that folded flat with the headrests attached. The 2011 and 2012 models had headrests that might have to be removed when folding the seats down.

The earlier RAV4’s look dated and the newest model, in my humble opinion, looks ridiculous. I really do not like the rounded, bulbous small SUV designs. And it seems like once one major manufacturer comes up with a scheme, the rest follow. Brian does not feel as strongly as I do, but I can say with certainty that I do not enjoy the look of the newer cars.

So, in addition to being the ONLY generation with a V6, the third generation had the highest clearance, the best backseats and a design that I found most pleasing. They were also manufactured prior to whatever safety regulation went into place that made the newer models (perhaps 2013 and forward) have ridiculously uncomfortable front headrests. They force your neck down so that your chin is nearly touching your chest. Not cool.

All of the Rav4’s, courtesy of cars direct dot com. Ours is the one to the far right.

Some other random features

We initially thought that the V6 would have dramatically lower gas mileage. The internet disproved this notion. The inline-4 gets 19/27 and the V6 gets 19/26. So one mpg loss while on the highway. Not bad.

The interior is quiet and the air conditioner is POWERFUL.

At ~3600 pounds, it is pretty lightweight for an SUV. Which just makes that V6 even more effective. AND the V6 can tow up to 3500 pounds. (PS. We keep talking about towing because we have talked about getting a small tear-drop trailer someday.)

They come with a full-sized spare.

Based on reading this article, we wanted a white car. But if the price was right, we would have been open to considering other colors. A black Toyota (with grey interior) was shown to be 114 degrees (glass) and 143.4 degrees (paint). Compare that to a white Toyota (with grey interior), which was shown to be 108.6 degrees (glass) and 92.6 degrees (paint). The temperature at the glass is not very different but there is a 50.8 degree spread between the paint temperatures.

Our Shopping Experiences

We tried our local dealership first. There are two locations in town – Ford and Toyota. We test drove their low mileage 2013, found it gutless and ugly and investigated their Nissan Xterra. A 2007 RAV4 (the correct generation) appeared on the lot one day but was sold before it even went though their trade-in clean-up routine. It was also the Sport package which we did not really want as it would be less offroad-capable.

In other places, we also drove a 2007 with 121,000 miles on it, a 2010 with 117,000 and  a 2009 with 141,000. We found a red 2012 with 93,000 miles on it in Albuquerque but it sold quickly. We also discovered a white 2012 with 93,000 miles on it at a local bank. It was a repossessed vehicle with limited maintanance records. The manager was asking for several thousand more than its blue book value; the opposite direction a bank usually goes when trying to offload a repo’ed vehicle. Considering that there were other cars on the market, warrantied by dealers and with newer tires, available for a similar price or less, we passed on it.

We were in no rush, but when the right thing appeared on the internet, we knew it was the one.

Our 2010 Rav4 Limited

We found this car on the Phoenix Craigslist but it was being listed by a small used car dealer. With 117,454 miles on it, it was within an acceptable range of our 100,000 mile target. Using the Toyota record finder tool (where you put in the car’s VIN and can see all maintenance records that were done at Toyota dealerships), we could immediately find out if normal maintenance items had been done (i.e. transmission fluid around 100,000 and new rear shocks at 85,000) as well as see how diligent the past owner had been about oil changes. The car checked out!

We knew we did not want the Sport package and we did not care about the fancy trimmings of the Limited. In fact, we were pretty sure we did not want leather seats (or vinyl covered leather, as is the case with the Rav). Unbeknownst to us, however, leather is far superior at preventing the massive accumulation of dog hair. And it can be easily wiped down. That sounds great!

Once we decided we liked the leather seats, we became open to the other aspects to the Limited package. The leather seats were heated and had electric adjustments. The exterior obviously looked fancier, and it had a moon roof. It came with a GPS navigation screen, backup camera, dual climate zones and the surprisingly awesome Smart Key system.

Driving the Rav and Fit back to New Mexico.

Making it Happen

We decided mid-week that it was not worth losing the car just because we had to wait until the weekend to test drive it. We used our credit card and put a deposit on it over the phone. It cost us $300 plus a 3% credit card fee. The deposit was non-refundable and the car was taken off the lot. We figured that the loss of the deposit would hurt less than the loss of the car.

We drove over on Saturday, arrived at the dealership 30 minutes before closing, took it for a spin, examined the body, put the seats up and down, reclined everything, opened all the compartments, used the windows, tested the moon roof and basically everything you should do before buying a used car. Once again, it checked out.

We completed the paperwork, paid the balance and drove away. The dealer seems to pride himself in offering the best deal on cars. We think he probably gets them from an auction and marks them up to where he thinks buyers want to end on. That removes any negotiation and it ends up being a win-win for both the buyer and seller. Note: The dealer did not refuse to haggle – there was simply no need because we knew what the car was worth and knew someone else would pay full price if we did not.

This strategy – pricing cars at what people want to pay – was new to us. The common assumption is that a dealer will mark it up way too high and the buyer will work it down until the dealer refuses to go lower. As a relatively inexperienced car buyer, thinking about that negotiation situation makes me a tad anxious. I also do not like it when dealers try to tell me what I want or convince me what I can afford. This Phoenix dealer selects good inventory, likely has low overhead (an assumption based on location and size of building), prices things fairly and then enjoys cars easily leaving the lot. At least, that was our interpretation of the situation and also kind of what was reflected in the online review sites.

The Rav is clearly larger but it does not feel huge.

Driving Thoughts

The car provides an amazing driving experience. While I have yet to dial in my seat settings, the upholstery and seat are comfortable, the AC is freaking awesome and the thing has barely restrained power. Even up against a massive hill, the cruise control, set to 75 mph on the freeway, would not lose speed or even hesitate to maintain speed. It feels incredibly luxurious, something our function-oriented minds were not anticipating.

I have had to modified my driving style quite a bit. Since getting my driver’s license way back when, I have always driven manuals. Same with Brian. I’m not used to the way the car wants to run away when I take my foot off the break. It also wants to go faster at low speeds which means I should really be using the power of my thoughts to lightly depress the gas pedal; versus utilizing any leg/foot musculature.

I cannot describe the relief I feel in knowing the dogs are more comfortable. The Fit is/was fine for air conditioning, but it was not powerful enough to make the entire car as cool as the front people were experiencing. This constrained our dog positions to as close to us as possible. And it meant that they were unlikely to be comfortable if we loaded them up on a hot day right after vigorous exercise.

With the new car, we have been putting them in the very back and are left with enough space to put up the backseats. We can carry passengers again! And even with them in the far back – Sydney in a crate with Trooper next to it – the AC is very cold and easily reaches them.

Arrangement of objects for normal driving. For dog transport, we push our box forward and voila, room for Trooper.

New Adventures

The clean car lasted until Tuesday. Then we got the idea to start visiting places that were previously unreachable in the Fit. Enter Black Hawk Canyon.

The road to the trailhead is essentially a river bed with deep, slippery sand and unpredictable rocks. The perfect scenario for testing our AWD.

The door swing is different from the Fit and takes a little getting used to. All of that dirt is from Black Hawk Canyon.

The steep road we hiked up. Vehicles with higher clearance than ours have clearly driven up this road.

Sydney getting ready to run over the edge.

And this is a vinegaroon we found during our morning walk earlier this week. It reminds me of the characters from Nickelodeon’s show, ‘Ahhh! Real Monsters’.