Toyota RAV4 2.2-litre diesel Icon AWD manual.

Price: £26,500.

Top speed: 118mph.

0-62mph: 9.6 seconds.

Fuel: 49.6mpg (combined figure).

CO2 emissions (g/km): 149.

Verdict: Splendid practicality, car-like driving dynamics, strong engines, big cabin and boot, well equipped, competitively priced.

WHEN Toyota first launched the RAV4 it moved the game on by a huge margin and it caused other manufacturers to sit up and take notice and quickly produce rivals of quality and ability.

And ever since the smaller 4x4 sector has never looked back with present-day growth in the UK and throughout Europe as many buyers continue to trade in their family vehicles for more fashionable transport.

Keen to protect its market, Toyota has produced some excellent examples but the latest allnew fourth generation compact SUV is easily the company’s best lifestyle effort.

It has a stylish and modern-looking design with signature Toyota styling elements and an ergonomic new interior. The cabin and boot are much larger, the equipment is extensive and the practicality is simply superb. There are five doors and generous seating for five.

Prices are not cheap but they are certainly competitive, starting at £22,595 for the 2WD 2.0-litre diesel in Active trim to £28,200 for the 2.2-litre 4WD diesel in the top Invincible specification. There is a choice of five diesels and a 2.0- litre V-matic petrol 4WD fitted with the middle Icon trim and CVT transmission. It sells for £25,605.

But the diesels, offering 124bhp and 148bhp, are the favourites with the larger manual 2.2 diesel in Icon trim at £28,500 being popular.

The new power trains not only perform better, but offer reduced fuel consumption and lower emissions.

On the road, the 2.2 oil burner is refined and flexible and has plenty of urge for a medium-sized 4x4.

Its mid-range torque or pulling power is impressive and is excellent for swift overtaking or fast changes of direction.

The vehicle is comfortable and a relaxing motorway drive with the unit cruising happily at higher speeds.

In town, the Toyota is also very manoeuvrable, partly due to its excellent turning circle and communicative electric power steering.

The ride is more settled than the outgoing model with the suspension soaking up road imperfections and the vehicle being surprisingly composed at speed.

Body roll is virtually absent while grip is strong on corners and in slippery conditions, helped by the active 4WD system.

The six-speed manual gearbox is slick and easy while the clutch is light for this class of vehicle.

In fact, the RAV4 has car-like driving dynamics that should suit all members of the family. And with plenty of adjustments, drivers large and small should be able to find a comfortable and commanding position.

For most of the time the RAV4 will be used on the road but it has a decent measure of ability off it and while it is not designed to deal with very rough terrain it is ideal for towing horse trailers, negotiating rough and deep potholed tracks, or getting you home safely through troublesome snow and ice.

The interior is very roomy with plenty of head, leg and elbow room for all five occupants and especially those in the rear.

The boot space is a generous 547 litres and folding the rear seats at the touch of a lever increases the cargo space to a huge 1,746 litres.

And for the first time on the RAV4 the top hinged tailgate is a standard feature.

The solidly-built cabin is well upholstered and well laid out with a largely leather dash and neatly fitting plastics all around. Despite the high technological count the numerous controls are easy to understand and use so that the vehicle is good to live with.

The 4x4 sector offers some outstanding vehicles but the Toyota is a strong contender, especially as the company has an enviable reputation for quality, reliability and safety.

And with a five-year/100,000- mile warranty buyers will also be given peace of mind.