Toyota RAV4 tackles Pikes Peak

On its launch back in 1994, the Toyota RAV4 press pack described this new niche-defining SUV as being designed “for those who seek driving pleasure without wanting to compromise either on comfort or on everyday practicality.” Meanwhile, its image was characterised as “non-conformist and imaginative.”

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These original messages were very much in mind when we decided to use the latest generation Toyota RAV4 Invincible to seek out driving pleasure in an imaginative and non-conformist way that paid homage to the spirit of the first-generation model.

In this respect, we chose to take on the challenge of blasting up Pikes Peak. Not the famous Rocky Mountains peak in Colorado, USA, site of a number of notable achievements by Toyota’s motorsport teams, but the less well-known summit nestling among the Cambrian Mountains of West Wales.

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Rising to an elevation of just over 1800ft, Britain’s Pikes Peak comes under the care of Natural Resources Wales and offers breathtaking views of the surrounding moorland, forests and high-altitude wind farm. Sections of these have hosted special stages of the Wales Rally GB, and will soon provide the backdrop to scenes in the upcoming Guy Ritchie film The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

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Accessed from the challenging ribbon of blacktop between Aberystwyth and Llangurig, the public road here is perfect for exploiting the surefooted grip and car-like, low-centre-of-gravity handling that has been a RAV4 speciality since day one. Off the main road, however, some of the unnamed tracks tacking up the mountain to Pikes Peak are large enough to be displayed on the RAV4’s satellite navigation system but will never be included in any normal routing.

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Just as well, because the track surfaces range from partially metalled to rough-hewn gravel, interspersed with muddied, incredibly slippery hairpin bends, and steep, heavily rutted forest tracks, should we fancy some more serious off-roading. In other words, the sort of terrain you would never normally consider taking a traditional car through, yet not so severe that it could stop a RAV4 driver from being able to explore.

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The benefits of the RAV4 Invincible’s active four-wheel drive system are tangible here. Resistance to understeer around the hairpins is impressive, torque being distributed between the axles to maintain chassis balance and the feeling of being in total control before wheel slippage or any electronic intervention is detected. A couple of vertiginous shortcuts were tackled with ease by pre-emptively locking the distribution in a 50:50 ratio and squeezing a steady supply of stump-pulling torque from the RAV4’s powerful 2.2-litre D-4D diesel engine.

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Towards the top of Pikes Peak we emerged from the cover of woodland into a quarry-like landscape. The track broadened and a smoother ‘racing line’ emerged consisting of pea-size gravel pummelled into hard-baked dirt. This was our opportunity to up the pace in the traditional race-to-the-clouds style of the Pikes Peak hill climb.

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With all traction control systems turned off and the intelligent four-wheel drive system given something to really think about, the RAV4 revealed beautifully benign handling. Four-wheel drifts in third gear sound scary in theory but when the car’s movements are clearly communicated to the seat of your pants, the reality is quite different and genuinely exhilarating.

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Our guide from Natural Resources Wales directed us to the best view across the Cambrian Mountain range, a vantage point set just below the summit of Pikes Peak and under the towering shadow of a powerful wind turbine. Pulling off the track, shrubland brushing the underside like a dry wash, we stood in silent appreciation of the RAV4 and our dramatic surroundings.

We may be on the wrong side of the Atlantic to climb the most famous Pikes Peak but with the Toyota RAV4’s “non-conformist and imaginative attitude” on our side, we have managed to explore a similar place that normal cars are not usually able to reach.

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