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Toyota fights RAV4 sales slump with redesign

– Toyota’s RAV4 was an oddity when it went on sale in the mid-1990s: A tiny, low-priced alternative to hulking sport-utility vehicles such as its own 4Runner and Ford’s Explorer. It was a hit.

Now it lags behind Honda’s CR-V and Ford’s Escape, which arrived later. With U.S. demand for compact light trucks expanding, Toyota has put a higher priority on RAV4 as part of a redesign for the 2013 model year, said Bill Fay, group vice president for U.S. sales.

“It was a great concept and we’ve done well with it, but we never took it and ran with it as hard as we’ve run with” the Camry sedan, Fay said of the RAV4 in an interview in Scottsdale, Ariz. “It’s a complete package this time.”

The revamping makes the RAV4 look more like a wagon and less like a truck-based SUV, reflecting changes in the segment.

The new version arrives amid Toyota’s U.S. rebound after three years of recession, recalls and natural disasters that have hurt demand for its cars and trucks. Through November, Toyota’s U.S. sales surged 29 percent from a year earlier, and the Toyota City, Japan-based automaker expects its U.S. vehicle sales to top 2 million for the first time in four years.

Including so-called sport wagons, U.S. sales of small SUVs totaled 2.89 million this year through November, or 22 percent, of the 13.1 million light vehicles purchased, according to Autodata Corp.

The segment trails only midsize cars, led by Toyota’s Camry, at 3.3 million units, according to the Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey-based researcher.

The restyled RAV4, unveiled last month at the Los Angeles Auto Show, sports a lower roofline and sleeker exterior for a more contemporary, wagon-like look. The spare tire, previously carried on a side-hinged rear door, is hidden in the rear cargo area, making the new model look less like an SUV.

Toyota also will no longer offer optional V-6 engines or three rows of seats.

The company’s strategy is to nudge customers needing such options to the larger Highlander.

“What’s happened is these products have been redefined; they’ve evolved to match the times,” said Jim Hall, principal of auto consulting firm 2953 Analytics in Birmingham, Mich.

The new RAV4’s pricing is also intended to boost its appeal. While the base model starts at $23,000, compared with entry-level CR-V and Escape prices of $22,795 and $22,470, respectively, Toyota says RAV4 has more standard equipment, including a backup camera and hands-free Bluetooth system.

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