TOYOTA RAV4 PRIME IN ARIZONA
The Old Road in the Desert
By Steve Purdy
We came to drive a piece of the “Mother Road,” as Steinbeck called her, US Highway 66, or Route 66 as she’s more commonly known. Not much is left of the old road from Chicago to LA, only small sections in patches across the country. Sadly, most of the cultural ambiance of these surviving sections has been so homogenized by modernity we’d not think them anything special. So, a pristine section like this is something to be savored.
Since our winter getaway has us in Lake Havasu City for one of our Arizona weeks we arranged to visit our colleague, author and historian Jim Hinkley, in nearby (60 miles or so to the north east) Kingman. Jim has written more than 20 books about Route 66 and recommended we take this piece of the old road when we come to visit – about 45, miles worth through Oatman, the old mining town that’s now a tourist attraction, and the Black Mountains. It’s one of the most scenic of surviving stretches, he told us.
That was great advice, and we’ll save that story for later in this narrative.
Our trusty steed for this desert adventure is the venerable little Toyota RAV4, fifth generation of the Japanese automaker’s popular compact crossover, a market segment populated by really good entries from every mainstream automaker and even a few niche ones. The RAV4 consistently rates near the top of that genre in most categories and by most reviewers. This market segment may be the best-selling category of new vehicles sold in the U.S, with the possible exception of pickups, and for good reasons: cost and practicality. These small people haulers began as bland little compromises of economy car and SUV, but now most have evolved into sporty little things that can inspire desire. This stylish, sparkling dark blue, RAV4 is loaded, has two powertrains and, of course, and comes with Toyota’s image of dependability. This half-electric costs nearly twice that of the base, entry-level, no-frills RAV4. Let’s see if it’s worth it.
Our late-January, short getaway trip started with Scottsdale and the collector car auctions. If it were not for a cat at home we’d probably spend a couple winter months in Arizona instead of a couple weeks. Our cat sitter loves the little bugger too, but we hate to leave her any longer and she would certainly be freaked out if we tried to bring her along on our travels.
Without necessarily choosing Scottsdale as our most desired winter getaway, it seems we can always get a great place to stay and a review car, despite our timing usually coinciding with the huge Barrett-Jackson Auction and the Waste Management PGA Tour event, both within a mile of where we stay. We’ll have a week in Scottsdale schmoozing with old cars, then a week in Havasu City on the California border exploring the desert and hanging out next to the famous London Bridge.
Our RAV4 is the “Prime” model, which means it is a plug-in hybrid with a modest, conventional, 2.5-liter gasoline engine enhanced by two electric motors fed by a substantial battery pack. All of that is controlled, balanced and integrated by algorithms way beyond my comprehension, resulting in what, in effect, becomes a tad more than 300 horsepower. That’s quite a lot for a diminutive crossover. If one drives less than about 45 miles a day you’d only have to buy gasoline when your tankful gets stale, maybe once a year.
Initial impressions of the RAV4 didn’t disappoint. The look and feel of fine quality, excellent execution and thoughtful design surround us. The door frame is a bit small, though, for someone of my unconscionable girth and rigid spine. I couldn’t duck enough to get in without scuffing and bumping my head. If the seat would adjust down a couple more inches and all would be well. A person of average size and flexibility would have no problem. It was entirely comfortable inside. Adjusting to the controls caused no immediate consternation, as can happen when experiencing an unfamiliar car. And, we had plenty of room for our luggage.
In spite of the unusually cold weather, we began our week in Scottsdale with the Arizona Concours d’Elegance – a high-end, invitational classic and collector car show and competition, the winning of which bestows great prestige on car owners. After a brief hiatus it’s now back with a theme of “Aerodynamics.” And what a show they put on!
Unlike most Concours the cars paraded onto the show field in an orderly line barely past the crack of dawn. It was this photographer’s delight to take advantage of the soft light, slow movement of the cars and lovely backdrops. Once on the field it becomes a challenge to shoot those great cars without the complication of another one in the background, and the sunlight usually gets mighty harsh the time they’re positioned on the field.
Most interesting for me turned out to be the opportunity to get great closeup shots of the drivers and passengers in these rare, valuable and significant automobiles. Many appeared to be husband and wife, a few looked like brothers, some dads and sons or grandpas and grandkids. We found more young women than you might expect behind steering wheels. A kitschy, blue “Shark Fin” Cadillac convertible, with top down in spite of the cold, entered the field driven by an elegant, stylish, tiny older woman accompanied by what appeared to be an offensive lineman for a pro football team. (I need to get the story on that one.)
About a hundred cars were elegantly positioned around the architecturally interesting city park. Best of Show: the two-tone blue 1947 Talbot Lago T26 Record Cabriolet with coachwork by Figoni et Falaschi owned by Ray and Bonnie Kinney of Dallas. As swoopy an automobile as you’ll ever encounter, the French classic engineered by an Italian also won awards at Pebble Beach and Amelia Island, the two most prestigious Concours in the country. (That must be Ray at the wheel wrestling the pristine old diva onto the field.)
We had time to explore the area around Scottsdale while making an initial assessment of the RAV4 early in the week taking a loop through Fountain Hills and down to Superstition Mountain. That hybrid powertrain makes it quite entertaining. Throttle response is quick and intense, not a millisecond of lag. The ride is on the stiff side of neutral and steering is as good as any. The freeways around Phoenix and its burbs run smoothly, quickly and efficiently, even in heavy traffic. The RAV4 allowed us to run with the big dogs when we wanted, weaving through traffic effectively with instant access to that generous level of horsepower and torque plus good visibility.
Heated steering wheel and heated seats were welcome since this time in Arizona happened to be the coldest of the season. Seat heaters were a bit tepid but steering wheel heat was good. The well-positioned, multi-function screen presents icons big enough, and in such an intuitive fashion, as not to be a distraction. We appreciate the pistol-grip shifter as the industry moves toward different shift control devises. Ergonomics and functionality get good marks all around.
Barrett-Jackson, Bonhams, RM and a couple other collector car auction companies host events near the end of January in and around Scottsdale. Well over two thousand cars, trucks, and other things vehicular will find new owners at these events attended by deep-pocket collectors from all over the world.
Barrett-Jackson, by far the biggest with about 1,800 cars to sell, fills many acres of an equestrian complex with what amounts to a carnival for enthusiasts. Within the cavernous buildings, tents and outdoor spaces we found nearly as many venders as cars with food, art, jewelry, memorabilia, aftermarket stuff, anything that would appeal to the guys and gals who love the thrill of impulse spending – from a personal helicopter, to a piece of furniture to a die-cast model. The front building reminds us of a major auto show with Ford, GM, Jeep, and other OEMs presenting their most special and expensive stuff under bright lights attended by young, good-lookin’ product specialists. You can even arrange test drives and rides in special cars as well.
Mostly American muscle cars cross the block at B-J, very few pre-WWII cars, luxury classics and foreign cars, but plenty of 50s, 60s and 70s stuff: wonderful old trucks, customs, hot rods and more modern collectibles. Among the most popular with collectors has been the legendary VW Camper Bus with 23 windows bringing often more than a hundred-grand. With record sales and attendance, it looks like the collector car market is mighty healthy. Barrett-Jackson is an immersive experience not to be missed by car enthusiasts.
Bonhams, on the other hand, is at a different scale and level. They move about a hundred cars, mostly European, nearly a quarter Porsches. Featured just inside the entrance we drooled over a beautiful 1958 BMW 507 roadster, the car that most vividly showed what the post-WWII German car maker was capable of. It will certainly sell for a couple million. And, across the aisle, beautifully lit on a shallow, white stage, sat a cute little Siata Spider in creamy-white looking ready to pounce. She’ll bring well over a million, as well. Out on the lawn we found Aston Martins, an exceptional old Allard, lots of Jags, a few Austin Healeys and a nice mix of other interesting cars. This was the auction for the sports car fan.
A night drive Havasu, half on I-10 and half on good two-lanes, provided an even better sense of the charm of our RAV4. Nanny functions like lane keeping, adaptive cruise, blind spot monitoring and the rest of that stuff we never knew we needed, all work well together and are easy to get used to. The dash lighting was easily turned down (or off, in the case of the much-too-bright multi-function screen) to minimize eye fatigue. It’s remarkably quiet on most road surfaces, but resonated more than expected on the worn course ones. As we approached the curvier bits of AZ Highway 95 we suddenly appreciate the automatic high beams as a coyote loped across the road in front of us.
So, back to story of the Mother Road:
We were on the road early from Havasu to I-40 before dawn. The plan was to experience the sunrise as we set forth northward toward Oatman on the old road into and through the Black Mountains between the Colorado River and Kingman. The first few miles of coarse pavement wound around the low mounds approaching the small mountains. Folks are able to just pull off the road onto a relatively level spot of gravel and scrub vegetation to camp where ever they like, and many do. Just before the old mining town of Oatman the terrain begins to change drastically as we round the shoulder of a granite peak. It’s an early weekday morning and we have the road entirely to ourselves as predawn light begins to warm the view.
The quirky old mining town of Oatman fills with visitors most days so the locals cater to them exclusively with mock shootouts on main street, rock shops, a single eatery and other rustic offerings. The whole town seems to be made out of old wood and stone. The few hundred yards of Route 66 that constitute the main street have been kept intentionally rustic to match the village. A half-dozen wild burros usually work the edge of town looking for some attention.
Just past Oatman the rocky, dirt Silver Creek Road presented itself on our left. The sign says, “ROUGH ROAD NEXT 10 MILES.” In the best shunpiker tradition we head down there to see where it goes. Just a few miles in we find ourselves traversing the edge of a large, scenic valley, the Mount Nutt Wilderness Area, just as the sun broke along the ridges to our east, lighting up the scene like a painting in the Louvre. About six more miles in we found a large gold and silver mine where we met the first vehicle we’d encountered the since leaving I-40, a huge mining truck.
Back to the main road we continue east toward Kingman. Halfway down the mountain just past Sitgreaves Pass, elevation 3,550 feet, looking out over the desert floor, we found another family of burros flirting with a couple old folks in a ragged old Ford Escort on the side of the road. Joining the fray, I offered up the leftovers from my breakfast sandwich, but they had no interest in that. (Probably because they are herbivores, I realized.) A little, long-haired brown one kept out of reach, but the other half dozen just seemed to want some human interaction. The old folks moved on, but I hung out, petted and talked with them while. What gentle beasts they are – descendants of burros turned lose to fend for themselves when the miners left. They’ve done rather well, it seems.
That edge of western Arizona, along the Colorado River is all about the desert. In spite of the commercialization along the river, the geology, ecology, history and culture are endlessly fascinating to us flatlanders from the Midwest. The flora and fauna are very different, of course, history and culture nearly as much so. We confidently recommend visiting this part of the country and pay attention to Kingman and their efforts to preserve the character and personality of old Route 66. Our imaginations were profoundly taxed trying to image traffic back in the day when this twisty, narrow road was the main thoroughfare across this part of the country.
The RAV4 suited us well for this adventure, even though we didn’t take advantage of its EV virtues. Without a convenient place to plug in we ran on the gasoline powertrain only, though there seemed always to be enough electrons in that 18 kWh battery to boost acceleration, just not enough to run in EV mode. (Well played, Toyota.) The EPA says we can expect about 38 mpg in that circumstance, and we got about 35. I’ll acknowledge that my driving style is not amenable to hypermiling, so you may easily get the 38. For comparison, it’s rated 94 MPGe on the government’s concocted scale, third best in the industry for PHEVs.
The bottom line on the sticker shows almost $51,000, and that includes just about everything imaginable from the option list. What they call the “Premium Package,” at $3,350 accounts for much of that premium content. The MSRP on the most basic RAV4 is around $26,000, and you can get into a PHEV version for about $40,000. If you ran the numbers to find the pay-off period in order to amortize the extra cost of the powertrain and fuel cost savings, the number would probably not justify the cost. But, as the market is finding out, there is more to the EV and PHEV purchase decision than just fuel savings.
So, if you’re considering a small crossover you should certainly have the RAV4 on your shopping list. And, if your carbon footprint is important to you, consider the RAV4 Prime.
For a nice desert drive, the Oatman Highway, a piece of old Route 66, is a good bet. Might not want to do it in the heat of summer, though.
© Steve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions, All Rights Reserved