Behind the Wheel: 2016 Toyota RAV4 XLE AWD

Behind the Wheel of Toyota’s latest RAV4 – the most “meh” of SUVs I’ve ever driven.

2016 Toyota RAV4 XLE AWDRecently I found myself with the chance to drive the latest Toyota RAV4 for an extended period of time (it was a loaner while my car was in the shop) – and I have to say, I kind of regret it.

The RAV4 I was driving was the very latest 2016 model, but even with all the nice options on this particular car, it just rubs me the wrong way – in all the wrong ways, in fact.

First and foremost, the seating position in the RAV4 is just awful. Maybe it’s meant for shorter people than me, but I’m not particularly tall, so I don’t know. The seat is quite high up, but the roof is (relatively) low, which means getting into the car requires me to duck my head even to get in & out of the seat.

Then, once I’m in the seat, the steering wheel doesn’t come out far enough, and so I have to sit with my legs kind of scrunched up in order to hit the pedals properly, which is not at all comfortable. Then, once I’ve found my seating position, it turns out the steering wheel doesn’t come up high enough – it blocks the top of the gauges.

On top of all that, the roof is very low and my head brushes against it while I’m driving.

As for the engine, the 176 HP 2.5L inline-4 (the only available engine) is plenty powerful enough to get this (relatively) lightweight SUV moving, but the transmission doesn’t seem to want you to get anywhere near that power. As soon as you get moving, it surges up through all 6 of the gears and then stays there – you have to drag it kicking and screaming to get it to go down into 5th or 4th.

That said, it does have one of those “Sport” buttons (with a corresponding “Eco” button, in case you forget that the two are mutually exclusive). However, I wouldn’t ever touch that button because it turns this car from Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde – it’s absolutely insane. The throttle instantly becomes very touchy, the transmission suddenly realizes that 3rd and 4th are gears that exist, and the steering gets very tight. It sounds like it might be a fun mode to be in, but trust me – it’s not. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s borderline undriveable in this mode.

On top of that, this car has Toyota’s variable valve timing (VVT-i) which kicks in around 5000RPM and it is INSANE when it does – the whole car just SURGES forward; it is more than a little scary.

And as if that wasn’t enough, even when in “Eco” mode this car gets really lousy gas mileage. I swear, when driving you can actually see the gas gauge moving.

As for the rest of the car, everything else is just… OK. The radio is… OK. The media system touchscreen is… OK. If this car was an ice cream flavor, it’d be plain vanilla.

There are lots of plastic-y bits, though some weirdly placed softer materials on the dash which strike me as rather incongruous, but I suppose it helps make things feel a bit softer and adds padding (both physical and for sound-deadening purposes).

There is a lot of thoughtful storage (typical Toyota style). In fact there’s so much that it almost make this feel vaguely minivan-ish.

Handling is decent – body roll is very controlled – and it feels planted, and of course it turns very well.

The looks are just boring – there’s no two ways about it. It looks like any other compact SUV on the market, with really nothing to distinguish it.

All in all the RAV4 is an unassuming, docile, practical people mover (if you’re not too tall) that doesn’t do much wrong but also doesn’t really do anything right, either. In a sense it is an SUV for people who want an SUV but don’t really care about SUVs.

Christmas Letter 2015

This is the letter that went out with our Christmas cards this year (usually just to family), but it’s been such a year that I thought I’d share it here as well.

2015 christmas cardApologies for this Holiday card arriving late this year – December got away from us, and truth be told, looking back, the whole year was a bit of a jumble!

You’ll notice this year there are no bunnies on the card, that’s because this year we lost our two furkids Gus and Betsy. Gus left us in January after a bout of illness and Betsy did not wake up from the anesthesia after a routine procedure in August. They had been with us for over 10 years and despite the often-costly path of destruction they left on both our belongings and bank account (chewed-through power cords? Check. Hole dug in the carpet? Check. Penchant for expensive organic salad mix? Check. Disappearing into some random spot in the house causing a panic. Check.), we miss them to bits. It’s highly unlikely we will be bunny-less forever, so 2016 may see 2 more bunnies fall into the lap of bunny-luxury at 18 Erskine, stay tuned!

Early 2015 we escaped some of the epically cold NJ winter weather by heading back to Australia in February to celebrate our niece Penelope’s first birthday.  As only Amanda’s sister Kate could pull-off, it was a jungle-themed party complete with handmade animal tails, masks, a treasure hunt, tee-pee and balloons!  It was an exhausting but super-fun day and Penny had a ball. Turns out February is a great time to visit Adelaide as the Fringe festival is on – we caught a few shows and even took the kids through a maze in Victoria Square (OK so the kids were terrified, but the adults had fun!). There were some lovely dinners out with family, strawberry picking at Beerenberg with the kids and trips to the beach. The end result of the trip was that Dexter, now 4 years old, is completely enamored with Uncle ‘Keef’ (much to Auntie’s dismay – she wanted to be the favorite!). Though Auntie was the one who bought all the toys, it was Uncle Keef who would sit for hours tirelessly playing trucks in the sandpit or sit and fixing Dexter’s LEGO toys.

After returning to New Jersey and seeing out the long, cold Winter we embraced Springtime as quickly as we could, with Amanda pretty much camping out at the garden store buying plants. Like carful’s of plants. Pretty much every weekend. By June all the employees at the store knew her by name.  Her war cry became “but there is a sale!” On sale or otherwise, while lots of lovely plants sound like a great thing, Keith often was left to dig the holes needed to put said-plants in the ground, which was a massive undertaking, and as Amanda would time it, was often done in oppressive humidity.  We added some larger plants (skip laurel’s, crepe myrtles, and magnolias) as well as smaller perennials that attract hummingbirds, butterflies and dragonflies. The resulting display this Summer was fantastic and we have 2 hummingbirds that now visit the front garden, and butterflies throughout the Summer.

During late Spring and early Summer we decided to execute Amanda’s Dad’s suggestion that we finish the garage with insulation and drywall/gyprock. This was the biggest project we had ever undertaken and it nearly got the better of us. Six months’ post-project we can look back and be proud of the end-result but it was a tough, tough frustration-inducing slog (and for a long time we wouldn’t even talk about it). Amanda will never forget Keith in the garage at 8pm one Sunday night after working 5 days nonstop, the plasterwork had been sanded and despite extensive use of the broom there was such fine plaster dust everywhere that we needed to get out so we could start to prep for paint. “Why don’t we just use the leaf blower?” Amanda suggested. What a nightmare! Within minutes of firing up the leaf blower the dust curled out from the garage looking like a plume of smoke and debris you would typically see from a building demolition or disaster movie. You couldn’t even see Keith in the garage it was just dust. Everywhere. All over the driveway, the cars, the plants in the front garden!

Late this Summer we were fortunate to have David and Ana (Amanda’s Uncle and Auntie) over for a visit, we spent a lovely day looking at the sculptures at the Grounds for Sculpture here in NJ, we also had some lovely dinners in NYC and even toured Princeton University which was really interesting and not something we would have thought do even do.

Obviously forgetting the fatigue and frustration of the garage project, we decided to build a shed in the backyard (we call it our tiny house). This project took up most of the autumn and quickly became another “this is a lot harder than we thought” experience. We ended up having to hire help with raising one of the walls – at over 9 feet (3 meters) tall and VERY top-heavy we just couldn’t lift it up ourselves. But with help from paid random strangers Amanda found online (that’s a whole other story…) at 9pm we did get the wall up, and now we have a lovely shed that matches the style of the house – and can also act as an emergency shelter if needed.

Amanda has this great habit of injuring herself at the beginning of any large project and rendering herself less than 50% operational usefulness.  So let’s be honest, Keith pretty much built the shed… To Amanda’s specifications of course.

With the shed watertight with a roof, and a promise to each other to take a break from projects around the house, the end of 2015 wrapped up with a lovely Thanksgiving spent with Keith’s Mum and then in early December a 5-night stay on the Caribbean islands of Turks and Caicos (Turks and Caicos is a 3.5 hour flight from Newark New Jersey). While we usually like to get our and explore on our Holidays, this trip we did absolutely nothing but read, swim in the ocean and relax. It was wonderful.

It’s been a bumper year and activity on the house is slowly winding down – Keith’s excited at the thought of less projects in 2016 but Amanda’s parents are visiting and there is that patio paving that needs to be done … so stay tuned!

Happy Holidays! We send you and your family our best wishes for the Holiday break and wish you a wonderful, prosperous and fulfilling 2016.

The Struggle

Every day is a struggle… a different kind of struggle, sure, and varying wildly in intensity, true, but a struggle nonetheless.

Struggles against fear & frustration, loss and abandonment, or even just struggling with getting out of bed or running out of coffee.

Yet it is these struggles that define us. Like the lines that define a picture – without struggles we are just empty space.

Without these struggles, we are just consumption machines; mindlessly turning food into waste heat.

We all struggle – each and every one of us. We face our own struggles, every day, but we face them together.

So take heart, my friends, and struggle on…

Just People

It’s all too easy in this day and age to give in to a subtle (or not-so-subtle) fear of “foreigners” but it is important to remember that these are still just people like you and me.

Every time someone talks about fear of foreigners I just want to shake them & say “These are PEOPLE! They eat & sleep just like you; they have hopes and aspirations just like you, they love and they dream just like you, and putting aside different clothes and traditions they are STILL JUST PEOPLE who are not scary and should not be treated with any less decency than you would want to be treated with yourself.”

It is all to easy to group people you don’t know and apply simple stereotypes and pretend you know them – and always but especially in this day and age this is a terribly dangerous way to think; all the more so because it is so easy to do without even realizing you’re doing it. If you ever catch yourself using the phrase “those people,” you’ve probably just fallen into this trap.

But someone isn’t “those people” any more than you are “these people.” The lines we draw are arbitrary, regardless of what they’re based on. At the end of the day, we are all just people – different people to be sure, there’s all kinds of people – but still people all the same.

So the next time you see someone different from yourself, before you slap a stereotype and your preconceptions on them and convince yourself that you know that they are like and what they think, stop for a moment and remember: though they may look different or behave different, they are JUST PEOPLE and they are almost certainly more like you than you’d think.

It’s dark in here

It’s dark in here… did you hear that? I know there’s something here. I can see it, can’t you?

It’s dark in here
But only for the camera
I can see what’s in here, oh yes
The shifting, grotesque figures in the air;
The eyes, the eyes, over in the corner

Turn the lights on and they’re gone
It’s not the same now
But they’ll be back, oh yes
As sure as sunrise
As sure as night falls
Heavy, like that thud – didn’t you hear it?
I’m sure it came from over there.

It’s light in here
But the dark’ll be back
And I’ll see what’s in here, oh yes
I’ll see.