The new Toyota RAV4 is practical, fuel efficient, spacious, and, overall, a really easy car to live with. But there's one thing that is unexpectedly complicated: child seat installations.
We install child restraints into every vehicle we test to see how easy or difficult it is to get them in securely. It's not uncommon for there to be a few things about the rear seats that can make this task more of a challenge. Belt anchors forward of the seatback and really stiff seat cushions can both make it hard to get the child seat secure when installed with the seatbelt. LATCH anchors are often recessed between the seatback and cushion, making them difficult to access. These examples are the "typical" things that can make it tricky to securely install child restraints. The RAV4 doesn't have these challenges, but it has a few other ones that make an already a complicated and confusing task, even more so.
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To start, the owner's manual indicates that the rear seatback must be in the eighth detent from full recline for child seat installation: Sometimes vehicle manufacturers will specify that the seatback should be positioned in the fully upright position before installing a child restraint, but that is not the case for the RAV4. The eighth detent does not correspond to its fully upright position, and the detents are very close together, which makes it a very cumbersome task to do and know it's right. What are the chances RAV4 owners will position the seatback correctly according to the manual every time they want to install a child restraint? Slim, we think. (See our SUV buying guide to find the safest vehicle for your needs.)
The RAV4 manual also states that before connecting a top-tether strap, the head restraint must be removed. It is sometimes necessary to remove a head restraint to allow a taller forward-facing child restraint to sit flush against the vehicle seatback, but it is unusual to require removing the head restraint in order to use the top-tether. This is particularly concerning because without a secure, designated storage spot for the head restraint, it can become a projectile in a crash. It can also easily become lost, which then would leave that seating position without a head restraint if an older child in a booster seat or an adult is seated there.
Finally, if there is a child restraint installed behind the driver's seat, the rear center seat must be unoccupied. This, of course, takes away from the seating flexibility and capacity of the RAV4, and it is also another statement in the vehicle owner's manual that we think will be often overlooked.
While these vehicle restrictions are unusual for child seat installations, it doesn't mean that it is impossible to install child seats securely in a RAV4. This just demonstrates the importance of always reading both the vehicle owner's manual, as well as the child safety seat manual, to identify any incompatibilities or unusual requirements for installation and child passenger transportation. It is also a good idea to have your child seat installation checked by a certified child passenger safety technician, as studies have shown that most are not properly installed. You can find a local Safe Kids car seat check-up event at www.safekids.org.
—Michelle Tsai Podlaha