Toyota RAV4 2014The news that the Toyota RAV4 is 20 years old this year has, well, made me feel a bit old.

Because I remember being wowed by the original one, Autocar telling me it was like a GTI SUV and, once I’d got my head around it, thinking that sounded really rather cool. Looking at the SUV market now, seems 15 year old me was perhaps onto something (don’t also ask about my love of Lancias).

Now, we’re on the fourth generation RAV4, but it wasn’t with any high expectations that I approached the new one. Yes, it looks pretty good, in that crisp-edged way of many modern Toyotas, but I wasn’t particularly expecting to be wowed by the drive.

But wowed I was – because I can’t remember the last time I drove a compact SUV this quiet, refined, smooth and, well… nice.

Its distant engine, very sleek manners and beautifully measured and fluid drivetrain was all the more surprising given how it was a D-4D diesel. This isn’t an engine I’ve previously ringed as being something extra-special but, in latest guise and in this application, it is.

It’s similar surprise to that I felt when I first drove my first long-term test car, a Toyota Auris 1.4 D-4D. That engine was uncannily smooth for its day too. They may not like them but, when they want to, Japanese engineers can build good diesels.

Good things continued: the ride was measured and plush. The gearchange was slick and well oiled. It steered nicely. The high seating position gave a nice view down the bonnet. And the deeply dished seats, which felt good from the off, continued to impress. The sort of seats you can well imagine in a 1990s spec Celica, perhaps.

And although I splashed through mud and muck to take some photos, there was no danger of getting my trousers dirty when I stepped out thanks to cleverly-designed wrap-over door bottoms. Attention to detail there.

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So, good things all round? Well, not quite. Because, as in the Yaris and Auris, Toyota has again spoilt it all by fitting an incomprehensibly downmarket interior. So much about this car is good so why is the dashboard such a disappointment? Why are the plastics so hard and scratchy, the instruments so clumsily marked, the design so blocky and stark?

The latest RAV4 has, on the face of it, the dynamic engineering of something that could almost wear a Lexus badge. But it doesn’t even have the interior worthy of the Toyota badge. Which I don’t quite understand. Heavens, it even looks sharp and appealing from the outside, showing that Toyota has even learnt how to design interesting cars.

So why, given how nice the old 2006 RAV4’s classy interior was, has it stepped back two decades with this one? I’m all for celebrating anniversaries but I don’t think 1990s-spec plastics is quite it.