SANTA BARBARA – Automotive journalists love to press for risk-taking. They continually badger for production of radical concept cars, edgier styling, innovative packaging and groundbreaking power for production vehicles. Or, preferably, all of the above.

These days, doing something overtly conventional is viewed by the media with dimly veiled skepticism. "Conventional" is terminally unworthy.

Given that premise, Toyota Motor Corp.'s all-new '06 RAV4 compact cross/utility vehicle should be dead on arrival.

All-new RAV4 larger, considerably more powerful with optional V-6.

After all, Toyota has taken what used to be the brand's only genuinely strange, slightly off-kilter model and stamped in a heavy dose of Camry-think.

In short, Toyota's once-weird RAV4 – the vehicle that arguably began the "crossover" trend in 1996 – has gone conventional. But in the new, third-generation RAV's case, it is all for the better.

It is obvious from the '06's mini-Highlander sheet metal that the days of funky styling are finished. Gone is the bug-on-steroids look of the first-generation RAV4, and the slightly more mature, yet nonetheless Tokyo side-street appearance of the outgoing '01-'05 model.

Is the new RAV4’s appearance more conventional? Well, yes. But better to look at? Absolutely.

Chief engineer Kiyotake Ise calls it "modern rugged." The new lines are crisp and clean, period. And to Toyota, that is going to translate better in the U.S. market to the tune of a predicted 135,000 annual sales, practically double the RAV's 2005 tally of 70,515.

The nod to conventionality extends to the driveline, too, where Toyota has made numerous changes.

The most important is the addition of V-6 power, a move Toyota, up to now, stubbornly resisted, despite successful V-6 efforts from domestics (Ford Escape, Jeep Liberty), the Japanese (Suzuki Grand Vitara) and more crucially, perhaps, the Koreans (Hyundai Tucson, Kia Sportage).

The newly available V-6 is the excellent 2GR-FE 3.5L DOHC unit Toyota is spreading liberally throughout its U.S. model range, a strategy that appears to borrow from rival Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.'s overarching “power to the people " mentality.

For the '06 RAV4, the 3.5L DOHC V-6 cranks out 269 hp and 246 lb.-ft. (334 Nm) of torque, and slingshots the bordering-on-pudgy new RAV to effortless sub 7-second 0-60 mph (97 km/h) blasts. Stomp the right pedal, and the RAV4 reacts in a fashion befitting an entry sport sedan.

The V-6 is available in any of the Base, Limited or Sport trim levels and can be coupled to front-wheel or all-wheel drive.

The only transmission with the V-6 is a no-nonsense 5-speed automatic that does exactly what you want, when you want (FWD and AWD models get separate variants of this gearbox).

The V-6 definitely is spunky enough to pull a big-overdrive sixth gear, but there are price points to be considered, so Toyota stuck with a 5-speed.

As per the segment rules, base power is a 4-cyl., the yeoman 2.4L DOHC unit also serving duty in many other Toyotas.

It makes an adequate 166 hp and 165 lb.-ft. (224 Nm) of torque that is unexciting when hitched even to the base RAV's 3,300 lbs. (1,498 kg), much less the 3,515 lbs. (1,595 kg) of an AWD Sport.

Particularly when the only transmission available is a hesitant and emphatically overmatched 4-speed automatic.

The V-6 is the clear-cut choice. The 2.4L 4-cyl. is quite refined and eager enough, and not as buzzy as previous 2L and 2.2L RAVs, but six lusty cylinders and 103 extra horses are impossible to ignore.

Pricing is not much of an impediment, and there is just a couple mpg fuel-economy penalty when opting for the V-6.

RAV watchers will note there is no manual transmission. Toyota engineers say the take rate had become so low it wasn't worth the extra manufacturing complexity to include a manual for the new-gen RAV4.

Another sop to the masses but backed, nonetheless, by typical Toyota logic and marketing strategy.

The sweet new electronically controlled AWD system uses an electromagnetically controlled wet-clutch coupling bolted directly onto the rear differential.

As much as 45% of engine torque can be directed to the rear wheels. There is a lock button for tougher conditions, and the system strives to maximize FWD operation to enhance fuel economy.

Not only does the system react notably faster than the old viscous-coupled AWD system, engineers say it is a shocking 40% lighter. For the kind of duty cycles a compact CUV sees, nobody needs anything more.

There also is a new independent trailing-arm rear suspension and the expected MacPherson struts at the front. New for the '06 RAV4 is electronic power steering (EPS) that works directly on the steering shaft rather than the rack.

Feel is nonexistent, but its directness and consistency carries the day. The system is craftily linked to the standard-equipment Vehicle Stability Control system, actually helping to preemptively steer if extreme dynamic maneuvering is necessary. The EPS also saves a few pounds.

Most of this effort to deliver more power and components with less weight is a good thing, because the '06 RAV4 is larger – much larger. It has increased its girth in almost every dimension. It is 6.7 ins. (17 cm) longer in wheelbase and 3.2 ins. (8 cm) wider, and a segment-shifting 14.5 ins. (37 cm) longer overall.

This new-era sizing is what accounts for the previously mentioned extra poundage, but it also is responsible for a surprisingly first-rate occupant experience.

The increased spread-out space is palpable: dispensing with the grueling details, Toyota tape measures say the interior volume is up by 21%, and now there iss room for an optional third-row seat.

Normally, we expectorate upon the idea of three rows because the rearmost thrones inevitably are "seating" in name only.

Much is the case for the new RAV4's third row, but the 50/50 split seats stow so cooperatively into the cargo bay (the design essentially was heisted from the Sienna minivan), making for a flat load floor, that it seems silly not to get them just to have them. Inexplicably, the third-row option is unavailable for the Sport trim.

The only complaint about the seating setup is that the RAV4 continues with a chintzy and flimsy-feeling backrest for the second-row 60/40 split bench.

The seatback is too thin and too short, hitting average-height occupants somewhere around armpit level. Because of this, the headrests have to be hiked up to the max, wavering on their spindly spires over the seatback like flamingoes.

The new dash layout is simple, effective and attractive, and there are plenty of thoughtful storage cubbies, including the neat 2-tier glovebox and a princely total of 10 cupholders.

Pricing is going to give fits to Toyota's rivals, too. The lineup starts at $20,200 for a FWD 4-cyl. RAV4, and runs to $25,770 for a V-6/AWD Limited.

Our favorite, a V-6/AWD Sport – a reasonable substitute for a sport sedan – rings in at a hard-to-believe $25,070. There are several options, including a nice rear-seat entertainment unit and leather.

The new RAV4 has gone mainstream: more grown-up, more accommodating, better performing and more desirable.

Critics will moan about Toyota wringing out the "personality" from one of the few quirky vehicles in its lineup. But in the case of the '06 RAV4, the new conventionality makes it a better vehicle in every sense.

If sales figures are any indication, Toyota's increasingly confident engineering, marketing and sales units obviously know what the American auto consumer really wants.

Anyway, don not lament the RAV4's loss of funk too much. The likable but definitely peculiar FJ Cruiser is coming later this year to take up the cause.

bvisnic@primediabusiness.com