The Toyota RAV4 mini-SUV is missing just two things — an extra couple of cylinders to enable it to compete on equal terms with the increasingly muscular lot of smaller, "mini" SUVs that have cropped up (or been beefed up) since the RAV4 hit the market in 1996.
These include models such as Ford's Escape, the excellent Hyundai Sante Fe, Suzuki's Grand Vitara, and the Chevy Tracker (the Vitara's cousin). All of these compact SUVs are priced comparably to the RAV4 and offer available V-6 engines while the RAV4 remains limited by its take-or-leave-it 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine.
True, the $18,750-$22,800 Honda CR-V and $21,095-$24,695 Subaru Forester — two of the RAV4's direct competitors — also lack available six-cylinder engines. They're also considerably more expensive (albeit much better equipped in standard form) than the $16,365-$18,815 RAV4. But if Toyota wants to lead the pack instead of being smack dab in the increasingly mediocre middle, the company will need to up the underhood ante in its little SUV.
Moving the goods
The RAV4's 2.0-liter DOHC engine, while equipped with variable valve timing, nonetheless has trouble moving a decently equipped RAV4 with the optional (and weight-adding) all-wheel-drive system and automatic transmission. Its 148 hp doesn't come easily, either: you must wind the little engine out to its 6000-rpm redline to get it. Similarly, the marginal 142 lb-ft of torque offered by this overtaxed engine is made even less adequate by the speed at which it arrives, way up there at 4000 rpm.
What all this means is you have to mash the pedal furiously to move with anything resembling alacrity in a RAV4. The V-6 competition listed above, in contrast, have more torque (which is what gets a car moving) to begin with, due to their larger displacement — and the torque that's there is more usable because it comes in at much lower engine speeds, where most real-world driving is done.
2002 Toyota RAV4
You can crutch the Toyota's inherent weakness by sticking with the non-AWD model (and save yourself some money, too), and elect to shift your own gears by choosing the standard five-speed manual gearbox over the optional four-speed automatic. That should let you get to 60 mph in about 10 seconds, still pokey but not unsafe. Automatic models weighed down with the AWD gear and lots of options will be significantly slower.
2001 Toyota RAV4 interior
RAV4s come in two basic configurations: with all-wheel-drive or without it, with a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission. All models feature four doors with a rear liftgate.
Prices run from $16,365 for the base five-speed FWD model to $18,815 for the AWD version with automatic. Be aware that as they sit, the base RAV4 is pretty stripped. None come with air conditioning standard, for example, not even the models equipped with AWD. Both the Honda CR-V and the Subaru Forester, meanwhile, come equipped with standard A/C in even their base forms.
To get a decently equipped RAV4, you'll need to check some boxes on the options sheet. Air conditioning can be ordered as a stand-alone extra for $985; you can also add power windows and locks for another $760. Anti-lock brakes are available, too, for an additional $590.
2002 Toyota RAV4
If you want to get the whole enchilada, Toyota offers two packages of options, the least expensive of which adds $2295 to the tab but gets you A/C, cruise control, power windows and locks, and a decent, six-speaker CD-playing audio system. The L package — which carries a hefty $3,120 bill o' larding — adds all that plus heated outside rearview mirrors, fog lights, color-keyed spare wheel cover and carpeted floor mats.
Be careful with the options because it's not hard to get into the low $20s, and at that level the RAV4's value-for-content begins to slip. Remember that for $19,299, you could get a loaded, V-6-equipped Hyundai Santa Fe — a real SUV, mind you — with air conditioning, CD player, automatic transmission, power windows and locks, leather trim and heated outside rearview mirrors. Or, for $21,700, less than the cost of an AWD RAV4 with the L package, you could drive home a Chevy Tracker LT V-6 with true, truck-type four-wheel-drive (the RAV4 has full-time all-wheel-drive; there is no low speed transfer case and the system is not designed for heavy-duty use). Want power? The 201-hp, 3.0-liter V-6 Ford Escape XLS with AWD is stickered at $21,370 — again, less than the RAV4 AWD equipped with the L package.
These are things to think about when considering a RAV4. So long as the price is kept in the high teens, this vehicle is a solid alternative to its more expensive direct competitors, the Honda CR-V and Subaru Forester. The budget bottom line can also help you forget about the more powerful, more capable small SUVs — models like the V-6 Ford Escape, Chevy Tracker, Hyundai Santa Fe, and Suzuki Grand Vitara.
Just remember to keep it under $20k and you'll be fine.
2002 Toyota RAV4
Base price range: $16,365-$18,815
Engine: 2.0-liter four-cylinder, 148 hp
Transmission: Five-speed manual or four-speed automatic
Length: 165.1 in
Width: 68.3 in
Height: 64.9 in
Curb weight: 2711 lb (FWD); 2943 lb (AWD)
EPA (cty/hwy): 25/31 mpg (2WD/manual); 23/27 mpg (AWD/auto)
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags
Major standard features: AM/FM stereo w/cassette player, intermittent wipers, 16x6.5-inch steel wheels, rear defogger
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles