Originally built on a modified Camry platform, the RAV4 (Recreational Active Vehicle with 4-wheel drive) has always been on the car end of the SUV spectrum. As one of the first — if not the first — car-based crossovers, the RAV was at first compared with traditional body-on-frame, truck-based SUVs, but soon the market and the press began to understand that the little Toyota was something different — a tall, rugged, car-based wagon with available four-wheel drive. Toyota still offers both front-wheel-drive and four-wheel-drive versions of the RAV4.
But since the RAV’s U.S. introduction in 1996, we’ve seen the introduction of a long list of small, car-based wagons/SUVs that compete with the model, such as the Honda CR-V, Subaru Forester, Ford Escape, Hyundai Santa Fe, and Saturn VUE.
For 2001, the RAV4 was given a complete redesign, and though it kept similar dimensions its series of improvements gave it more “grown-up” appeal and a level of refinement normally only expected in larger vehicles.
This year, the RAV4 carried over without significant changes, save for a new Sport Package. The $3067 package, installed on our test vehicle, includes several fresh appearance changes including a sport grille, hood scoop, overfenders, and a tubular roof rack. The package also comprises a long list of conveniences including cruise control, a six-speaker CD/cassette sound system, A/C, and a cargo net.
Our test vehicle, loaded with options, also had tube-step running boards by Steel Horse. They seemed a bit ridiculous and out of place on a compact carlike SUV, but the Acculaser carbon-fiber dash trim that was included in the same $764 convenience package was bold yet tasteful.
All RAV4 models have a 2.0-liter all-aluminum four-cylinder engine, which includes Toyota’s VVT-i variable valve timing system for improved low-rev response.
The four’s modest output of 148 hp and 142 lb-ft of torque doesn’t make the RAV4 a hot-rod, but thanks to the RAV’s sub-3000-lb curb weight it has plenty of power for everyday driving. The engine is smooth and quiet at idle and in the rev range of ordinary driving, but push it anywhere above 4000 rpm and it becomes loud and boomy.
The four-speed automatic transmission boasts to be electronically controlled. Most of the time, shifts are smooth, and downshifts for passing are especially quick. However, over a modest two-mile-long steady six-percent grade at 55 mph, the transmission relentlessly “hunted” back and forth between third and fourth gears, cycling every five or ten seconds with a rough downshift — proof that unlike many other new models, the unit doesn’t have Grade Logic, the brains that would have otherwise avoided the hunting and just kept third gear until the hill was summited.
Seating in the RAV4 is comfortable for those in the small to average size demographics, but at six and a half feet tall I couldn’t find enough rearward seat travel. Also, the lower cushion was too short and wouldn’t tilt back far enough to lose the feeling that I might slide forward off the seat in hard braking, if the upholstery weren’t so nice and grippy. If you’re in the normal size range, ignore what I just said: a five-foot-nine friend declared the front seats and driving position ‘perfect.’ Our test vehicle had the textured “sport fabric” that’s included with the Sport Package. The seating surface seemed much more appealing than the plasticky animal by-product that’s ‘preferred’ all too often.
Seat gripes aside, all is well behind the wheel. The chunky three-spoke steering wheel feels good, and it offers an unobstructed view through to nice chrome-bezeled gauges with tachometer in the top middle, speedometer on the left and fuel and temp gauges on the right. The dash is neat and classy, with straightforward switchgear, while the rest of the interior sticks to a simple, utilitarian theme.
As is the case with most of its compact-SUV competition, the RAV4 has plenty of space for two in the back seat, with adequate legroom for six-footers, but it’s cramped for three adults due to a lack of shoulder room. The RAV is, after all, not any wider than a smallish compact car.
The RAV’s ride definitely tends on the soft, comfort-oriented side, provided you keep the load light. An independent suspension in the back helps, compared to the semi-independent beam suspension of some competitors. The softness, as you might figure, continues when the roads turn curvy. Low speed handling is confident — albeit with a little lean — but high-speed sweepers on undulating roads lead to the type of body motions that just make you want to slow down and take a more leisurely pace. It’s not a “driver’s car,” but then again how many RAV4 buyers are looking for that?
Counter to its tall profile, the RAV4 is a great highway vehicle. It sticks to the road ahead without wandering, and wind noise is at a minimum.
The brakes are just fine — with decent pedal feel — albeit with a fair amount of nosedive in hard stops. But we had to wonder why anti-lock brakes aren’t standard, seeing that it’s a tall vehicle and the four-wheel-drive model especially would be purchased by people who drive in foul weather and slippery winter conditions. It seems petty and neglectful that Toyota is offering it as a $300 standalone option rather than include it as standard.
With the introduction of softer, more car-focused competitors, as strange as it sounds the RAV4 looks like one of the most rugged small SUVs around. The RAV4’s good ground clearance, generous wheel wells, and traditional SUV profile hint that there’s at least some measure of off-roading ability.
A weekend camping excursion, which involved driving through some rough gravel roads and a few brief weedy two-track stretches, seemed like the perfect test. The RAV ate up the dust and soaked up the bumps and undulating surfaces, with a minimum of noise or vibration making it inside. And unlike our recent experiences with a competing compact SUV, for which we’ll save the embarrassment, a short foray into rough surfaces didn’t bring out numerous interior creaks and groans. The RAV4 doesn’t have the wheel articulation, underbody protection, or serious four-wheel-drive system for ‘real’ off-road driving, but it will get you to the campsite or boat launch without fuss.
Traction was an issue briefly when driving back out of the sloped approach to our campsite, which would have been about the same angle as a typical boat launch. The four-wheel-drive system, which normally routes torque 50/50-percent front/back via a viscous coupling, can route more torque to the front or back as needed. Because of the steep upward slope of the vehicle and weight transfer to the back, the front wheels didn’t have a lot of traction and more power was needed for the back. However, one of the back wheels was on a wet grassy patch and couldn’t get adequate traction so the whole system seemed in hesitation. I wager that the optional limited-slip rear differential ($390) would have helped us in this situation.
Economical operation is probably one of the primary concerns of compact SUV buyers. In terms of thirst at the pump, the RAV4 is comparable to a mid-size sedan. We recorded a decent 23 miles per gallon in a driving mix that weighed heavily on stop-and-go and hilly terrain.
The RAV4 isn’t a performance leader in the compact SUV crowd, but it has stayed distinctive enough to warrant a long look. There are more innovative designs around, and the RAV seems to be riding the fence between being a light-duty SUV and tarmac-only crossover. The equipment list is a little out of touch on the safety front, though, with anti-lock brakes optional and side airbags not available.
Without question, the Subaru Forester handles more confidently, while both the Forester and the Honda CR-V have peppier performance without being thirstier at the pump. If thirst isn’t a concern, the Ford Escape, Hyundai Santa Fe, and Saturn VUE offer more powerful V-6 models with similar packaging. But on the other hand, inside and out the RAV4 has a level of style and attention to detail that is unsurpassed with other small SUVs, and it feels rugged enough to put up with weekend “active lifestyle” outings, which can’t be said of some of the other compact SUVs and crossovers.
Although Toyota won’t officially admit it yet, sources have told us that the RAV4 will be discontinued after model year 2004. While the current-generation vehicle is assembled in Japan and was originally designed for the Japanese market, a RAV4 successor would likely be exclusive to the North American market and inspired by the redesigned Highlander — possibly with more power from a long-anticipated optional V-6, delivered through a more sophisticated all-wheel-drive system.
But the RAV4 remains a very appealing product. Its grown-up feel, traditional SUV shape, and full-time four-wheel-drive system make it stand out from the crowd. If you want a compact SUV that’s easy to drive and comfortable for the highway but with just a little bit of rugged character — and frugality and dependability are priorities, too — the RAV4 might just be your ride.
Toyota RAV4 4x4
Base price/as equipped: $19,075/$24,770
Engine: 2.0-liter in-line four, 148 hp
Drivetrain: Four-speed automatic transmission, four-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 166.2 x 70.3 x 65.7 in
Wheelbase: 98.0 in
Curb weight: 2976 lb
EPA (city/hwy): 22/27 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front two-stage airbags, seatbelt pretensioners
Major standard equipment: Height-adjustable front seat, tilt steering wheel, AM/FM/CD sound system, rear wiper
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles comprehensive; five years/60,000 miles powertrain