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null 1997 Toyota RAV4

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If you build them, they will come. That concept sure worked for Toyota's RAV4, which made a big hit when it was introduced last year, and big waves in the small sport-utility segment. Last year, it was not clear exactly what category this mini-ute fit in. Its two-door version looks like it could be an off-road plaything, with an image akin to the Geo Tracker and the Suzuki Sidekick. There's even a pair of removable sunroof panels available for this model that give it that beach-ready flavor. (These are sliding on the 4-door.) In its four-door incarnation, the RAV4 is sometimes compared to the Kia Sportage and considered almost as versatile and practical as the leading domestic compact sport-utilities. It is also certain to be compared to Honda's new CR-V. Although it has less room for people and parcels than the bigger guys, in this version, capable of carrying one more passenger, with two more doors and 8.3 inches more wheelbase, it's touted as a suburban errand runner or compact commuter car. And, with its unitbody construction and metamorphosis from front-drive sedan components and chassis, this mini is as close to car-like as a sport-utility gets. Added to that, there are two- and four-wheel drive variations of the RAV4. It also sports a lockable center differential (on manual transmissions) and an available torque-sensing, limited-slip rear differential. Even though this ute lacks a low range set of gears, its ground clearance (7.5 inches for the four-door, 7.7 for the two-door) is good enough to make light off-road duty feasible. In fact, it's even been compared to Jeep's Wrangler, which is more or less in the size class. The RAV4 can't compete with the Wrangler in really rough going, but it's more comfortable on pavement. Now a yearling in the U.S. market, the RAV4 continues to attract customers, as well as a wide variety of comparisons, depending on door count and running gear. Some call this AWD car/truck hybrid cute. Others have used the word ugly, but with affection, as in "ugly duckling." A few have even suggested that it hails from another galaxy. One thing is for sure: Toyota has hit a home run here. Expecting to market some 35,000 of these minis, Toyota sold nearly 60,000 in '96. And, they've sent many other manufacturers scrambling back to the drawing board. Competitors in this segment include the Geo Tracker, Suzuki Sidekick, Suzuki X-90, Kia Sportage, Subaru Impreza Outback and the all-new Honda CR-V, which is by far the closest comparison.

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