While it's no longer the new kid on the block, Toyota's RAV4 is upgraded for 1998 and is still a head-turner. More than 100,000 RAV4s have been sold in the U.S. since its introduction in 1996. With Toyota's reputation for quality, durability and reliability, it's no surprise that sales of this cute mini-utility continue to grow despite new and upgraded entries in its class.
Although it has already made big waves in the small sport-utility segment, Toyota has gussied up the RAV4 for the new year. New are exterior design changes, performance upgrades, safety enhancements and a revised interior. It also shines in four new colors.
When it was introduced, industry analysts weren't sure how to categorize the RAV4. Today, this new mini-utility segment is not only more established, but increasingly popular for its fuel-efficiency, compact size, and full-time four-wheel-drive system.
In its two-door version, the RAV4 looks like an off-road toy, with an image akin to the Geo Tracker and the Suzuki Sidekick. Removable sunroof panels give it a beachy look. The two-door RAV4 offers a snug cockpit for four.
The four-door RAV4 offers a more aerodynamic stance and is comparable to the Kia Sportage and the larger Honda CR-V. It offers some of the versatility of the mainstream compact sport-utilities, but with less room for people and parcels. The four-door model is 16 inches longer and rides on a longer wheelbase than the two-door and offers seatbelt hardware for five people.
The RAV4 uses front-drive Camry sedan components and a unibody chassis, which give it a car-like demeanor. Two- and four-wheel-drive variations of the RAV4 are available. The four-wheel-drive models feature a lockable center differential (on manual transmissions) and an available torque-sensing, limited-slip rear differential. Even though the RAV4 lacks a low-range set of gears, its ground clearance (7.5 inches for the four-door, 7.7 for the two-door) is sufficient to make off-road driving feasible. The locking differential gives the RAV4 traction advantages over the all-wheel-drive Honda CR-V and Subaru Forester. The RAV4 has been compared to the Jeep Wrangler, though it cannot compete with the Wrangler in really rough going.
There doesn't seem to be a consensus on the RAV4's unique styling, considered everything from cute to ugly duckling to extra-terrestrial. No matter what you call it, Toyota calls it a success.
The RAV4 is not simply a sport-utility wannabe. It has proven itself to be a standard-bearer for this new breed of mini-utilities. A well-designed independent suspension and rack-and-pinion power-assisted steering make it nimble on and off the road.
Standard brakes are power-assisted front disc and rear drum; ABS is available as a $590 option. We were impressed with the all-wheel-drive traction, very useful in snow and slush. Automatic transmission models have a center differential that automatically locks up when excessive slip is sensed between the front and rear axles. On manual transmission models, the driver utilizes a switch to manually lock or unlock the center differential. A limited-slip rear differential is optional and recommended for improved traction off road.
The fun-to-drive quotient remains high on this unique mini-utility. Its unibody construction gives it a handling advantage over truck-based sport-utilities with body-on-frame construction. The longer wheelbase on the four-door RAV4 smoothes some of the choppiness found in the two-door version. The engine feels peppy and can cruise at 80, but it runs out of power in the higher rpm range. Still, the RAV4 accelearates from 0-60 mph quicker than the Sidekick, Tracker and Sportage.
We enjoyed the five-speed manual, logging miles at Pocono International Raceway and all over New England.
The RAV4 may not have the off-road capability of a Jeep Wrangler, but sales figures show it's a package that buyers like. It's tougher than a car, softer than a truck and as big as a small wagon. It offers some of that rugged image that's so popular today in a smaller package, while delivering a measure of spunk and fun with unique styling.
Comfortable for car-pooling, commuting and collecting groceries, the RAV4 is ideal for light action on the beach or in the backcountry. Compared with compact sport-utilities, the RAV4 falls short in towing capacity (1500 lbs), passenger space and cargo space. The already pricey tag on the RAV4 has climbed higher this year. Our test model retails for $23,590.
On the other hand, it offers Toyota ruggedness, reliability and build, with 26 mpg on the highway, which makes it much cheaper to run after you've signed the contract.