Sometimes it's not enough to be all new.

by John Pearley Huffman

Being "all-new" is never enough. If a vehicle is going to thrive in the market, buyers need to instantly perceive it as "all-better."

First impressions matter and, if anything, the 2001 RAV4 clearly looks all-better; like a finer-looking, sharper-edged, shrunk-down Mercedes M-Class. Second impressions matter too, and a drive in the RAV4 indicates that this trucklet should put Toyota again at the head of the mini-ute class it validated with the introduction of the original RAV4 in 1996.

Should, though, is not will. Because while this second-generation RAV is all-better, it's up against new competition ranging from Hyundai's Santa Fe to the Ford Escape/Mazda Tribute twins. All-better than the old RAV may not be better than all the current competition.

Thoroughly rethought

The original RAV4 was a product of grab bag engineering. Based on the Celica's platform, it borrowed mechanical bits from other vehicles in Toyota's line and felt compromised in several ways for it. Most notably, the first RAV4's space efficiency was significantly behind that of its archrival, the Honda CR-V. The new RAV is more its own beast, and that brings a new level of sophistication to the vehicle.

To cure small-inside disease, build a big outside. The new RAV4 is a bit bigger than its predecessor, but not much. While the 2001 RAV's wheelbase is dinky at just 98 inches, that's still 3.1 inches longer than the 2000 model and overall length swells to 165.1 inches from 163.8. The most significant growth is in width which is up to 68.3 inches from 66.7. Though the new RAV looks tall, it's actually 1/10th of an inch shorter than the old one.

The mechanical package is familiar in general specification but has been thoroughly revised in detail. While the engine remains transversely mounted in the nose, in place of the old RAV's 2.0-liter iron-block DOHC four is a new 2.0-liter all-aluminum DOHC four with variable valve timing. The old engine wheezed out a not-too-happy-to-do-it 127-horsepower at 5400 rpm with a 132 lb-ft torque peak at 4600 rpm. The new engine's 148-hp peak now comes at a loftier 6000 rpm, but the big improvement lies in torque production which now peaks at 142 lb-ft down at 4000 rpm. And Toyota says the new engine weighs in 40 pounds less than the old one. For an engine that's more likely to be found lashed to the optional electronically controlled four-speed automatic than the standard five-speed manual transmission, and to spend more time scaling grammar school parking lot speed bumps than hot-lapping Road America, this one's character is dang near perfect.

As before, the 2001 RAV4 is available with either front-drive or full-time all-wheel drive. With no low-range on the all-wheel drive transfer case, this is a system better suited to adding stability in slushy situations rather than lugging out of mud bogs.

Up front MacPherson struts keep the nose from plowing into the ground while a double-wishbone all-independent suspension keeps the RAV4 from dragging its hiney behind it. Braking is handled by 10.7-inch diameter front ventilated discs and 9.0-inch rear drums with optional ABS. The standard wheel and tire package is P215/70R16 tires wrapped around 16x6.5-inch steel wheels with a 16x7.0-inch alloy optional and P235/60R16 tires available on all-wheel drive models. Toyota claims softer spring rates, larger bushings and longer suspension stroke all improve ride quality over the previous RAV and along a mix of fire roads and highways in Montana.

Bigger, and nicer

Slightly bigger outside translates into a roomier inside. According to Toyota, front legroom is up a significant 2.9 inches and with the rear seat up cargo space goes from 26.8 cubic feet up to 29.2 and with the split rear seat removed, maximum storage capacity goes from 57.9 cubes up to a humongous 68.3. Just as important as the gains in inner space is the feeling of spaciousness; the lower front cowl and liberal glass area make this RAV4 seem even more generous in its accommodations.

Inside isn't just roomier, it's nicer. Despite the family mall-crawler mission most RAV4s will find themselves assigned to, Toyota has trimmed the tiny SUV with some sporting flair. The dash features three easy-to-read white-faced dials directly in front of the driver, while Toyota's corporate sound systems sit in a center binnacle just above the rotary ventilation controls and all are surrounded in "metallic" trim. Metallica mania carries on to the door trim where it's incorporated into the door pulls. The nice three-spoke steering wheel features thumb indents and a compact airbag. It's a nice cockpit with some trim whimsy not usually seen in Toyotas.

But the crux of an SUV interior is versatility and the RAV4's shines here. The rear bench seat is split 50/50 and slides, tumbles, reclines, and removes to produce seemingly infinite combinations. The flexibility is further enhanced by the presence of four cupholders (two front, two rear), cubbyholes for virtually any imaginable flotsam, and 12-volt power outlets in both the center console and rear cargo area.

Actually sitting in the rear seat proves pleasant too, though it's hard to imagine them being any flatter. The front seats have a healthy squish factor and not much lateral support, but they're comfy enough. If the cornering forces get extreme in this vehicle, that you're sliding off your seat is likely the least of your problems.

A better drive - but the best?

The new RAV4's ride clearly sets a new standard for this class and the handling is precise if not really inspiring. Head into a paved corner and the front end will push early and gently. It's not a sports car, but one gets the feeling that lowering the suspension and tightening it, that it could do a pretty good imitation.

As far as it goes, the engine's behavior is exemplary. It revs cleanly, silently and with sewing machine efficiency. Even in the thin Montana mountain air it never hiccuped or complained. For a four-cylinder engine, it pulls well no matter what the situation and the Toyota transmissions are their usual excellent selves. But the big question is whether this engine is enough. After all, Ford's Escape can be had with a 200-horsepower, 3.0-liter V-6 and that obviously elevates its performance to a level the RAV can't approach. If someone at Toyota is busy shoehorning the Camry's 3.0-liter V-6 into a RAV, we encourage their efforts.

Putting the Escape and RAV4 up against one another will be the true test of the mini-SUV class. The Escape carries the traditional appearance and reputation of Ford's larger SUV, while the RAV4 takes the not-really-trucklike paradigm established by the Lexus RX300 and upcoming Toyota Highlander and applies it to a smaller vehicle. It makes for a real battle in philosophies.

2001 Toyota RAV4

Base price range: $20,000 (est.)
Engine: 2.0-liter in-line four, 148 hp
Transmission: Five-speed manual or four-speed automatic, front- or four-wheel drive
Length/width/height: 165.1 in/68.3 in/64.9 in (FWD) 65.3 (AWD)
Wheelbase: 98.0 in
Curb weight: 2711 - 2877 lb (FWD/AWD)
EPA city/highway: 25/31 mpg (FWD), 23/27 mpg (AWD)
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags
Major standard equipment: AM/FM cassette radio, air conditioning
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles

© 2000 The Car Connection

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