All-new design increases size, power and visual appeal.

by Sam Moses

Base Price (MSRP) $16,215
As Tested (MSRP) $25,935

Toyota has completely redesigned and re-engineered its RAV4 for 2001. The all-new Toyota RAV4 is more refined than the previous-generation model and it's much better looking.

Toyota's RAV4 was a front-runner in the mini-SUV market from the get-go, and not entirely by default. True, it was the earliest of mini SUVs, which gave it a competitive advantage; but being built on the platform of the proven Camry certainly helped its reliability and its user friendliness. But during the five-year run of the first-generation RAV4, a steady stream of Asian challengers appeared, such as the Honda CR-V, Suzuki Grand Vitara and Kia Sportage. And now there's the highly rated Ford Escape, an Asian-American. It was time for Toyota to upgrade the RAV4 and attempt to raise the bar for the field.

Model Lineup

All RAV4s are four-doors, and the only two models are the 2WD and 4WD. There is only one engine, which is new for 2001: an all-aluminum, 16-valve, dohc inline four-cylinder with variable valve timing, displacing 2.0 liters and producing 148 horsepower, an increase of 21 horsepower. Two transmissions are available, a five-speed manual and a four-speed electronically controlled automatic.

The catch with the RAV4, and the explanation for the huge difference between the $18,665 base price of the 4WD model and the $26,415 price of our test model, is that much of what many buyers want is optional equipment, not standard. The sticker on our test model showed $590 for antilock brakes; $220 for a roof rack; $875 for alloy wheels with slightly wider tires; $220 for remote entry; $800 for leather; $390 for limited-slip differential (only available with 4WD); $200 for a rear spoiler; $815 for a power moonroof; $40 for daytime running lights; and a whopping $3120 for a package including air conditioning, cruise control, CD sound system, tinted windows, fog lamps, and smoother body trim including a spare tire cover. Plus $480 delivery, processing and handling.

Anti-lock brakes might be the best value in there. If you were trying to keep the price of your mini SUV mini, as one would think it should be, you might tell yourself you could do without most of the rest of those options. But you'd probably want air conditioning, and the lowest-cost package with air is $2295.

Walkaround

For 2001, the RAV4 has changed by every yardstick. The length, width, height, wheelbase, and track have all been increased. It's significant, in these times when buyers are growing wary of the higher center of gravity of SUVs, that the track has been widened by nearly two inches but the height increased by just half an inch-and it's lower, with about one inch less ground clearance. That sounds more stable to us. Contributing more to improved stability, at least on paper, is the fact that the wheelbase has increased 3.1 inches while the overall length has grown by just 1.3 inches to 165.1 inches, which is still 10.5 inches shorter than a Subaru Forester and 12.5 inches shorter than a Honda CR-V. The overall picture here is of an expanded cabin placed on a lower, wider platform.

The styling is dynamic, resulting from extensive sheetmetal reshaping. The old RAV4 might have been seen as either cute or cobbly, depending upon the eyes of the beholder, but the new one is striking and aggressive looking. In one overnight swoop, it's gone from endearing to sexy. The lines suggest a vector or wedge shape, which is pretty hard to do with a basic tall, small box. This is mostly accomplished by a sloping hood and downward cant from the rear quarter panels forward, under the side windows. When the arched roofline ends with the optional spoiler, the result is cool looking. And as if to celebrate the redesign, five of the seven colors in 2001 are new; only black and white are carried over.

The cladding and body molding is smoother, the fender flares around 16-inch wheels are beefy for a mini SUV, and styling scoops in the sides and hood show a big try at being eye-catching, maybe too much as the sheetmetal touches are pretty far beyond function. Combination taillights wrap nicely around the sides. At the nose, the headlights are shaped like wasp eyes, angling upward. Optional foglights are built into the airdam, which also contains a gaping grille with a few teeth. The gray body cladding looks good with some colors, but contrasts poorly with others.

The optional alloy wheels are a simple five-spoke star pattern, and the optional cover over the spare, hanging on the rear gate, serves its purpose in making the RAV4 look less rough, but therefore less rugged. The rear hatch swings horizontally, hinged at the right side (inconveniently against the curb), and the weight of the tire is noticeable; however the step up into the cargo compartment is made easy by the reduced ground clearance. Underneath, maybe to accomplish this, the gas tank has shrunk from 15.3 to 14.7 gallons.

Interior Features

An important object of the redesign was more cabin room. With the 50/50 split bench rear seats removed, there's now 68.3 cubic feet of cargo volume available, compared to 57.9 in the old RAV4. There's also more cargo space behind the rear seats than before, as well as 2.9 more inches of legroom in the front. The legroom is ample, and the driver's footrest allows even more stretch. But with more room in front of the front seats, and more room behind the rear seats, there's a loss of 1.3 inches of rear legroom.

Front seats are new and fit very nicely, and our gray leather with dimpled black trim was classy. The seats have been narrowed at the hips by 2.4 inches, but we didn't feel squeezed. The seating position feels confidently high and offers excellent visibility forward, although the spare tire intrudes into the view out the rear window. The tidy three-spoke leather-wrapped energy-absorbing urethane steering wheel tilted perfectly into place for drivers 4'-10" and 5'-10".

Instruments are easy to read and the instrument panel is handsome, trimmed as ours was in titanium. By day, the gauges are a sort of metallic off-white, and by night they glow sort of orange. Admittedly, these aren't quite as legible as boring old white on black gauges. Directly ahead are three circles: speedo on left, temp/fuel/warning lights and gear indicator in the circle on the right, and nicely balanced between and above them in a smaller circle is the neat-looking tach. Redline runs from 6500 to 8000 rpm, pointless because the power peaks at 6000 rpm.

Climate controls are mercifully simple. You got on, you got off, you got fan speed, you got blue for cold, red for hot; what else do you need? There's a stubby stalk for the cruise control on the steering wheel, under the wiper stalk on the left side of the steering column. There are two big cupholders forward of the natty leather-wrapped E-brake lever between the seats, an accessory power outlet, and a small space near the console that's intended for change but big enough for cellphones. In the rear as in the front are two cupholders and one power outlet.

There are storage compartments on both sides of the cargo bay as well as under its floor, a net pocket on the rear door, and pockets in all four doors. Sunglass holders too, under the steering wheel, and vanity mirrors with extensions and lights on each visor. Some 75 percent of RAV4 buyers have been women, but Toyota hopes to find more male buyers with the new RAV4.

Driving Impressions

This new engine is a winner. No surprise, given Toyota's track record-witness everything from the 1.5-liter Echo to the V8 Tundra to the 900-horsepower CART champ car engine. It's the same 2.0 liters as the previous generation RAV4 powerplant, but because it's all aluminum it weighs 40 less pounds. It's also more efficient, delivering 23/27 mpg, best in class.

It makes 148 horsepower (up by 21) and 142 foot pounds of torque (up by 10). It revs higher than the old engine, with the power peak coming at 6000 rpm as opposed to 5400, but because you get more torque at lower rpm (4000 vs. 4600), it's considerably less peaky and thus easier to drive. This also makes it way better for towing.

Acceleration in the 4WD with automatic transmission is lively and feels almost effortless, as if the 2943-pound vehicle were featherweight. The final drive ratio of this vehicle is 3.29, as opposed to 3.12 on the 2777-pound 2WD, so the 2WD (front-wheel drive) should feel about the same.

The water-cooled, electronically controlled, four-speed automatic transmission fully complements the smoothness of the engine. Every shift felt seamless, as you might expect in a sedan costing $10,000 more. The transmission never strained to stay with the power-well, maybe once, traveling up a long freeway hill with the cruise control set on 74 mph. When it shifted down into third there was a big gulp, like the little engine that paused to say, "I think I can." And it did.

Around-town handling and parking-lot maneuvering is wonderfully nimble; again, the RAV4 feels even lighter than its 2943 pounds. On the highway, the power rack-and-pinion steering is precise, with no dodginess; the stretched wheelbase likely contributes to the improvement here. In gusty winds, however, the RAV4 wanders quite a bit.

There's little that's truck-like about the suspension. The independent front suspension uses MacPherson struts with L-shaped control arms, while the rear suspension is a double wishbone with coil springs and nitrogen-filled shock absorbers. The redesign includes softer spring rates, larger bushings and a longer suspension stroke. Chassis and suspension take bumps with equanimity, and offer a ride as good or better than many larger SUVs. Maybe even more impressively, there's no detectable pitching or tipping, which is no mean feat for any SUV.

Finally, the brakes, which are plenty big enough for the weight, with 10.7-inch front ventilated discs and 9.0-inch rear drums. With a vehicle this good, it would be a shame not to include the optional ABS. At $590, it also might be penny wise but pound foolish, especially since the ABS includes EBD. That's electronic brake force distribution, which adjusts the braking force of the rear wheels according to load fluctuations for shorter stopping distances.

Final Word

There's little doubt that the RAV4 is improved at every turn. It's bigger, faster, safer, smoother riding and better handling. And its looks have been transformed from cobbly cute to aggressively cool. The base price has been increased modestly, but add key options, such as air conditioning and anti-lock brakes, and the price climbs quickly. But overall, it represents a huge improvement over last year's model.

© New Car Test Drive, Inc.

New Car Test Drive

Copyright © 1994-2009 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

Related Articles & Car Reviews

Find Cars for sale near you:

Research by Vehicle Type

  • Convertible
  • Coupe
  • Hatchback
  • Hybrid
  • Luxury
  • Sedan
  • SUV
  • Truck
  • Van/Minivan
  • Wagon

Shopping Tools

For Sale on Autotrader.com

Loading Ajax Content Loading Ajax Content