A trend-setting toy(ota). by Sue Mead
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 four-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-utility vehicles. 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 unibody construction and metamorphosis from front-drive sedan components and chassis, this mini is as close to car-like as a sport-utility vehicle 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.
From the outside, the RAV4 presents a welcome visual departure from the crowded highway of cloned SUV look-a-likes. The designers carved a wide body with tucked-in sheet metal at the windows, a sloping hood with large air intakes, kicked-up rear quarter panels sculpted around its 16-inch tires and a rear, dominated by its side-opening door. In our AWD model, the hood wrapped around built-in tow hooks, ever-ready in the event that we needed a tug off the tundra.
Bug-like in its two door incarnation, the RAV4 has a snug compartment for four earthlings. We chose to test the four door with lines that become more aerodynamic with the 16 extra inches of sheet metal and seatbelt hardware for five. With the split-folding rear seat folded flush, it can handle 57.9 cubic feet of goods. However, rear seat leg space is the same as the two door.
Powered by a 2.0-liter twin cam four-cylinder engine, the RAV4 comes with a five-speed manual transmission in its two door version and the choice of manual or four-speed automatic when you add more doors. Powertrain choices are front-wheel or full-time all-wheel drive. There are six styling packages available which include a mix of interior and exterior components for customizing. For instance, the All Weather Guard Equipment Package adds a heavy duty battery, a 4.5-liter windshield washer tank, a heavy duty front heater and a rear-seat heater duct for a mere $70. Our test model came equipped with the Upgrade Package which included power windows, locks and mirrors along with a tilt steering wheel for a more substantial $870.
The Inside Story
You'll forget all the funky design outside once you're inside the RAV4. Its cockpit is more like a sporty sedan, with traditional Toyota attention to quality and safety.
Unibody construction makes it lower and therefore easier to get in and out, yet it carries a higher ride height than sedans. The sloping hood and generous greenhouse front and rear make visibility excellent. Our only caveat on the visibility score is the tailgate-mounted spare, which blocks rear vision just a bit.
Cloth seats are contoured and comfortable and controls and gauges which includes a digital clock, tachometer and tripmeter are well located. Our tester had full carpeting with carpeted floor mats, an add-on of $62. Standard are dual outside mirrors, intermittent front and rear wipers and a rear window defogger. There are front door pockets and dual cupholders for stow and go.
All major safety bases are covered with dual airbags, three-point seatbelts and headrests in all outboard positions, side door impact beams, energy absorbing steering column, strategically-located chassis impact-absorbing reinforcements and a rear center high-mount stop light. Adjustable seat anchors are added to the front seats only on the four-door model.
Ride & Drive
The RAV4 is not simply a car clone turned sport-ute wannabe. We feel it's a distinct new entry that has quickly become the standard-bearer for this group. Its dead-on 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, and as always we recommend it.
We were also suitably impressed by the all-wheel drive traction, which makes this vehicle very useful in snow and slush. Automatic transmission models have a center differential that 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 a recommended add-on if you plan to venture into the lands beyond.
We know it's overused, but the fun-to-drive quotient is high on this unique mini-ute that's not a truck. Its unibody construction gives better handling, particularly in the four-door where its longer wheelbase smooths some of the choppiness found in the two-door version.
The engine feels peppy, and can cruise at 80, but in the higher rpm range it runs out of power, and engine noise is apparent in the cabin. The five-speed manual was enjoyable and a preference for our driving team that logged miles at a track as well as on highways and byways.
It's not a real four-wheel drive, but it might be the one many American buyers are looking to buy. It's tougher than a car and softer than a truck. Honda joins the race with its new entry, the CR-V built off the Civic platform. Both offer bigger truck attributes in a smaller body while selling the fun, yet rough and rugged SUV image that's so popular today -- even though most spend their time on pavement and are used for car-pooling, commuting and collecting groceries. And of course the RAV4 is ideal for this kind of action.
While the RAV4 has been constructed to carry many of the amenities you might want, its shortfall lies in towing capacity (1500 lbs), usable interior room for the big-boned, as well as cargo space when compared against larger siblings.
It's also a bit pricey, with our test model tipping the scales at $21,472. But, then again, it offers Toyota ruggedness, reliability and build, with 27 mpg on the highway, which makes it much cheaper to run after you've signed the contract.
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