A small, spunky head-turner. by Sue Mead
Base Price $17,218
As Tested $23,590
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 has been hailed as a welcome visual departure from a crowded highway of SUV lookalikes. Its wide body has tucked-in sheetmetal at the windows, a sloping hood with large air intakes, kicked-up rear quarter panels sculpted around big 16-inch tires. The rear is dominated by a side-opening door, which swings from the left.
All models receive notable changes for '98 with a more aggressively styled grille and front fascia and bolder wheel treatments. Headlamps and taillamps are redesigned for added prominence. Two-door versions now come with a swing-open window on the rear driver's side. All versions offer privacy glass. The hood on our all-wheel-drive model wrapped around built-in tow hooks, ready for a tug off the tundra.
New front seatbelt pretensioners and force-limiters are designed to enhance safety in the event of an impact. 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 DOHC four-cylinder engine, the RAV4 comes with either a five-speed manual transmission or a four-speed automatic. Horsepower and torque have been increased for '98, while engine noise has been reduced -- weak points on the '97 model.
Six styling packages are available that include a mix of interior and exterior components for customizing. For instance, the All Weather Guard Equipment Package adds a heavy-duty battery, a big 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 $1050.
The Inside Story
You'll forget the funky design outside once you're inside the RAV4. You'll quickly notice Toyota's traditional attention to quality and safety. Its cockpit is more like a sporty sedan, with a new three-spoke steering wheel. Unibody construction lowers the step-in height, making it easier to get in and out, yet it carries a higher ride height than a sedan for traversing obstacles.
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.
Door trim panels are freshened and four-door models receive upgraded fabric trim. Cloth seats are contoured and comfortable and controls and gauges are well located. The revised instrument cluster incorporates a digital odometer and dual trip meter and upgraded radio features.
Our test car had full carpeting with carpeted floor mats. Standard are dual outside mirrors, intermittent front and rear wipers and a rear window defogger. Front door pockets provide storage, while dual cupholders are integrated into the lower instrument panel. New on four-door versions is a auxiliary power outlet in the rear cargo area for battery-powered coolers, inflators and other devices.
All major safety bases are covered with dual airbags (depowered to meet '98 safety standards), three-point seatbelts and headrests, side-impact door 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 on the four-door model.
Ride & Drive
The RAV4 is not simply a sport-utility wannabe. It has proven itself to be a standard-bearer for this new breed of mini-utes. 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 to 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 carpooling, 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 pounds), 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.
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©1998 New Car Test Drive, Inc.