Editor’s note: You may want to read more of Autotrader’s model vs. model comparison car reviews.
If you’re looking for a reasonably priced used compact SUV, we suspect the 2001-2007 Ford Escape and 2001-2005 Toyota RAV4 have made their way to your shopping list. Both models offer strong reliability, a seating position that’s taller than most compact cars and highly affordable pricing owing to their increasing age. But which one is better? We’ve created a close comparison between the two models in order to find out, but first let’s cover the basics.
2001-2007 Ford Escape: The Basics
The 2001-2007 Escape was a compact crossover that was the right vehicle at the right time, debuting at the beginning of the small-SUV craze. Available with 4- or 6-cylinder engines, the Escape lineup ranged from a basic small crossover to a well-equipped Limited version. A fuel-efficient Escape Hybrid even joined the lineup in 2005.
2001-2005 Toyota RAV4: The Basics
The 2001-2005 Toyota RAV4 represented the model’s second generation, following a relatively successful first-generation version that went on sale in 1996. Unlike the original RAV4, however, the latest version was only offered with four doors, and it touted more grown-up styling to rival the Escape and the latest CR-V. The RAV4 was offered only with a 4-cylinder engine.
Although Consumer Reports reliability information only goes back 10 years, the firm doesn’t have very positive things to say about the 2006 and 2007 Escape, giving it a worse-than-average overall score — a figure the Escape didn’t improve upon until recent years. The RAV4, meanwhile, generally receives average or better-than-average scores.
That’s on par with consumer reviews placed on Kelley Blue Book, as the RAV4 earned mostly positive reviews, scoring a 9.2 out of 10 — a slight but measurable increase over the Escape’s 8.4 out of 10. As a result, if reliability is important to you, we suspect you’ll have better luck with the RAV4 than with the Escape.
The Escape offered several different engine choices over its 7-year run. Available all 7 years was a 200-horsepower 3.0-liter V6, which returned up to 18 miles per gallon in the city and 22 mpg on the highway. Offered with front- or all-wheel drive, it was mated to a 4-speed automatic transmission.
The Escape also offered a few different 4-cylinder engines. From 2001 to 2004, there was a 120-hp 2.0-liter 4-cylinder, only offered with a 5-speed manual, that touted 23 mpg city/27 mpg hwy. Beginning in 2005, that engine increased in size to a 153-hp 2.3-liter 4-cylinder and offered a 5-speed manual (22 mpg city/26 mpg hwy) or a 4-speed automatic (19 mpg city/22 mpg hwy). But the fuel economy champ was the Escape Hybrid, which debuted in 2005 and touted 133 hp. Using technology licensed from Toyota and a fuel-saving continuously variable transmission, the Escape Hybrid offered up to 33 mpg city/29 mpg hwy.
The RAV4 offered two engines. From 2001 to 2003, it came standard with a 148-hp 2.0-liter 4-cylinder that returned 23 mpg city/27 mpg hwy with manual or automatic transmissions. In 2004 and 2005, that engine was replaced with a more responsive 161-hp 2.4-liter 4-cylinder, which returned about the same fuel economy.
So which one is better? If you’re interested in a gas-powered model, the RAV4 has a slight advantage over the 4-cylinder Escape. But if you’re willing to choose a hybrid, the impressive Escape Hybrid trumps all.
In government crash testing carried out by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the RAV4 and Escape earned the same scores: four stars in the firm’s frontal crash testing and 5 stars in the side-impact tests. As for safety features, the Escape offered optional front-side airbags from the beginning, adding optional side-curtain airbags for 2005. The RAV4 didn’t begin offering side airbags until 2004, at which point it gained optional side curtains. Anti-lock braking was optional on all 2001-2005 RAV4 models and the 2001-2004 Escape, though the Escape added it as a standard feature in 2005.
Given that the Escape offered side airbags long before the RAV4 and touted standard anti-lock braking first, this category goes to the Ford. But since the RAV4 and Escape share crash-test results, you’ll have to make sure you find an Escape with anti-lock brakes and side airbags in order to take advantage of the Escape’s benefits over its Toyota rival.
Although neither the Escape nor the RAV4 is especially advanced by modern standards, both models had relatively generous equipment for their time period, including available heated mirrors, multispeaker stereo systems and even leather upholstery.
With that said, the Escape had the edge over the RAV4 in terms of technology, especially if you choose an Escape Limited. That model, which came out in 2003, included heated seats, a 6-disc CD changer and parking sensors — none of which you could get in the RAV4. Further proof of the Escape’s high-tech prowess is evident in its available hybrid powertrain, which made it one of the first hybrid SUVs on the market.
There are currently around 2,500 different 2001-2007 Escape models listed on Autotrader with an average price of $6,300. Meanwhile, there are currently around 700 different 2001-2005 RAV4 models listed on Autotrader with an average price of $7,300.
The price difference likely comes from the fact that the RAV4 is considered more reliable than its Ford rival. If that’s important to you, you’ll probably be willing to pay a premium for the Toyota. Meanwhile, the Ford offers more power, more features and more safety equipment for a lower price — along with an available hybrid model. While those things would normally give the Escape the edge on value, we know how important reliability can be to a shopper interested in a used car — so we’re calling this category a draw.
Choosing between the 2001-2007 Ford Escape and the 2001-2005 RAV4 can be a difficult decision. The Escape is cheaper, roomier, more powerful and better equipped than its Toyota counterpart, and its available hybrid version gets better gas mileage, too. But base-level RAV4 models offer slightly better gas mileage than the base-level Escape, and they’re more reliable, too. As a result, we think the RAV4 is a better choice for frugal, budget-minded shoppers, while drivers more interested in equipment should go for the Escape. We especially recommend a 2003-2007 Escape Limited, which includes a lot of luxury equipment, along with side airbags and anti-lock brakes.