SEE ALSO: Toyota Buyer's Guide
There is a new mid-year addition to the Toyota RAV4 mini sport-utility lineup. It is called the Soft Top, and is a semi-convertible modification of the existing two-door model of Toyota's smallest SUV.
The Soft Top complements the existing RAV 4 lineup of two and four-door hardtop sport-utilities. It is basically a two-door RAV 4 with a partial convertible top in place of the rear roof area and backlight, and a standard removable-panel sunroof. Extra structural bracing in the rocker panels and rear fenders makes it as rigid as the hardtop version. The RAV4 Soft Top is designed for people who are young or young at heart and want a fun-in-the-sun runabout with the versatility, practicality, and quality of the RAV 4.
Like the other RAVs, the Soft Top has carlike unibody construction for strength, rigidity, and quietness. Because there is no separate frame, its floor height is low for easy access. The standard RAV4 engine, a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder, provides power, with a 5-speed manual gearbox standard and 4-speed automatic optional. As with other members of the family, the Soft Top is available with front- wheel drive or full-time all-wheel drive.
The American-made convertible top is built of double layered vinyl-coated polyester for durability, with plastic windows. It can be lowered by unzipping the windows and unlatching two latches. It is a more complex operation than lowering the top on a modern, fully- automatic, no-hands luxury car, but still easier than on an old British sports car. As I discovered during a week of unseasonably cold, wet weather, the top is snug and secure enough to make the Soft Top an all-weather vehicle, not just a warm weather toy. The RAV4 Soft Top has all of the good characteristics of the hardtop model and adds the option of open air fun.
APPEARANCE: The RAV 4 Convertible is a chunky, cheeky little runabout with a look that brings smiles. Like its full-top sibling, it seems almost as wide as it is long, er, short. In fact, it is identical to the hardtop 2-door RAV except for the partial soft top. A minor restyling this year includes a revised grille and front bumper fascia and "jewel"- type complex reflector headlights at the front. Redesigned taillamps highlight the rear. A highly -styled hood and side panels, and full- surround lower cladding blended with the bumpers give the RAV4 Soft Top a jaunty look. The large wheels and tires, and externally- mounted spare add to the offroad look, particularly on the small 2-door model. The Soft Top RAV 4 is definitely not an intimidating monster truck.
COMFORT: The RAV4 Soft Top is comparable to a Corolla in interior trim and materials. Well-equipped and finished to the usual high Toyota standard, it has features that make it a great vehicle for getting away from it all. All four seats fold flat to make a cozy bed for camping. Put the top down and sleep under the stars. The stylishly- patterned cloth-upholstered front bucket and rear bench seats work well in everyday use, too. The little RAV is definitely a 2+2 in accommodation - meant primarily for one or two people with two smaller passengers in the back. Headroom all around is nearly unlimited even with the top and sunroof in place, and rear-seat legroom is in the small coupe category - best for shorter folks. There is some cargo space behind the rear seat, but more can be had easily as the each half of rear seat can independently be folded or tumbled. Back up front, the driver has a good thick steering wheel and a well- designed instrument panel trimmed in imitation carbon fiber. My test vehicle was equipped with "Value Package #2", which included a tilt- adjustable steering wheel, high-grade AM/FM/CD sound system, and fast, efficient air conditioner. Windows, mirrors, and door locks are all manually-operated.
SAFETY: The 1998 Toyota RAV4 Soft Top has dual airbags, 3-point safety harnesses for all positions with force-limiting pretensioners for the front occupants, and side-impact door beams.
ROADABILITY: Want to try out the camping bed feature in the woods? Like its siblings, the RAV4 Soft Top is not designed for heavy-duty off road use, but is perfectly suited for "unimproved" forest roads. So it should be just the ticket for your favorite get-away-from-it- all campsite. On pavement, the Soft Top is as civilized and nimble as its hardtop siblings. Its wide stance, relatively low center of gravity, and fully independent suspension make it among the most stable of sport-utilities. The extra chassis reinforcement in the Soft Top cancels any loss of rigidity from the removal of the top. The little RAV is quiet for its class and feels very solid.
PERFORMANCE: The 2.0-liter twincam 4-cylinder engine used in the RAV4 now makes 125 horsepower and 130 lb-ft of torque. Like other Toyota powerplants, it has great low-speed power, so the RAV has plenty of punch in city traffic or on twisty secondary roads. The optional electronically-controlled 4-speed automatic transmission works well, and shifts quickly and smoothly. An automatic-equipped RAV isn't quite as quick as one with the standard 5-speed manual, but it is more convenient in the real world of city traffic.
CONCLUSIONS: The new Soft Top model adds open-air driving to the Toyota RAV4's already impressive repertoire.
SPECIFICATIONS Base Price $ 17,848 Price As Tested $ 20,154 Engine Type inline 4-cylinder, dual overhead cams, 16 valves Engine Size 2.0 liters / 121 cu. in. Horsepower 125 @ 5400 Torque (lb-ft) 130 @ 4600 Transmission 4-speed electronically-controlled automatic Wheelbase / Length 86.6 in. / 147.6 in. Curb Weight 2789 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 22.3 Fuel Capacity 15.3 gal. Fuel Requirement unleaded regular, 87 octane Tires P215/70 SR16 Dunlop Grand Trek Ground Clearance 7.3 Brakes, front/rear vented disc / drum, antilock available Suspension, front/rear independent MacPherson strut / independent double wishbone with coil springs Drivetrain front engine, all-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 23 / 26 / 24 0 to 60 mph 11.2 sec 1/4 mile (E.T.) 18.4 sec OPTIONS AND CHARGES CA / NY / MA emissions $ 63 Value Package #2 - includes: Air conditioning, deluxe 4-speaker AM/FM/CD sound system, tilt steering wheel $ 1,605 Hard spare tire cover $ 151 Carpet floor mats $ 67