SEE ALSO: Toyota Buyer's Guide
Toyota's newest, and smallest, sport-utility vehicle is the RAV 4. The name is an acronym for "Recreational Active Vehicle with 4-wheel drive", and it is sold in 2-door and 4-door versions. Although they share engine and major chassis and body components, each version has a very different character. The 4-door, tested earlier in the year, is a very carlike little sport-utility with an emphasis on utility. The RAV 4 2-door may be the first sports-car-utility vehicle. It isfun to drive.
For most sport-utility vehicles, the "sport" part of the name has more to do with what is done at the destination than with the driving of the vehicle. The 2-door RAV 4 is different. I spent a week in one not long ago and had a grin on my face for most of the time I was in it. In fact, with its slightly offbeat character, high fun factor, and original styling, it reminds me of Toyota's original "flying doorstop" MR2 sports car. Both are (or were, in the case of the original MR2) reasonably-priced cars offering plenty of enjoyment. There are differences, certainly. The old MR2 was definitely better on a twisting road, but the little RAV surprised me with its agility. And, it could nimbly traverse rough off-road terrain and sloppy mud bogs, neither particularly good sports car habitat. Think of the 2-door RAV 4 as a cross between a sport-utility and a sports coupe.
APPEARANCE: The RAV 4, in two-door form, is a short, wide, high two-box vehicle with rounded corners. It is a purposeful design with plenty of contemporary SUV style. The front has a pugnacious face with rounded rectangular headlights, an industrial black grille with the Toyota logo, and an interesting character line on the hood. A massive black-coated bumper continues to the corrugated side cladding and rear bumper, giving the little RAV a tough look and good protection from off-road hazards like trees, rocks, and shopping carts. Flared fender styling is very sports car- like. The passenger cabin has plenty of glass for great visibility and an interesting "roll bar" treatment of the B-pillar behind the doors. The spare tire is mounted externally on the side-hinged rear door. Sixteen-inch wheels, short front and rear overhangs, and good ground clearance aren't just for style, but help in many off-road situations.
COMFORT: Inside, the 2-door RAV 4 is neither fancy nor basic. Fit and finish are to Toyota's high standards. There are 4 comfy cloth-upholstered sports-style bucket seats. The front seats recline fully for car bivouacs. The rear seats offer more room for passengers than is found in most sports coupes. Luggage capacity with 4 people aboard is pretty minimal, but 2 people and camping gear should be no problem. Not only do the rear seat backs fold individually, the bottom cushions fold forward for increased cargo space. A large, locking glove box and smaller storage spaces in the doors and instrument panel are useful. The instrument panel is well- designed. Heat and optional air conditioning both work quickly. A rear- window defogger is standard. Windows, door locks, and mirrors are manually-operated. Optional dual removable sunroofs are an interesting feature.
SAFETY: The RAV 4 features dual air bags, strategically located chassis impact-absorbing reinforcements, and side-impact protection beams in the doors. All outboard passengers have 3-point seatbelts. Antilock brakes are optionally available.
ROADABILITY: Toyota's smallest SUV doesn't feel like a truck except for the height. A fully-independent suspension means that the ride quality is smooth, with little body roll. At highway speeds, wind and tire noise are present but tolerable. Stability in strong crosswinds is very good. All- wheel drive helps the RAV 4 2-door to handle twisting mountain roads almost like a sports car. The little RAV is one of the few micro-sport utilities that is actually pleasant for a long trip. I had an opportunity to try it in a moderately difficult off-road situation and found it to be surprisingly capable off the pavement.
PERFORMANCE: The 2.0-liter twincam, 16-valve four-cylinder powerplant in the RAV 4 is a typical Toyota engine. It has great low-speed torque and a very un-SUV-like lack of thirst for gasoline. With 120 horsepower moving a curb weight of 2600 pounds, acceleration is brisk. Traffic, highway cruising, and steep hills present no problems. A short- throw 5-speed manual transmission adds to the sporty fun. Even without a 4WD low range, first and second gears are low enough for light-to- medium duty off-road use. The center differential can be locked for slippery or off-road conditions, and a limited-slip rear differential is available.
CONCLUSIONS: The 2-door Toyota RAV 4 may be the world's first sports car-utility vehicle. With civilized comfort, good performance, sporty looks, a decent amount of interior room, and reasonable fuel economy, it's a fun-to-drive vehicle that can be driven almost anywhere.
SPECIFICATIONS 1996 Toyota RAV-4 2-door Sport Utility Vehicle Base Price $ 16,348 Price As Tested $ 19,668 Engine Type inline 4-cylinder, dual overhead cams, 16 valves Engine Size 2.0 liters / 121 cu. in. Horsepower 120 @ 5400 Torque (lb-ft) 125 @ 4600 Transmission 5-speed manual Wheelbase / Length 86.6 in. / 145.9 in. Curb Weight 2634 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 22 Fuel Capacity 15.3 gal. Fuel Requirement unleaded regular Tires P215/70 R16 Bridgestone Dueler H/T Brakes, front/rear vented disc / drum, antilock optional Suspension, front/rear independent MacPherson strut / independent double wishbone with coil springs Drivetrain front engine, all-wheel drive Ground Clearance 7.7 inches PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 22/27/25 0 to 60 mph 10.0 sec 1/4 mile (E.T.) 17.5 sec Towing Capacity 1500 lbs.