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The Toyota RAV4
Perfectly Practical Fun

by Larry Weitzman

Toyota Full Line factory footage (15:01) 28.8, 56k or 200k

Toyota's commitment to building great cars extends to every car they design and produce. The field of small SUV's is crowded with some excellent vehicles, and the RAV 4 is a standout among them.

Maybe not the fastest, the biggest or best handling, but the RAV 4 two-door soft-top certainly is one of the leading candidates for the most fun. My test vehicle was a two-door with a convertible rear top and a large removable sunroof. This makes for very safe alfresco motoring.

The body structure encapsulates its passengers, while allowing an open-air feeling. I like the system. It's safe, secure, practical and great fun. It also makes for a solid, vault tight, rattle free body structure.

What really impressed and surprised me about this RAV 4 was its ride. This is a small car (only 147.6 inches long, nearly two and a half feet shorter than a Corolla) with a wheelbase of only 86.6 inches. I was expecting a short choppy ride and was prepared to feel every imperfection on the road and maybe even magnified because of the short wheelbase. Wrong. This car is incredibly smooth.

It traveled the washboard of Ponderosa Road with nary are creak, moan or disturbance to its passengers. No jarring or wheel hop from its advanced four-wheel independent suspension, which is based on the Celica. Amazing. On the freeway, tar strips are non existent.

In the handling department, I thought the short wheelbase would make for twitchy handling. Wrong again. Green Valley and Bass Lake Road were straightened out with smooth, accurate steering feeding back great road feel. If anything, I thought there was too much understeer and the tires I had were limiting the handling. The 215/70X16 standard tires on styled steel wheels could be upgraded to maybe the 235 series with alloys offered in the four door models.

This car does not drive or feel nearly as small as it is. It rides on a very wide track of nearly 58 inches, which contributes to its stable handling. But the small size is a plus in maneuvering. The turning radius is only 33 feet. I could do circles in my driveway. Driving into my barn, a major chore in my full size pickup, was a snap in this RAV 4. It gives you a feeling that you can drive this thing anywhere, roads aren't necessary.

With its full time four wheel drive with a locking center differential they probably aren't. I drove this thing on the dirt, over large ruts and up steep dirt and gravel inclines. The minimum ground clearance is over 7.3 inches. The traction was excellent and the power delivery was superb. Its wet traction was equally as good, but a judgement on performance in the snow will have to wait, but I am sure it will not disappoint. The fun quotient is huge.

The RAV is very comfortable on the inside. It has plenty of room in the nicely contoured front bucket seats. They are just right firm and very supportive. Believe it or not the two rear seats aren't bad either. Leg room is adequate and the seats are reasonably comfortable. I could spend several hours without complaining, especially on a nice summer day coated with spf 18 Coppertone.

The rear seats recline and also fold up to increase rear storage space, which is accessed by a large third door in the rear. In fact all the doors are very large (50 inches wide) which aids rear seat access along with the right front seat automatically going full forward with the flip of a lever. With the rear seats in place, there is still a reasonable amount room for storage behind them.

Working the RAV 4 from a weather tight coupe to a sun-drenched convertible is a job that requires a few minutes. My first attempt with only the instruction manual took about ten minutes, but I think it could be done in two to three minutes as the learning curve improves. The removable sunroof takes only about 30 seconds and it's cleverly stored inside the rear door.

The car has some stylish looks. It sits somewhat tall (overall height is 65.2 inches). Its pumped up, curvaceous body is very pleasant to look at. My two young boys really liked it and asked me if we could keep this car. They were happy in the front or rear seats. They just liked riding in it, top down. Cutting down the car by about fifteen inches from the four-door version has worked well.

The RAV is energized by a 2.0L inline four-cylinder DOHC four valve engine. It puts out 125 hp at 5,400 rpm and 130 lb-ft of torque at 4,600 rpm. My test RAV had the four speed electronically controlled automatic, but a 5-speed manual is available at about a thousand dollar savings. The engine is strong, smooth and willing. It provides just the right amount of power so as not to get you into trouble.

0-60 comes up in 10.6 seconds, adequate but not record shattering. In the 20-70 mph range, the car feels peppy and responsive. 50-70 acceleration took a reasonably quick 6.2 seconds. Going up the El Dorado grade slowed that time to 11.8 seconds. The 5-speed manual would probably knock a half to a second off the above times.

Cruising on the freeway is very relaxed. The engine only spins 2750 rpm at 70 mph and there is still plenty of pedal left. Fuel economy is EPA rated 23/26 city/ highway. I received about 23 mpg in my test with little highway time and my foot deep in the go pedal. I would estimate 23-25 in El Dorado County and 26-28 on the highway. With a relatively large 15.3 gallon fuel tank, range should approach 400 miles.

This fun machine will set you back $18,138 for the two door convertible with automatic. My test vehicle had only three options, a value package which contains A/C, a fine sounding stereo with a single play C/D ($1,605), hard spare tire cover ($151), and carpeted floor mats ($67). California emissions ($63) and destination of $420 bring the list price to $20,154. The base price on a two-wheel drive is $15,388 plus destination and a four-wheel drive with a five speed is $16,798 plus destination.

These prices are at the lower end of the price spectrum for a small sport cute. But this one offers the extra of open-air motoring. Sort of a MG Midget with four-wheel drive and the reliability of a Toyota, something a MG can only dream about. I had an MGB and I know that a full set of tools was a required accessory along with a Triple A card.


Price                                          $15,388 (2wd) to $17,848 (4X4 auto)
   2.0L I-4 cylinder                           125 hp @ 5,400 rpm
                                               DOHC, 4 valve heads130 lb-ft of torque @ 4,600 rpm
                                               4 speed automatic,
                                               electronically controlled
                                               5 speed manual


Wheelbase                                      86.6  inches
Length                                         147.6 inches
Width                                          66.7  inches
Height                                         65.2  inches
Ground Clearance                               7.3+  inches
Curb Weight                                    2590  pounds
Fuel Capacity                                  15.3  gallons


0-60                                           10.6  seconds
50-70                                          6.2   seconds
50-70 uphill                                   11.8  seconds 
Top Speed                                      I am sure it will easily top
                                               a 100 mph, but do it only
                                               on a test track under supervised
                                               conditions.  But high speed is not
                                               what this SUV is about.
Fuel Economy                                   23/26 mpg epa city/highway.  I
                                               estimate 23-25 mpg in El Dorado
                                               County and 26-28 mpg highway mileage