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Toyota RAV4 (2001)

SEE ALSO: Toyota Buyer's Guide

by John Heilig


MODEL: Toyota RAV4 
ENGINE: 2.0-liter inline four 
HORSEPOWER/TORQUE: 148 hp @ 6000 rpm/142 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm 
TRANSMISSION:  Four-speed automatic 
WHEELBASE: 98.0 in. 
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT: 165.1 x 68.3 x 64.9 in. 
STICKER PRICE:  $25,935 

Toyota's RAV4 has been the leader in the new breed of compact sport utility vehicles that are based on sedans. Most mid- and full-size SUVs are truck-based, and as such offer hard rides that can be tiring on long trips. Most SUVs also aren't driven off-road that much, so four-wheel drive is wasted. True, SUVs that are driven primarily in northern climates do give their owners an advantage in snowy and icy conditions, but they really aren't off-road vehicles.

So a car-based SUV like the RAV4 could solve a lot of problems. Subaru has used car-based SUVs and four-wheel drive sedans and wagons to carve an enviable niche in the market that many manufacturers covet.

RAV4 was a hit when it was first introduced in 1996,and continues to be a popular vehicle today. For 2001, Toyota completely redesigned the RAV4, making it longer, wider and taller and building it on a one-inch longer wheelbase. In addition, the engine offers a healthy 148 horsepower, a solid 21 more horses than the previous version. So for those of us who are always looking for "more power," here it is.

One hundred forty eight horses are more than enough to give the 2,943-pound RAV4 power to spare, even with the automatic transmission and full-time four-wheel drive. Fuel economy is excellent as well, rated by the EPA at 23 mpg city and 27 mpg highway.

Besides installing a new engine in a larger car, Toyota redesigned the RAV4 to give it a bolder look. This is a vehicle that at least looks like a mid-size, even if it competes in the compact SUV class. The exterior is more aerodynamic than last year, with a thick hood and front combination lights that incorporate multi-reflector lamps. There is an arched roofline that leads to a spoiler-shaped rear end that creates an innovative side profile. In addition, the rear lights are wraparound style, giving greater visibility to surrounding traffic.

Inside, the new RAV4 has a new instrument panel with metallic trim and plated screws for a durable appearance.

Besides its looks, though, the RAV4 is a capable performer. We had the opportunity to drive a RAV4 over some pretty nasty trails. The introduction wasn't planned that way, but it rained the night before and all through the morning, making for a muddy track. In fact, some of the other SUVs that Toyota had around weren't able to make it through the tougher sections of the course, clogging up the route and keeping other more capable SUVs away.

But the RAV4s we drove handled their portion of the course well. Obviously, the RAV4 isn't intended for some of the tougher off-road challenges that you'd take a Highlander or Sequoia through, but it did well in mud and over rocky terrain. The organizers of the introduction even created a log crossing that our RAV4 negotiated easily. Without a Low-Low gearing arrangement, though, we didn't want to try it on slippery uphill or downhill sections.

However, our test did inspire confidence in the RAV4's ability to handle anything that I, personally, would be interested in trying. I'm not the Rubicon Trail type, but I do drive often in rain, ice and snow, so I want a vehicle that isn't going to send me off the road because it can't handle these difficult conditions. The four-wheel-drive system in the RAV4 proved itself capable of handling slippery mud, which is the same as ice and snow, but warmer.

I liked the new aesthetics of the RAV4. The exterior and interior design gave a comfortable feeling about what the RAV4 was all about. It told the driver that here was a rugged vehicle that was a step or two above a sedan, but not in the same league as a Land Cruiser, to push the extreme.

The RAV4 is not an incapable performer as a family vacation vehicle. With a 1,500-pound maximum trailer weight, the RAV4 can tow a snowmobile or wave runner and can do it well. Interior cargo capacity is 29.2 cubic feet behind the rear seats and 68.3 cubic feet with the rear seats removed. This is more than enough room for a family of four to stow all the luggage they need, or for a single driver to use the RAV4 as a truck, hauling almost anything.

I liked the RAV4 when I first drove it back in 1996. Interestingly, at that introduction, a "more capable" SUV got stuck as well, while the RAV4 easily handled wet snow. Maybe this is a better vehicle than Toyota thinks it is.