The Auto Channel
The Largest Independent Automotive Research Resource
The Largest Independent Automotive Research Resource
Official Website of the New Car Buyer

New Car Review

1996 Toyota RAV4 4-Door Sport Utility Vehicle

Toyota RAV4

SEE ALSO: Toyota Buyer's Guide


The RAV4 is a new Toyota, aimed at the entry-level sport-utility market. The name is an acronym for "Recreational Active Vehicle with 4-wheel Drive", and it is the most civilized, carlike machine yet in its segment. It completes Toyota's full sport-utility line, complementing the large and luxurious Land Cruiser and mid-sized 4-Runner.

Sport-utility vehicles are evolving rapidly. Not long ago, they were little more than pickup trucks modified to hold people under a roof. As sport-utilities became more popular as car replacements, they gained the comfort and convenience features associated with passenger cars. For most owners, today's sport-utilities are the equivalents of the station wagons of the past. They are used for commuting, shopping, pleasure driving, and towing. Only a small minority of sport-utility owners ever do any serious off-roading, but four- or all-wheel drive can provide added security in foul weather conditions.

Interestingly, the early and mid-1980s also saw all-wheel drive used in a number of passenger cars. These were designed to take advantage of AWD traction on pavement, not as off-road vehicles. Now, the two streams of design are coming together in a new generation of vehicle that is based on a car platform with all-wheel drive and sport- utility styling.

The RAV4 is one of the first of these machines to hit the U. S. market. With a unit-construction chassis and fully independent suspension, it feels and handles like a car. Good ground clearance and tall, sport-utility styling give it the popular look. It is available now in two- and four-door versions with all-wheel drive. I just spent a week with a 4-door RAV4 and found it to be an attention-getting, enjoyable, and useful machine with great traction in bad weather.

APPEARANCE: The RAV4 in four-door form is every bit a contemporary sport-utility. Is has plenty of functionality and style. Its high stance and short front and rear overhangs make it look ready for any off-road situation. Lower body cladding that matches the front and rear bumpers helps give it a rugged appearance and keep scrapes and scratches to a minimum, whether they be from shopping carts or trees, rocks, and wild animals. Sculptured hood and side panels add a civilized touch. The beltline is low and the passenger cabin has plenty of glass. Alloy wheels and large tires complete the package.

COMFORT: Trucks are in the RAV4's family tree only as cousins. Think of it as a small station wagon with extra headroom. Ground clearance is greater than most passenger cars but the RAV is easy to get into or out of. Seat comfort and interior appointments are just what is expected in a Toyota product in this price range: first class finish and materials. The rear seat folds down with a 50/50 split for extra cargo capacity. The rear area has its own dome light, and a side-hinged rear door makes access easy. The climate-control system delivers warm or cold air quickly. All of the typical convenience options are available. My RAV4 had power windows, door locks, and mirrors, and a heated rear window with wiper. The AM/FM/cassette stereo had good tone and radio reception.

SAFETY: The RAV4 has dual air bags and side-impact beams in the doors. Outboard passengers have 3-point seatbelts. The front shoulder straps are height-adjustable. Antilock brakes are optionally available.

ROADABILITY: One of the goals of Toyota's designers was to create a vehicle with sport-utility style and all-weather usefulness and a car-like feel. Success! Even though it sits higher than a normal car, and consequently offers great visibility over other cars, the RAV4 lacks the top-heavy feel of a sport-utility. On the road it its fully-independent suspension makes it composed, nimble, and quite stable. Useful aerodynamics and all-wheel drive combine to keep it planted in strong, gusty winds and pouring rain.

PERFORMANCE: A torquey, 120-horsepower 4-cylinder, 2-liter twincam engine and curb weight under 3,000 lbs give the 4-door RAV4 performance equal to most compact station wagons and fuel economy better than most sport-utilities. It has plenty of power for all city and highway situations. The engine works well with the optional 4-speed electronically-controlled automatic transmission. The all-wheel drive system lacks a low range, so extreme four-wheeling is not in the RAV4's game plan, but it should handle dirt roads and easier 4WD trails just fine. There are no snaggable items on the sides, and the mirrors can be folded back out of the way. Ground clearance is reasonable, and, more importantly, all critical parts underneath are tucked safely out of the way. This also provides added security against road debris.

CONCLUSIONS: Is it a car or is it a sport-utility? Does it matter? The Toyota RAV4 is the first of a new generation of vehicles to combine sport-utility style and all-wheel drive with the comfort and handling characteristics of a car.

1996 Toyota RAV4 4-Door Sport-Utility Vehicle

Base Price                              $ 18,098
Price As Tested                         $ 22,728
Engine Type                             4-cylinder inline,
DOHC, 16 valves
Engine Size                             2.0-liter, 122 cu. in.
Horsepower                              120 @ 5400
Torque (lb-ft)                          125 @ 4600
Transmission                            4-speed electronically-
                                         controlled automatic
Wheelbase / Length                      94.9 in. / 162.0 in.
Curb Weight                             2844 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower                   23.7
Fuel Capacity                           15.3 gal.
Fuel Requirement                        unleaded regular
Tires                                   P215/70R16
Brakes, front/rear                      vented disc / drum. 4-
                                        wheel antilock optional
Suspension, front/rear                  independent MacPherson strut / 
                                        independent double wishbone with
                                        coil springs
Drivetrain                              front engine, all-wheel drive
Ground Clearance                        7.5 inches
EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed           22/27/25
0 to 60 mph                             10.9 sec
1/4 mile (E.T.)                         18.1 sec
Maximum Trailer Weight                  1,500 lbs.