It's time to chill the global raving about Toyota's RAV4 cute-ute. OK. You'll probably fall in love with this grown-up pedal car while shifting into second on the first drive. The gearbox is deft and its operation an instant instinct, which is very Toyotan; the mechanical condition of being trouble-free, idiot-resistant and a threat to the job security of tow truckers. Its anti-lockbrakes, power steering, independent suspension and major handling pieces deliver the message they will be getting along well and functioning perfectly far into the next millennium. RAV4 is an all-wheel-river that can be tossed around like a Celica. It is a fleet of passage and cuddlier than a chow puppy. In this era where some automotive designers feel threatened if asked to style anything more daring than cupcakes, the RAV4 is a risky, even risque looker from its great buns to a roof line a little too tall for its own stubbiness. And as large and leather-padded sport utilities continue to rumble haughtily throughout expensive bedroom communities, the 1996 RAV4 is in command of a niche for young and thrifty buyers hungry for baby sport utilities stickered around $20,000. And that's less than four months after RAV4 came to America. So what is wrong with this picture of fun, affordability and frisky travel? For one thing, anyone sized larger than early teenagers will suffer big time scrunching in back seats of the two-door RAV4. Even the four-door version--16 inches longer than its kid sibling--has barely adequate leg room because most of the extra length is given over to cargo room. Which, in the two-door, will hold one medium-sized dog. But not his tuba. Despite front seats that slide easily, riders long of shank or large of waistline will not enjoy doubling in or squeezing out of rear accommodations in the two-door version. Although Toyota identifies the RAV4 as a four-wheel-drive, off-road vehicle, it is not. At least, not in the pure sense that Jeep Wranglers, Ford Explorers and Toyota's own Land Cruiser, with their additional low-range gearboxes for plodding across deep canyons, are four-wheel-drive, off-road vehicles. Better to see RAV4 as an all-wheel-drive vehicle featuring a transmission system similar to Subaru's all-wheel-drive. It's grand for keeping things straight and moving ahead in heavy rain and light snows. But better to have a growlier set of gears for escaping monsoon mud ponds. Compare ground clearances. The RAV4 will scrape its tummy on 7.7-inch rocks. A Jeep Wrangler drives over the same boulder with3 inches to spare. Ford Explorers are tall enough to clear buffalo. Having said that, it should be noted that RAV4's All-Trac system does have space for an optional limited-slip differential for extracting self and groceries from casual off-road messes. A buck naked RAV4--that's a two-door with a five-speed manual transmission and two-wheel-drive that somehow doesn't change the vehicle to a RAV2--will cost $15,000. That includes driver- and passenger-side air bags. Add the usual options and you'll pay around $22,000 for a very competent all-wheel-drive package with anti-lock brakes, 16-inch alloy wheels, tune system with CD player, air, cruise control and power windows and doors. Plus the very latest in ventilation--two sun roofs that can be lifted out and stored in the back. Built upon the Toyota Celica platform, all RAV4s arrive with a 2.0 liter, four-cylinder engine producing a lively 120 horsepower and remarkably willing performance. Manual or automatic, these rascals are quicker than Wrangler, Geo Tracker and Suzuki Sidekick in initial acceleration and spooling up for passing. Yet higher speeds on 86 inches of wheelbase--compared with an average100 inches for lower, better balanced compact cars--is not a recommended test of any sport utility's centers of gravity a d tip ability. And the engine, despite liquid-filled mounts and the usual amount of insulation, is a noisy little bugger at freeway speeds. The vehicle changes direction with promptness while that independent suspension soaks up great gobs of roll and steering wander. A Toyota Supra it's not. But compared to the RAV4, other cars in its class corner like cue balls. The interior--upholstery, coloring, instrument layout and positioning of standard switches and wands--is practical, a euphemism for nondescript. Seats are tight, hard, and high-backed. Theirs is a firm, comfortable embrace fitting the vehicle's appearance of sturdiness and purpose. That purpose, of course, is personal enjoyment. But for beach and boulevard, not far back trails. Although rated for towing a 1,500-pound trailer you wouldn't want to tug anything heavier than a Hobie Cat, and then only for a short drive to San Diego. This is a neighborhood runabout, a tiny second car. There's a sense that RAV4 was born on a drawing board as REV4, an electric vehicle. Then eco-demands and California mandates were suspended, and Toyota's little vehicle was given an internal combustion engine transplant. Or, it was designed for gasoline with the option of quickly becoming an EV the moment the social climate changed. The RAV4 is not a truck for hauling stuff, nor a station wagon for mass transit of families. It definitely will tread nervous in quiet, wild places where eagles soar and rattlers slide. RAV4. Recreational Activity Vehicle. That's what it says in the sales brochure. So it is designed to rejuvenate owners; maybe even return them to days when fun in motoring was a Bugeye Sprite and a Brooklyn Dodgers baseball cap. But what price joy when novelty wears and distinction dies the moment your brother-in-law buys a RAV4 in your shade of confetti blue? And when we start fearing our early passion for the RAV4 was more a matter of infatuation? Then what price a $22,000 used toy? 1996 Toyota RAV4 The Good: Odd and wonderful looks. Blessed by Toyota's enormous reputation for reliability, durability and impeccable fit and finish. Each drive a reminder of how much fun is lost in larger, quieter, duller cars. The Bad: Back seaters might wish they'd walked. Not for long hauls in fast, large company. The Ugly: All in the eyes of the beholder. Cost Base price, $16,348. (Includes standard five-speed manual transmission, two air bags, four-wheel drive, and power steering.) As tested, $21,758. (Includes optional anti-lock brakes, air conditioning, 16-inch alloy wheels, twin sunroofs, cruise control, limited slip differential, power windows and premium sound system.) Engine 2.0 liter, inline four-cylinder, developing 120 horsepower. Type All-wheel drive, two-door, four-passenger mini-sport utility. Performance 0-60 mph, as tested, 9.8 seconds, with manual. Top speed, estimated, 102 mph. Fuel consumption, EPA average, city and highway, 22 and 27 mpg. Curb Weight 2,634 pounds.
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