Graced with a real personality, you wouldn't blame a sport utility vehicle for developing a complex of sorts. When first introduced in the mid-1990s, SUVs were laughed off the road for being too large, too overbearing and not enough car. Then, suddenly, they weren't big enough. The thinking was: If you were an SUV you had to eat everyone in your path, stomp gas stations in a single bound and supply stepladders for easy entry. And then there was the Toyota RAV4. First introduced in 1996, it was a trendsetter before being trendy was cool. Big enough to be a sporty alternative, small enough to handle better, it rolled with the punches while the rest of the world grew, shrunk and grew again - all the while sticking to its guns as the world's "cute-ute." Look who's cute no more. After increasing pressure from Toyota loyalists who e-mailed, faxed, phoned and visited showrooms across the country suggesting the RAV expand its waistline a little, Toyota has listened. Wider, taller and beefier, this is the new RAV4, the peer-pressure RAV4 - a perennial seller that has finally realized that to stay competitive in some ways you've got to join the in-crowd. It's no Excursion, by any means. And it's no CR-V. But it's a lot closer to that ever-changing target auto buyers are seeking in this time of SU-Volatility. We liked the original RAV4. It answered many questions young buyers asked: small, lightweight, stylish and affordable. For 2001 and headed into '02, what was more of a tall-car vehicle when it first rolled off the assembly line is now more tall than car. What was lightweight and sporty is more sporty than lightweight. And what was affordable is quickly becoming expensive. Apparently, it's the price of competition. From the outside, the changes from "cute" to "cutting-edge" are obvious. With bulging fenders, large lights, a rear spoiler and increased body creases, the exterior of the RAV4 actually looks more Lexus. That's by design. Not that the RAV is interested in pulling business away from the Benz crowd. It's realistic to know it competes quite well with the domestic crowd (Jeep Liberty, Ford Escape, Chevy Tracker). Nimble and sure-footed, and based on the Camry chassis, the RAV4 might be altered in length, height and width, but it hasn't changed in the platform, where real driving counts. With optional all-wheel-drive (front drive is standard), it is a good mix of some good things: It will offroad if you have to, it will on-road when you really need it to. Just don't ask it to do either one really well. The RAV lacks the tough transfer case or low-gear setting for true offroading and the engine to mix it up in the quarter-mile. What that means is three things: Ground clearance, fuel mileage and control. City handling, especially, is more the RAV's calling card. Need a tight parking spot? The RAV's got it. Need a quick turning radius? All RAV. Just don't ask it to att ack a corner at a high speed (still a little topheavy) and don't ask it to win many races (smallish engine). Beefed up by 21 horses under the hood (now 148), the RAV's new all-aluminum 2.0-liter four cylinder with variablevalve timing is a decent city ride, but it won't win you many prizes at the drag strip. Acceleration is adequate but, regrettably, ear plugs are mandatory. Push the RAV's engine and it still whines its way down the road, the victim of any four-cylinder sound level. But at least it's beefier and, more important for Toyota, that means it's bigger than the CR-V. Another plus is Toyota's commitment to keep the RAV4 still one of the better rides around. With that elevated, sporty stance and a tight steering feel, you easily get the sense this is still half-car, half-truck - and nowhere near tractor-trailer. It's typical for a small-ute - you feel the bumps and bruises but you don't sink into the asphalt - but better than before. With the expansion of the w lbase, it makes those problems less of a concern. What is also not a problem is the RAV's all-wheel-drive system, a permanent four-wheel setup that doesn't lose any turning radius at low speeds like some 4WD. Inside, there is more of that standard SUV look - lots of silvertinged elements, rugged touches and lots of easy-to-use buttons and features that didn't require rocket science as a major. Climate-control knobs were well-placed. The seats, on the other hand, were flat and uncomfortable, with only slight lateral and back support, something of a pain 400 miles in. But the back seats, when not folded up to seat three (in a pinch), either fold back for more legroom or fold down to open up the cargo area even more. And it's a cargo area that doesn't ask for a ladder to reach. Positioned lower than most utes, the RAV's side-swinging cargo door also comes with a removable solid cargo cover. Overall, the room was impressive, something most complained about when they used to consider the RAV. Braking is solid and secure, although the anti-lock system is not standard. Mileage is OK - about 20 mpg in the city. But price, on the other hand, can get out of hand in a hurry. Although a base, two-door RAV4 starts at $16,215, it quickly rides an escalator up as the options increase. Add four-wheel-drive and you are into the mid-17s. Add an automatic and watch it increase again. Load it up and it's dangerously close to 25k. That's a lot to consider. But on the whole, and put up against the competition, the RAV is a decent, not great, performer. Its build quality is solid and its interior room expanded to the point it's no longer an exercise in yoga to turn the ignition. Keep it simple and you are getting a good value for money - even if Toyota isn't keeping the RAV what it always was.
Cars.com Expert Reviews
|Jim Flammang||Cars.com National||February 7, 2002|
|Jason Stein||October 1, 2001|
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