Automakers are turning to smaller, less-expensive, higher-mileage offerings.

Chevy has such a model in the Geo Tracker, though it is a bit tinny and notvery well promoted by an automaker that focuses on its bigger (and morelucrative) Blazer, Tahoe and Suburban.

And Chrysler long had the Jeep Wrangler, though it wasn’t until 1997 thatit was civilized and such items as dual air bags added.

Toyota is the one that created a stir in bringing out its subcompact RAV4,a vehicle in front- or four-wheel-drive in two- or four-door versions withdual air bags and optional ABS.

Honda is going to follow with a low-cost CR-V and Subaru with aninexpensive Forester, and Ford is working on a lower-cost sport-ute built offthe Contour platform.

RAV4 is cute and fuel-efficient, but not exactly cheap, unless you opt forfront-wheel-drive, which somewhat defeats the purpose of having one in theSnow Belt. ABS is optional to keep the cost down.

We tested the ’97 RAV4 four-door with full-time 4WD, the best combinationfor those who must go out in the snow and take more than one other person withthem.

The vehicle is good-looking, roomy and the swing-open rear door allows wideentry to put cargo in or take it out. The rear seatbacks fold so you can carrymore cargo if needed.

Being a full-time 4WD unit, there’s no transfer case to fool with. One wordof caution: This is not a high-mountain, deep-sand-dune four-wheeler.

So the all-wheel-drive RAV4 is for getting to the store or the trainstation is cold weather, not for charting off-road territory.

The 2-liter, 120-h.p., 4-cylinder engine is teamed with 4-speed automatic.The harder you drive, the more commotion the little four-banger makes, but the22 m.p.g. city/26 m.p.g. highway mileage helps you live with the noise.Mileage is one of RAV4’s main attractions for those who realize that even inthe Snow Belt, roads are clear more often than clogged and the benefits of 4WDlose some of their luster when parked at the pump in June, July and August.

Strong points include the dual bags and available ABS, 16-inch wheels forgood grip in a vehicle half the size of compact sport-utes that, for the mostpart, offer 15-inch tires, and a curved windshield to reduce wind noise.

Also, the RAV4 feels sturdier than Tracker.

The optional plastic spare-tire cover keeps vandals from damaging orripping off the spare. The cover is in the $673 “active” package that alsoincludes a roof rack and rear-step bumper.

The $673, however, leads to the biggest gripe with the little RAV4: awindow sticker that topped $22,000 with all the options.

The four-door RAV4 4WD starts at $18,268, a decent price considering youcould spend $25,000 to $30,000 on a larger compact.

But the test vehicle came with ABS for $590, air conditioning for $985, adeluxe speaker system for $190, cruise control for $290, an upgrade packagethat included power windows/door l ocks/outside mirrors and tilt wheel for$1,050, carpeted floor mats for $62 and the active package for $673.

With freight the sticker topped $22,000, which is a bit much, though youcould trim it by more than $1,000 by passing on the deluxe speakers, cruisecontrol and spare tire cover/roof rack.

Chevy brings out a restyled Tracker for 1999, so it will have had a coupleof years to study what makes RAV4 so popular and improve Tracker accordingly.

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