EXPERT REVIEW

IndyStar.com's view

Oftentimes, there is a particular charm to being small. When you attach four wheels to it, the facet takes on a special meaning.

Whether you can call the 1997 Toyota RAV4 sport utility vehicle “charming” is a matter of conjecture. Consumers Union calls it the “Best Small Sport-Utility Vehicle.”

The RAV4 is a mini-SUV, as defined by its 86.6 inch-wheelbase and its 147.2 inch-overall length. That’s really a small package, but what it lacks in size, the little Toyota makes up in versatility.

Currently, the RAV4 is the only sport-ute to feature four-wheel independent suspension, courtesy of the basic floor plan it shares with previous generation Toyota Celica and Camry passenger cars.

This gives the mini-SUV a car-like ride without losing its utility aspects. The design enhances the stability via a wide front and rear track that forms a broad base.

With the short front and rear overhang of the strong unibody construction, the vehicle has a high degree of maneuverability. The versatility goes up with the 4X4 four-wheel drive version.

With 4X4 hardware on board, the RAV4’s shortness lets it attack acute approach angles to ascend or descend steep inclines.

The entry-level model features front-wheel drive. It performs quite admirably, but doesn’t quite have the off-road capabilities of four-wheel drive.

The vehicle’s all-wheel drive design is similar to previous generation All-Trac Camry, Corolla and Celica models.

For added off-road traction, the RAV4 4X4 offers a standard locking center differential.

On optional automatic transmission models, the center differential locks automatically when excessive slip begins between the front and rear wheels. When the standard five-speed manual transmission is used, there is a switch that allows the driver to manually lock or unlock the center differential.

Toyota juggles the gear ratios on its two-wheel and four-wheel drive RAV4s when the vehicles use the five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmissions. The final drive is quite a bit lower (ratio-wise) in five-speed form than as an automatic.

Driving all this mechanism is a dual overhead cam, 2.0-liter (121.8-cubic-inch/1,998 c.c.) 16-valve four-cylinder engine. The motor is rated at 120-horsepower, which is fairly basic output for this type of powerplant. Torque is 125 foot-pounds, which is sufficient to handle about 1,500 pounds of towing capacity.

It is interesting to note that there is not a major difference in fuel consumption between a two-door front-wheel drive with a five-speed and a four-door four-wheel drive with an automatic. At the top of the list is the front-drive’s 24/30 city/highway consumption versus the automatic’s 4X4 number of 22/27.

The RAV4 offers seating for up to five passengers. The driver cockpit arrangement is the standard two bucket seats in front and 50/50 split rear seats in the back. The rear seat back can be folded either forward or backward, or the entire seat folded forward. This opens up 34.7 c ubic feet of storage space in the two-door and 57.9 cubic feet in the four-door.

By removing the front headrests and reclining both front and rear seat backs, the seats can be converted into a bed.

As might be expected in a mini-vehicle, cargo space is not immense. However, it is sufficient to haul most items.

The instrumentation is standard fare in that the four-gauge system consists of a speedometer, tachometer, temperature and fuel level. There also is the trip odometer.

For a moderately priced sport-ute, the trim level and accessory equipment is pretty good. The interior features fabric seating, full carpeting, cupholders, front door panel pockets, intermittent front and rear wipers, a rear defogger and a digital clock.

Not too bad for a 4X2 two-door with a five-speed whose base price is a little more than $15,000. Going to four-wheel drive will run you an added $1,400.

If you want to go upstream, there is the 4X4 four-door with a four-speed automatic. It has a ma nufac turer’s suggested retail price of just a touch over $18,000. Add to this destination charges and options.

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