When Toyota brought the first RAV4 to the United States in 1996, we got excited calls from readers who wanted to get their hands on this early offering in the car-based sport-utility segment, including a Detroit woman whose husband promised her one as a reward for making it through chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer.

We expect more of the same calls as the all-new, bigger and bolder 2001 RAV4 arrives at dealerships this fall. But be prepared for a good deal of tweaking on this version, from a chunky front bumper to rakish, wraparound headlights and edgier sculpted lines along the body sides. The previous model had a base price of $16,900; the new base price is $17,615. Our loaded 4X4 test vehicle cost $23,065 and was equipped with options including a $815 power moonroof, $590 four-wheel anti-lock brakes and a $2,295 package that bundled air conditioning, cruise control, a stereo with CD player, power accessories and floor mats.

She: It's nice that RAV4 buyers get a new 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that delivers 148 horsepower - 21 more than the previous version. But when you get right down to it, what's under the hood has never been all that critical for this segment. I think people are concerned more about image, practicality and the security of optional four-wheel drive. If you judge the RAV in those respects, we had a four-star experience in it, didn't we?

He: Three stars in my book, and that's not all I'd argue with. I think that extra power DOES make a difference on the new RAV4, especially when you can't order an optional six-cylinder engine, like you can on the Chevrolet Tracker and the Ford Escape. I noticed a dramatic difference in power, especially when merging into fast-moving freeway traffic. I also love the new look of the 2001 edition, which I think is the most stylish 4X4 in the segment. If you want boxy, buy an Escape or a Mazda Tribute.

She: Our hectic weekend in the RAV4 included a relaxing Saturday afternoon at Greenfield Village, where we drank cider, listened to a old-fashioned string band and did a mini fall-color tour. On Sunday, it got more serious. We took great-grandma to church. She recently started using a wheelchair and I wondered how easy it would be to load in a compact sport-ute. No problem. The RAV has a big, side-hinged tailgate that opened wide and goes right down to bumper level, making it easy to lift and stash unwieldy gear. There are also small storage pockets back there and a 12-volt socket. Practical and impressive.

He: You mentioned the tailgate, and reminded me that the RAV4 has no real rear bumper. Which makes me wonder what happens if you get rear-ended by a much heavier vehicle. Kind of scary, huh?

She: But there's not really that much else to complain about on the new RAV. The vanity mirrors are cheap and you couldn't get the right-hand side mirror to adjust out far enough. But I liked the new white-faced gauges, the industrial-looki ng exposed screw heads in the cabin and the sharp two-tone instrument panel. There's extra elbow and headroom and of course, you sit up nice and high, which is one of the key reasons women like SUVs.

He: When you made me sit in the back seat, it felt cramped - much more than in the Escape. I also noticed you still can't get side air bags on the RAV, and anti-lock brakes still cost extra. You also have to pay extra for a hard spare-tire cover, otherwise you leave your outside spare exposed to would-be thieves. Considering that $23,000 sticker price, the RAV4 is certainly fun to drive, but it's no bargain.

She: I love the way the RAV4 drives. It's as easy to handle and park as a Ford Escort or Toyota Corolla. That's the beauty of a compact sport-ute to me. And the new RAV has a stiffer body, which means it's not as affected by noise, vibration and harshness as the other model. You get a more comfortable ride and it's not as fatiguing to drive. I found it slightly bum at lower speeds on rough pavement, but overall, the RAV4 is still a formidable competitor in this category. Sorry, dear, four stars.

He: Hey, you're entitled to your opinion - even if it's wrong.

Anita's rating: World class

Paul's rating: Above average

Likes: Dramatic improvement over its predecessor. Stylish exterior. Easy to drive. One of the most powerful four-cylinder engines in the segment. Far more cargo space than a Chevrolet Tracker or Suzuki Vitara.

Dislikes: Right-hand mirror doesn't adjust far enough. Crummy-looking passenger vanity mirror. Rear seats a bit cramped. No optional V-6 engine. Pricey with all the options included. No side air bags. What happened to the rear bumper?

Type: Front-engine, four-wheel drive, five-passenger sport-utility vehicle.

Price: Base, $17,615; as tested, $23,065 (inc. $480 destination charge).

Engine: 2.0-liter I-4; 148-hp; 142 lb-ft torque.

EPA fuel economy: 22 mpg city/27 mpg highway.

12-month insurance cost, according to AAA Michigan*: $1,194 (Estimate. Rates may be higher or lower, depending on coverage and driving record.)

Where built: Japan