TOYOTA'S RAV4 arrived on a not-quite-spring, not-quite-winter day, which was appropriate. The RAV4 is a work of motorized ambiguity, which means that it's not quite anything -- not a car, nor a sport-utility-vehicle, not expensive, nor as affordable as the published fiction that it can be had for $15,000 to $18,000.

Truth is, according to several readers who've called to complain, RAV4 vehicles are selling for considerably more than $15,000, and more than a tad above the $18,000 mark. But more on that later.

What is certain is this: With the RAV4, Toyota has created another automotive sensation, one that redefines several compact vehicle segments -- passenger car, station wagon, minivan and sport-utility. The RAV4 -- Recreational Active Vehicle with four-wheel-drive -- contains elements of all of those models.

The RAV4 concept is not new. Witness, for example, Suzuki's wannabe-sport-ute-car-thing, the X-90. The difference is that Toyota has succeeded where Suzuki and other rivals have failed. Through imaginative design and devotion to quality, it has turned ambiguity into a virtue.

Background: The RAV4 is a melange of old ideas and parts. There are bits of Toyota Corolla styling and components in the RAV4's instrument panel, and lots of Toyota Celica All Trac engineering in its full-time four-wheel-drive system. The magic is in the way Toyota combined those pieces to create a distinctive, desirable vehicle.

The All Trac system brings back memories. As it did in the Celica passenger car, in which it's no longer used, All Trac sends power to all four wheels all the time in RAV4 vehicles equipped with the system.

When combined with the RAV4's optional, automatic four-wheel-drive transmission, no human assistance is needed to engage the RAV4's All Trac system and center differential lock. The latter comes into play in extremely slippery road conditions. When mated to the RAV4's standard five-speed-manual transmission, a dashboard button is used to lock the center differential.

However, not all RAV4 vehicles are RAV "4." The most affordable models, not widely available in the United States at this writing, will come with two doors and front-wheel-drive, as opposed to the tested four-door, four-wheel-drive model now entering the U.S. marketplace.

Other standard equipment for all Toyota RAV models includes power-assisted rack and pinion steering; MacPherson strut/gas shocks front suspension with an "L-shaped" strut arm; double wishbone/coil spring rear suspension with stabilizer bar; ventilated front discs/rear drum brakes, and dual front air bags.

A four-wheel, anti-lock brake system is optional.

All RAV models are equipped with a 2-liter, four-cylinder, 16-valve, double-overhead cam, electronically fuel-injected engine rated 120 horsepower at 5,400 rpm, with max torque set at 125 pound-feet at 4,600 rpm.

Two-door RAVs seat four people; four-door RAVs seat five. With the rear seats folded, the two-door model has 3 4.3 cubic feet of cargo space, compared with 57.9 cubic feet in the four-door model.

Complaints: The RAV4's seats definitely reflect the vehicle's Corolla heritage, which means the seats are uncomfortably firm, at least for aging backs. Luckily, this brutality is largely mitigated by the RAV4's splendiferous suspension system, which takes the bumps out of the RAV4's ride.

Also, the RAV4's four-banger engine becomes something of a whiner around 65 mph; but the upside is that you won't have trouble obeying the speed limit in this one.

Praise: Excellent product engineering and quality. Toyota, for sure. Fun to drive with many practical touches, not the least of which are the RAV4's side-hinged rear door and the no-liftover sill in the rear cargo bay. Loading this one is a cinch!

Head-turning quotient: The cutest vehicle in the small, multipurpose vehicle segment. It turned heads everywhere. Totally cuddly.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Excellent multipurpose vehicle ride , especially for a short-wheelbase model. The qualifier is needed because some rear-seaters were not as enthusiastic about the RAV4's ride as were the front-seat occupants. Excellent handling.

Acceleration sucked dust -- about 0-to-60 mph in 11 seconds in the tested model with automatic transmission. But most folks buy these vehicles to haul stuff more than they do to burn rubber. Braking was excellent.

Mileage: Quite decent. About 23.5 miles per gallon (15.3-gallon tank, estimated 354-mile range on usable volume of recommended regular unleaded), combined city-highway, running with one to four occupants and light cargo.

Sound system: Optional four-speaker AM/FM stereo radio and cassette, Toyota Deluxe. Okay.

Price: Base price on the tested, four-door, auto-trans RAV4 is $18,098. Dealer invoice on base model is $16,059. Price as tested is $22,388, including $3,870 in options (power windows and door locks, mirrors, upgraded sound system, air conditioner, limited-slip differential and anti-lock brakes) and a $420 destination charge.

Purse-strings note: The RAV4 is good, but it's not that much better than its competitors. Compare with Geo Tracker/Suzuki Sidekick, Suzuki X-90, Mazda MPV 4WD LX minivan, Chevrolet Blazer 4WD (110.5-inch wheelbase model) and, of course, the wonderful Subaru Outback 4WD wagon.