What's New for 1997
New fabric debuts on the two-door RAV, and a sunroof is finally available on the four-door. Improvements have also been made by using sound-deadening material in the dash area, reducing engine noise in the passenger compartment.
The mini-SUV market is booming. Geo introduced a four-door Tracker this year, Suzuki spruced up the Sidekick with a more powerful engine and body cladding, and Kia dropped a bigger engine and an airbag into its Sportage. Even the ancient Jeep Cherokee is selling like hotcakes, thanks to its powerful inline six-cylinder engine, low price, and rugged Jeep heritage.
Toyota, who in the past half-decade has taken on the luxury sedan market with Lexus, the full-sized pickup market with the T100, and the traditional full-sized sedan market with the Avalon, now has its sights set on wealth-deprived twenty- and thirty-somethings who want an SUV but can't afford to fork out 25 to 30 grand for a 4Runner. The RAV4 (Recreational Active Vehicle with 4WD) is a new mini-SUV designed to capitalize on the low end of this booming market.
All RAV4s are powered by a 2.0-liter, 120-horsepower engine, hooked to either a five-speed or automatic transmission powering the front or all wheels. The RAV4 is the first sport utility with front-wheel drive. All-wheel drive models use powertrain components from the now-defunct Celica All-Trac. Four-wheel anti-lock brakes are optional on all models. Minimum ground clearance is 7.5-inches on the four-door model; two-door RAV4s get an additional .2 inches.
We haven't driven the RAV4, but gave it a close examination at the Arizona Auto Show. The four-door is comfortable and typically Toyota in materials and design. Very functional, little flair, and durable in feel and appearance. The rear seat is a bit cramped for six-footers, but is comfortable enough for short trips. Fortunately, the split folding rear seat reclines a bit to increase head room. The cargo area of the four-door is larger than one would expect, offering more room behind the rear seat than a Chevrolet Caprice Classic. Two-door models are fine for singles or couples without children. The rear seat is tiny, and less than 10 cubic feet of cargo volume is available with the back seat up.
On paper and in person, the RAV4 is a sensible vehicle with loads of personality. Pricing, as with many Japan-built imports, is this sport ute's main problem. A 4WD four-door with automatic, ABS, alloy wheels, air conditioning, cruise, cassette and a tilt wheel is gonna run you $21,750. Add power locks, windows, and mirrors and the price escalates to $22,700. In contrast, a Kia Sportage EX runs less than $20,000 similarly equipped. Loaded Trackers and Sidekicks are also less expensive. Still, the Toyota is bigger inside, cuter outside, and comes standard with Toyota's reputation for quality. For many buyers, this will be enough to close the sale. However, we think the Jeep Cherokee is a better value than any of the mini-SUV's on the market, including the RAV4.