The mini-SUV business continues to grow with more manufacturers jumping into the fray every year. Largely comprised of car-based AWD vehicles, the territory of this market has been staked out by Chevrolet, Honda, Kia, Nissan, Subaru, and Suzuki. Toyota, too, recognized this potential boom early on and jumped into the action with the introduction of the '96 RAV4.
A 2.0-liter, 127-horsepower engine hooked to either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission powers the front or all four wheels of the different RAV4 models. All-wheel-drive versions use powertrain components from the long-defunct Celica All-Trac. Four-wheel antilock brakes are optional on all RAV4s. Minimum ground clearance measures 7.5 inches.
The RAV4 is an adequate around-town driver, handling more like the car from which its platform is derived than a traditional SUV. Power is on the low side, however. It offers some initial pep when pulling away from stoplights, but any serious attempt at acceleration results in nothing more than noise and vibration. The engine gets particularly obnoxious above 4,500 rpm where underhood clatter is enough to stifle conversation between passengers. This would be more acceptable if accompanied by even a modest form of forward thrust. Unfortunately, it's not.
The interior is not a bad place to spend time. The ventilation controls are easy to understand, the stereo outstanding, and the individual bucket seats are quite comfortable. Even with the rear seat up, cargo space is a healthy 26.8 cubic feet. Fold down the second seat and that number jumps to 57.9 "moving-into-my-first-dorm-room" cubic feet. Adults placed in back will most likely whine about a lack of legroom, however.
While the RAV4 was never a hot rod, its lack of power when first introduced was forgivable in a world of Sidekicks and used Amigos. But with Honda CR-V making 145 horsepower, Suzuki offering a V6 Grand Vitara, and Nissan fielding a 170-hp Xterra, the RAV4 is rapidly becoming an "also ran" in this burgeoning market. Throw in 200-hp V6 competitors from Mazda and Ford, and Toyota could find themselves in a rare position for this company: at the bottom of the heap.