What's New for 2002
Toyota's mini-SUV receives just a couple cosmetic changes this year. Models ordered with the Quick Order package now have gray-painted bumpers and overfenders, and Toyota has added color-keyed bumpers and overfenders to the "L" package. There are also three new L package colors: Rainforest Pearl, Spectra Blue Mica and Pearl White (Natural White and Vintage Gold have been discontinued).
Back in 1996, the term "cute-ute" was coined when Toyota released the RAV4, an acronym for Recreational Activity Vehicle with 4WD. While Suzuki had been plying these waters for years with the Sidekick (and its Chevy Tracker twin), it wasn't until the car-based RAV hit the market that small SUVs became popular.
The latest RAV4 was redesigned just last year. Available as a five-door wagon only, it has a refined new look thanks to sharply upswept headlights and crisp lines that stretch the length of the vehicle. Squint hard enough, and Toyota's new mini-ute could even pass for a poor man's BMW X5, sans the neck-snapping V8, of course.
Powering the RAV4 is a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that delivers 148 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 142 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm, a significant improvement over its predecessor, but still far below the 200 horsepower offered in the Ford Escape and Mazda Tribute. Buyers can choose between a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic transmission driving the front or all wheels.
Standard equipment is sparse, with most of the good stuff like antilock brakes, aluminum wheels, air conditioning, remote keyless entry and a power sunroof optional. An option package bundles power windows, doors and locks with air conditioning, cruise control and a six-speaker sound system with both cassette and CD players. Upgrade to the "L" package and you get these goodies plus heated exterior mirrors, floor mats, dark tinted glass, foglights and special exterior trim. The "L" package is also your ticket to leather upholstery. A limited-slip differential is a stand-alone option on 4WD versions.
Even with 4WD, the RAV4 isn't meant for serious off-road excursions. Where the RAV4 really shines is on the pavement, where its taut suspension, quick steering, and tight turning radius come together to produce one of the best-handling SUVs we've ever driven. Minimal body lean and sticky street tires combined with the traction of 4WD provide reassuring handling in almost all situations.
The passenger cabin is another area where the redesigned RAV scores points. Simple and straightforward climate controls are a snap to use, and the radio is placed nice and high for quick access. Other thoughtful design elements include adjustable cupholders and well-placed storage bins. There's plenty of room for four passengers, but throw in a fifth and things get a little tight.
Toyota rarely skimps when it comes to safety features, and the RAV4 is no exception. Dual front airbags are standard along with ALR/ELR seatbelts with pre-tensioners and force-limiters. Side airbags aren't available, but the RAV4 has faired well in government crash tests. One item of note is the RAV4's lack of a rear bumper. Low-speed crashes that damage the rear of the vehicle can lead to extremely high repair costs.
Overall, we find Toyota's latest RAV4 to be a fun-to-drive sport-utility that makes a terrific urban runabout. The smooth-revving engine can be noisy, but it returns high fuel mileage, and the precise suspension tuning transmits a confident feeling of control at all times. If these are traits that appeal to you, by all means, give the RAV4 serious consideration.