What's New for 2005
The JBL 3-in-1 audio system has been discontinued, and the sport package receives a unique metal mesh grille and silver sport pedals.
In the mid-1990s, the Toyota brain trust took a close look at the SUV market and determined that not everybody liked the idea of piloting a three-ton land yacht in order to take advantage of the "U" in SUV. File drawers full of focus group questionnaires pointed toward a vehicle that combined the advantages of a sport-utility -- great visibility, sizable cargo capacity, all-weather capability -- with the manageable size and drivability of a car. With that in mind, Toyota's designers looked past their bulky truck frames and gas-guzzling engines and came up with a car-based SUV that merged trucklike utility with carlike maneuverability.
Introduced in 1996, the RAV4 (Recreational Active Vehicle -- four-wheel drive) combined sporty good looks, a convenient size and an economical engine into an attractive and affordable package. It was an instant hit, and as the first example of a car-based sport-utility, the RAV4 enjoyed phenomenal sales that brought with them an onslaught of new competitors hoping to cash in on the newfound niche. Vehicles like the Honda CR-V and Suzuki Grand Vitara soon hit the market sporting bigger engines and more refined interiors, promptly shuffling the aging RAV4 toward the bottom of the category it had single-handedly created. Despite a dose of additional power in 1999, the RAV was getting left behind, and with more competition on the way, Toyota knew a complete redesign was in order to keep its ground-breaking sport-utility at the top of its game.
This led to the current-generation RAV4, introduced for 2001. It has a refined look thanks to sharply upswept headlights and crisp lines that stretch the length of the vehicle. Squint hard enough and Toyota's latest mini-ute could even pass for a poor man's BMW X5, sans the neck-snapping V8 of course. Unlike some other SUVs, the RAV4 can't be ordered with a V6. Until last year, the mini-ute's weak, buzzy 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine was a notable disadvantage next the Honda CR-V's larger, more potent 2.4-liter four-cylinder and the Ford Escape's 200-horsepower V6. Toyota responded by installing a larger 2.4-liter engine under the hood that produces 161 hp and 165 pound-feet of torque.
Our other main complaint about the RAV4 was its short standard features list that forced buyers to pay extra for basics like air conditioning, cruise and power windows and locks. Now you'll find all of these on the standard equipment list, along with ABS and stability control. Meanwhile, front side-impact airbags and full-length head curtain airbags are on the options list. With these upgrades and freshened styling that's slightly less toylike, this fun-to-drive mini-ute makes great sense as a durable urban runabout and commuter vehicle -- which is just what most people need most of the time.
Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options
The four-door RAV4 is offered in a single trim level and comes with front-wheel drive (2WD) or all-wheel drive (AWD). All RAV4s come with 16-inch wheels, ABS, stability control, air conditioning, a height-adjustable driver seat, cruise control, a six-speaker CD stereo and power windows, mirrors and locks. Upgrade to the "L" package and you'll also get heated mirrors, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, dark tinted glass, foglights and body-color bumpers and door handles. The "L" package is also your ticket to leather upholstery and heated seats if you want them. A sport package adds a mesh grille, a hood scoop, color-keyed door handles, a roof rack, silver sport pedals, heated mirrors, gray-painted bumpers and overfenders and sport fabric seats. Other options include alloy wheels, a sunroof and keyless entry. Larger tires are also available on AWD models.
Powertrains and Performance
Both 2WD and AWD versions of the RAV4 are powered by a 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine that delivers 161 horsepower and 165 pound-feet of torque. Buyers can choose either a five-speed manual transmission or a four-speed automatic. Fuel economy is excellent, and buyers can expect to get 22 to 25 mpg in the city and 27 to 31 mpg on the highway.
Four-wheel antilock disc brakes are standard, as is Toyota's VSC stability control system. Side airbags for front occupants and full-length side curtain airbags are optional. The RAV4 fared well in government crash tests, earning four out of five stars for frontal impact protection and a perfect five stars for side impacts. It also earned a "Good" rating (the highest) in frontal offset and side-impact crash testing by the IIHS (the RAV4 is the first vehicle to earn a "Best Pick" designation for both frontal and side-impact tests). One other 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 high repair costs.
Interior Design and Special Features
Inside, buyers will find a set of stylish white-faced gauges. As usual, all controls are simple and straightforward to use. 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. Behind the rear seat, the RAV4 can hold 29.2 cubic feet of cargo. Remove the 50/50-split bench seat, which also slides, tumbles, folds and reclines, and the vehicle can hold an impressive 68.3 cubic feet.
Intended for a life on pavement, the RAV4 really shines in this environment, 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 all-wheel drive provide reassuring handling in almost all situations. With a capable and refined 2.4-liter engine installed under the hood, the RAV4 has the power to complement its sharp reflexes.