Bought my 1997 in 1999 with low mileage. It has been wonderful. I spend a lot of time in it and it has always been reliable. It has safely transported my kids and their friends as well as my grandkids in comfort and safety.
HAVE looked at newer models but I don't like them - too big, wasted interior space. i.e. dashboard too deep and too busy.
I purchased my '97 Rav4 14 years ago with approximately 30,000 miles on it. Today it has 103,000 miles and is still going strong. The paint looks fantastic. The sunroof has never leaked. Seats still look great. It isn't a "peppy" driving vehicle but it is the most reliable car that I've ever owned. It goes in ANY weather. The amount of storage with the seats down is unbelievable. In 14 years the only repair (other than scheduled maintenance) has been to replace the oil pump. Since they had to pull the motor I had all belts replaced at that time (at approx. 85,000 miles). I've test driven a few newer vehicles with all the bells and whistles, but they don't compare to my 16 year old Toyota.
The reliability of the vehicle is my favorite feature. I never, ever question that I can get in my Rav and that it will get me where I need to go. If you are lucky enough to find a well maintained '97 RAV, you should grab it!
Frankly, Toyota should revisit the '97 design -- perhaps not the styling so much as the parts and quality of the vehicle. I doubt many of the 2012 Rav 4 vehicles will be on the road (looking as good as mine) in 16 years.
I owned this 6yr. old / 57000mi. Rav4 for 5 years, used it for USPS duty for 2 years. It had decent engine performance, but got worse in higher gears. Overall seating package was not very good, with awkward rear access coupled with poor thigh support made it uncomfortable for taller peoples. Gas mileage was fairly poor at about 22 mpg. overall; never got above 24 mpg. Traction on ice and snow was bad as can be for 4wd. Rear trunk room was good, as was overall reliability and materials quality. Engine and transmission usually were flawless. Almost no body rust at 11 yrs. old. Tire wear was a bit excessive over time, and getting tires for it was very expensive.
Quality of materials;
Reliability of all parts and stuff;