Used 1998 Toyota RAV4
Edmunds' Expert Review
The mini-SUV business is booming. Introductions of fresh models by Honda, Kia and Subaru indicate that there continues to be a large market for those who want the security of an AWD truck without the punishing ride and gas mileage that goes with it. Largely comprised of car-based AWD vehicles, this new market will gain even more entrants over the next few years as Land Rover, BMW and Mercedes introduce small trucklets to the US. One of the early players in the game was Toyota, which recognized this potential boom early on and jumped into the fray with the RAV4 in 1996.
A 2.0-liter, 120-horsepower engine hooked to either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission powers the front or all wheels of the different RAV4 models. This makes the RAV4 the first sport utility available with front-wheel drive. All-wheel drive models use powertrain components from the now-defunct Celica All-Trac. Four-wheel antilock brakes are optional on all RAV4s. Minimum ground clearance is 7.5 inches on the four-door model; two-door RAV4s get .2 additional inches of clearance.
The RAV4 is a pretty decent 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; the 120-horsepower engine works hard to drag this mini-ute up even small hills. The interior is not a bad place to spend time, offering fairly comfortable seating for four adults in the four-door models. The cargo area of the four-door is larger than one would expect, too, offering more room behind the rear seat than a Ford Crown Victoria. 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.
The Toyota RAV4 is a convincing package. Its eye-grabbing looks appeal to those who are young or just young at heart. Around college campuses the RAV4 litters the streets in front of Greek Row more than smashed bottles of Boone's Farm. Surprisingly, however, we have also seen the RAV4 towed behind a large number of motor homes that swoop into Arizona, Texas, and California every winter, leading us to believe that they are a hit with the more mature crowd, too.
We are fond of the RAV4, but there are a number of choices in this growing segment and we can't help but think that the more refined and powerful Honda CR-V might offer shoppers more of what they are looking for in a small truck: power, utility and value.
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In a class where "cute" styling is even more important than true ruggedness, the RAV4 still looks the part of a modern, downsized SUV. The sculpted bodylines and exaggerated wheel flares create an attractive package that says, "My owner can scale rock faces and appreciate the outdoors without spending 50 grand on a sport-ute that gets 15 mpg." At half the price of Toyota's Land Cruiser, the RAV4 offers younger, less affluent buyers a chance to board the SUV trend, uh, I mean train, without sacrificing their entire college fund.
Way back in 1996, that was enough to keep RAV4s from gathering any dust on dealer lots. But circumstances in the automotive marketplace change faster than a presidential statement, and as we roll into 1999, the RAV4 is faced with powerful competition from the likes of Honda, Subaru and Suzuki. Although we tested a 1998 model, changes to the '99 RAV4 will amount to cosmetic upgrades and a full-size spare tire. In the face of Honda's more-powerful-for-'99 CR-V and Suzuki's all-new V6-powered Grand Vitara, the anemic and buzzy Toyota is beginning to show its age.
The 120-horsepower, 2.0-liter inline four found beneath our RAV4's hood is the weakest aspect of this mini-ute. 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. For '99, all RAV4 models will get a slightly more powerful 127-horsepower 2.0-liter engine that makes 132 foot-pounds of torque as opposed to the '98 line up where only the two-door convertible model had this engine.
When we opened the hood to take a gander at the culprit behind our lackadaisical propulsion, we noticed that the oil dipstick handle is located about two centimeters from the heat shield covering the exhaust header. Now, in case you don't know, the term heat shield is a misnomer. It does reduce the amount of heat coming off the header and filling the underhood area, but the shield itself still gets VERY hot. In other words, either wait until the engine has been dormant for several hours before checking the oil level, or get one of your college buddies to do it for you (maybe bribe him with a beer or a poster of Jennifer Love Hewitt).
The 2.0-liter can be mated to either a four-speed automatic or five-speed manual transmission. We drove a five-speed and were impressed by its refined and confident feel. Aggressive shifting was easy and allowed us to keep the engine in its sweet zone, almost making up for the RAV's lack of power ... almost. If every aspect of the RAV4 was as well-executed as the tranny, Toyota would still be at the head of this class.
While the transmission couldn't make the RAV4 any faster, its low gearing made our brief off-road excursion an enjoyable one. The all-wheel-drive system, formerly used on Toyota's Celica All-Trac, provided the necessary grip for climbing steep embankments and was augmented by the optional limited-slip differential. Ground clearance proved adequate, with only one minor scrape occurring between undercarriage and trail ledge (shhh, don't tell Toyota).
Another unexpected delight we discovered while slicing through L.A. traffic is how well-behaved this "cute-ute" is during cornering maneuvers. Like most SUVs, it's got an initial lean that can be somewhat disconcerting. But the "suspension give" only allows minimal tilt before tightening up, making the RAV4 a capable performer on twisty roads. It manages this without an excessively harsh ride, by SUV standards. Twenty-somethings with lots of adventure, but not a lot of cash (the RAV4's target audience), probably won't even notice the freeway-expansion-joint bounce.
It's at those freeway speeds where the RAV felt most out of place (and power). Besides the groaning engine's lack of passing ability, the overall body structure feels less solid than Honda's CR-V. Rattles and squeaks were non-existent (either that or drowned out by engine noise) and door "thunk" was better than expected. Still, if you're expecting Camry-like refinement, the RAV4 will not deliver. High-speed buzziness was further hindered by an out-of-balance, or bent, wheel (I believe the front driver's side). Correcting this certainly would have curtailed freeway vibrations, but not eliminated them.
Highway reverberations aside, the RAV4's interior is not a bad place to hang out. The front and rear seats recline to offer a wider range of comfort for adults of varying size. 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. Gauges are easy to read with an interesting checkerboard background that maintains the RAV4's stylish feel even when seated behind the steering wheel. Less than impressive interior materials and a single, non-adjustable cupholder were two problems with our '98 that have been corrected on '99 RAV4s. However, a center console/armrest is still nowhere to be found.
We have to give Toyota props for being the first to enter this market with an all-new design back in 1996. The concept of creating mini-utes based on car platforms has proven successful and, just like with the full-sized SUV models, every automaker on the planet is scrambling to introduce its own trucklet and grab a piece of this ever-expanding pie.
While the RAV4 was never a hot rod, its lack of power was forgivable in a world of Sidekicks and used Amigos. But with Honda bumping the CR-V to 145 horsepower and Suzuki offering a V6 Grand Vitara, the RAV4 is rapidly becoming an "also ran" in this burgeoning market. Throw in competitors from Mazda and Ford (both of which are on their way) and Toyota could find themselves in a rare position for this company: at the bottom of the heap.
With no substantial performance upgrade in the works for '99, Toyota fans will have to wait another year for the RAV4 to get the power boost it needs. We still think the mini-ute has plenty to offer in the way of styling, handling, cargo capacity and off-road ability. It's also got an impressive list of options with which buyers can create anything from a low-cost utility vehicle to a high-end, leather-lined people mover. Additionally, thrill seekers can opt for the two-door, soft-top variant, which offers something the CR-V can't: open-air cruising.
Until we get some side-by-side seat time in the new entrants from Honda and Suzuki, we'll reserve final judgment on the RAV4. But, at the very least, Toyota no longer has the luxury of being the only game in town. As this market gets increasingly crowded, the RAV4, in current form, will become less impressive.
Used 1998 Toyota RAV4 Overview
The Used 1998 Toyota RAV4 is offered in the following submodels: RAV4 SUV. Available styles include 2dr SUV, 2dr SUV AWD w/Soft Top, L Special Edition 4dr SUV, 2dr SUV AWD, 2dr SUV w/Soft Top, 4dr SUV AWD, and 4dr SUV.
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Should I lease or buy a 1998 Toyota RAV4?
Is it better to lease or buy a car? Ask most people and they'll probably tell you that car buying is the way to go. And from a financial perspective, it's true, provided you're willing to make higher monthly payments, pay off the loan in full and keep the car for a few years. Leasing, on the other hand, can be a less expensive option on a month-to-month basis. It's also good if you're someone who likes to drive a new car every three years or so.