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.