Ed Hellwig, Executive Editor
Not too long ago, 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, go-anywhere 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 car-like maneuverability. Introduced in 1996, the Toyota RAV4 (Recreational Active Vehicle — 4-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 it 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. Already on sale, the new 2001 Toyota RAV4 is now sufficiently equipped to take on all comers. 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.
Already on sale as a 2001 model, the new RAV4 is now sufficiently equipped to take on all comers. 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 X5, sans the neck-snapping V8 of course.
Although it's only a compact SUV, the new Toyota RAV4 doesn't come cheap. Starting at a base price of $17,615 for a manually equipped, four-wheel drive, five-door (the only body style available), our Titanium silver tester quickly climbed the price scale with a bevy of luxury options. Leather seats, a power moonroof, ABS, a limited-slip differential, and optional aluminum wheels were significant contributors to the inflated bottom line. The addition of the "L" package also added a hefty $3,120 to the total. It includes your typical upgrade features like A/C, cruise control, CD stereo, power everything, and color-keyed body cladding. All these options make for a bit of sticker shock at first sight, but similarly equipped competitors would carry a similar price tag, so shoppers should be prepared to pony up for a fully loaded mini-ute.
Bear in mind that Toyota's pint-sized sport-ute doesn't offer a powerful V6 like other models in its class, but it does sport an all-new, all-aluminum 2.0-liter four-cylinder with Toyota's advanced VVT-i (Variable Valve Timing with intelligence) technology. It delivers 148 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 142 ft-lbs. 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. At the track, the Toyota RAV4 posted respectable numbers for a four-cylinder SUV, with a zero-to-60 mph time of 8.9 seconds. Around town the free-revving engine moves the little sport-ute with plenty of gusto, but the lack of low-end torque is a noticeable shortcoming. Combined city and highway mileage was 22.5 mpg, a little low for a small four-cylinder, but typical from some of our lead-footed test drivers.
The five-speed manual transmission makes the best use of the engine's lofty power peaks, and the well-placed shifter made multiple gear changes a breeze. One editor thought the shifter action was a little too notchy, but most others praised the solid gearbox for its positive engagement and smooth action. The Toyota RAV4 can be ordered with either front-wheel drive or full-time four-wheel drive, the latter employing a center differential that splits power evenly between the front and rear axles.
Granted, the Toyota RAV4 may be available with four-wheel drive, but with only 6.7 inches of ground clearance and no low-range gearing, it's obvious that serious off-road excursions are not part of its repertoire. On our limited backcountry test-drives, we found the RAV4's small size a noticeable advantage for maneuvering around larger obstacles, but even medium-sized rocks nicked and scratched at the undercarriage, generating a less than soothing interior clatter.
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 full-time four-wheel drive provide reassuring handling in almost all situations. Occasionally the suspension transmits an inordinate amount of harshness to the interior, but overall we loved the Toyota's fun-to-drive character.
The passenger cabin is another area where the redesigned Toyota RAV scores big points. The industrial look is definitely in, and the new RAV4 takes full advantage with its exposed dash screws and metallic-colored radio surrounds. Simple and straightforward climate controls are a snap to use and the radio is placed nice and high for quick access. Terrific white-faced gauges are both classy looking and easy to read. The centrally mounted tachometer reminded one editor of the cool bolt-on units typically found in late-'60s muscle cars not likely the Toyota design team's intent, but a compliment nonetheless.
Other thoughtful design elements include adjustable cupholders that can coddle coffee mugs in the morning and still swallow two loaded Big Gulps on the way home from the gym, and well-placed storage bins perfect for keeping keys, parking cards, and cell phones handy. Both driver and passenger sun visors can be extended to make them truly useful for sun protection, while dual mirrors provide useless opportunities to stare at your teeth.
Toyota increased the overall length, width, and height of the RAV4 over last year's model, resulting in more space throughout the interior. There's plenty of room for four passengers, but throw in a fifth and things get a little tight. The leather-covered seats were soft but supportive, with the only complaint emanating from our editor-in-chief who yearned for longer seat cushions and slightly more legroom. Rear seat accommodations are impressive for a compact SUV, with reclining seatbacks that add to the feeling of spaciousness. Cargo room behind the seats is shallow as you might expect in an SUV of this size, but the low floor makes for easy loading, and with the rear seats completely removed (another innovative feature), this little mini-ute can swallow a healthy 68.3 cubic feet of cargo.
Toyota rarely skimps when it comes to safety features and the RAV4 is no exception. Dual front airbags are standard along with seatbelt pre-tensioners at all seating positions. A new Whiplash Injury Lessening concept that reduces occupant injury during low-speed rear-end collisions is also incorporated into the construction of the seats for added protection. Child seat-anchor brackets that meet ISO standards are included along with tether brackets for larger child restraint seats. The one glaring omission in the Toyota RAV4's list of safety features is the lack of side-impact airbags. Considering their wide-ranging availability in a number of vehicles (Toyota's own low-buck Echo included), it's a shame the carmaker didn't incorporate this important safety element into a completely redesigned 2001 model.
Other than the missing airbags and occasionally frustrating lack of torque, we found the latest Toyota RAV4 to be a fun-to-drive sport-utility vehicle that would make a terrific urban runabout. The smooth-revving engine can be noisy but it is still one of the more refined four-cylinders on the market, and the precise suspension tuning transmits a confident feeling of control at all times. The full-time four-wheel drive makes it perfect for those faced with the occasional snowstorm, and the comfortable and functional interior makes it a great place to spend time behind the wheel when the weather is more cooperative. Like so many times in the past, Toyota has taken a great idea and made it even better. The 2001 Toyota RAV4 improves upon all the things that made the original so popular, and should have no problem holding its own in the hot new mini-ute market it created just five years ago.
System Score: 4.5
Components. The system begins with a very nicely appointed head unit. It appears that Toyota must have cut a radio deal with one of their suppliers, because the last few vehicles we've looked at have had the same exact head unit up front. No problem: it's a very nice radio what's known in the biz as a double-DIN size, meaning it occupies roughly twice the space of a traditional radio. Because of the extra space, you end up with widely spaced buttons and a very user-friendly arrangement. Features include a nice, large round volume knob as well as a handy circular tuning knob for AM and FM, something not frequently found on digital radios. Very nice. The LED readout on the radio is quite large, making it visible even from the backseat. The radio is also positioned high in the dash, another welcome feature that makes it easily accessible and usable. Speakers include a pair of full-range drivers in the rear doors, plus a bass (6-inch) and tweeter (1-inch) combo in the front doors.
Performance. As great as this system is to use, it just doesn't sound very good. I ran it through a series of test CDs and it disappointed across the board. Highs are excessively bright, while bass is muddy and sloppy, with a yucky thudding sound substituting for kick drum. That leaves the mids, which are nothing to write home about either, producing a muddled and indistinct sound lacking in depth and detail. Every instrument I listened to in this system violins, horns, percussion, female vocals sounded artificial and boxy. On top of that, the amp craps out badly and runs out of steam just when things start to get fun.
Best Feature: User-friendly faceplate.
Worst Feature: Poor sound quality.
Conclusion. It's pretty to look at, but not much to listen to. Scott Memmer
Features editor Miles Cook says: My experience with mini SUVs is admittedly quite limited. Coming from a background and an interest in supercharged Mustangs, hairy-chested Corvettes and other knuckle-dragging machines, the RAV4 has ended up being the first mini SUV I've ever driven.
That, however, might be a good thing. All I have to compare it to are other cars such as a Ford Focus, a Nissan Sentra, a Honda Accord and other bread-and-butter sedans. That said, the RAV4 comports itself well and has a nice overall appeal. It does, in fact, drive, act, handle, and function like the above-mentioned cars. There's comparable room, road manners, acceleration and braking that ranks in with those cars, too.
Just remember, the RAV isn't the cheapest apple in the basket. As with other Toyotas, you're paying in part for the name. And at nearly 25 grand, you could probably do quite well with a one- or two-year-old Ford Explorer, Nissan Pathfinder, or even a Toyota 4Runner.
But the RAV is cute. And cute has appeal. Combine that with the fresh redesign, functional interior (love the cool aftermarket-looking center-mounted tach) and eminently practical nature and you arrive at a mini SUV that will clearly appeal to many shopping in this market.
Associate editor Erin Mahoney says: Other than its slightly elevated stance, the RAV4 has virtually none of the characteristics of a truck. Rather, it has the feel of an economy sedan in an SUV costume.
Handling in this sport-cute was pretty impressive. The chassis felt remarkably nimble, but nonetheless sturdy. Sweeping curves and turns produced negligible body roll, and the vehicle always felt firmly planted.
The econo characteristics of the RAV4 were apparent in its lack of refinement. The already whiny engine, although it maintained speed well, became obnoxiously loud at high speeds. Meanwhile, wind noise off the windshield and roof was deafening at highway speeds.
The shift lever proved problematic, as well. Not only did it vibrate excessively over about 60 mph, but it was way too notchy most gummy and unpleasant to manipulate. Braking performance, on the other hand, was excellent. The calipers took hold quickly but not abruptly, and stopping action was progressive.
Ergonomics in the RAV4 were inoffensive, much like the vanilla interior styling. My only gripe centers on the clock, which is set too low in the dash for optimal viewing.
This Toyota would have been more fun to drive had the shifter felt more precise and the engine offered more low-end torque. But its impressive maneuverability, attractive exterior styling and enjoyable vantage point kept my spin in the RAV4 from being too much of a chore.
Editor-in-chief Chris Wardlaw says: At first I was put off by the near $25,000 sticker price of our leather-lined test vehicle. But after spending nearly 100 miles behind the wheel, I came to like this spunky sport-ute quite a bit.
It reminds me in many ways of our long-term Celica GT-S, and not just because they smell the same inside. The RAV's VVT-i powerplant delivers power like the Celica, albeit to a dulled degree, since this motor makes less than 150 horsepower but an equal amount of racket. It could use a TRD supercharger, despite a good showing at the track.
The RAV is equipped with responsive steering and brakes, a precise shifter, and a suspension/tire combo that grips like few SUVs I've ever driven. Interior materials are top quality, though I'd like the top of the door panel, where I'm apt to rest an elbow, to be rendered in a softer material. Ditto the center console storage lid, which also needs to be taller for comfort.
RAV could also use longer bottom cushions for the front seats, along with more seat track travel, to optimize comfort. Reclining rear seats will handle 6-footers with no problem, and can be removed altogether for maximum cargo-carrying capacity.
Good looking and fun to drive, RAV4 isn't the biggest small SUV, or the most capable off-road, but it makes great sense as an inexpensive and durable urban runabout and commuter which is just what most people need most of the time.
2001 Toyota RAV4
"On Nov 5th, I purchased a 2001 RAV4 L and couldn't be happier. I also own a 1998 RAV4 L, and the improvements are many. Twenty-one more horsepower (up to 148), improved ride and handling, great new looks. I looked at the Ford Escape. It was nice but very boring looking. More important, it [has] already had four, yes four, recalls. All of them are serious ones, too." - anthony921,"Redesigned 2001 CR-V and RAV4 Info?", #200 of 253, Nov. 13, 2000
"At first, I was skeptical, as there wasn't much POP in the engine. It also seemed to have a little more road noise and a bumpier ride. I am very pleased with this vehicle - after about 1,700 miles the engine has adapted to our driving as per Toyota's guarantee. I can now cruise at 75 without hearing the engine and it has more pop (will never beat an inline-6). The bumpy ride was caused by overinflation of [the] tires. I found them to be at 42 lbs. in each tire. I dropped them to 32lbs and what a difference (I must credit Edmunds posts for the tip). It gets about 25-27 mpg and corners great. Parking is similar to my Chevy Cavalier, and overall response from envious buyers is growing. I have had comments from 'quirky' to 'man, this is cool.' It has adequate front and rear legroom (I am 6' 3" and weigh 225 lbs.), and I never hit my head on the roof. Best of all, it has no RECALLS!! In summary, this car quickly grows on you and is actually pretty fun to drive despite the smaller power plant. I must say it will never surpass my Jeep." - jnj521, "Redesigned 2001 CR-V and RAV4 Info?", #195 of 253, Nov. 11, 2000
Have [had] my 2001 RAV4 L a few days now. Overall, I am very pleased. Wish I had a chance to more thoroughly test drive it before buying (they were lined up to buy!). The ride is a bit "choppy" - seems to be more sensitive to road undulations (or whatever) than I would have expected. Bought it in east central Florida. Paid MSRP - my attempt to bargain was cut off at the outset. They are in quite short supply at this time. The quality is very good - everything works. Pleasant dealer relationship, also." - edg9901,"Redesigned 2001 CR-V and RAV4 Info?", #110 of 253, Oct. 16, 2000
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