1999 Toyota RAV4 Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Cute, practical and durable.
When it was introduced, industry analysts weren't sure how to categorize the Toyota RAV4. Though it wasn't the first one, the success of this mini sport-utility vehicle helped start a trend. Now established as a class, small SUVs are increasingly popular for their relatively low cost, fuel-efficiency, compact size, sporty image and, in some cases, four-wheel-drive systems.
The RAV4 is no longer new and there are few changes for 1999, but it's still a head-turner. Toyota's reputation for quality, durability and reliability has enabled the RAV4 to continue to post strong sales despite new and upgraded entries in its class.
This year, Toyota added an optional leather interior to its RAV4L Special Edition package.
All two-door models now come with a soft top that debuted in mid-1998. The folding fabric top provides open-air motoring for back-seat passengers, while a solid sun roof opens above driver and front-seat passenger. The Soft Top model looks like an off-road toy, offers relatively little luggage space and the back seats are best suited for children. The fabric top is of high quality and Toyota has done a good job of minimizing noise levels. The two-door hardtop is no longer available.
The four-door RAV4 presents a more roadworthy stance. It offers some of the versatility of larger sport-utility vehicles, but with less room for people and parcels. The four-door model is 16 inches longer than the two-door and rides on a longer wheelbase. It offers seatbelt hardware for five people.
The Honda CR-V, Kia Sportage, the new Suzuki Grand Vitara and the Subaru Forester compete with Toyota's RAV4. RAV4 offers the best fuel economy (22/26). It sits in the middle of this group of competitors in terms of size: five inches longer than Sportage, 14 inches shorter than CR-V, one inch shorter than Grand Vitara. RAV4 is near the top for cargo-carrying capacity; only CR-V offers more space. Forester provides the best driving dynamics, but lacks some of the off-road capability.
The RAV4 is based on the front-wheel-drive Toyota Camry sedan. Its unibody chassis gives it a comfortable car-like demeanor.
Two- and four-wheel-drive variations are available. The four-wheel-drive models feature a lockable center differential (on manual transmissions). Even though the RAV4 lacks a low-range set of gears, its ground clearance (7.5 inches for the four-door, 7.7 for the two-door) is sufficient to make light off-road driving feasible. The locking differential gives the RAV4 traction advantages over the all-wheel-drive Honda CR-V and Subaru Forester. Although the RAV4 has been compared to the Jeep Wrangler, it cannot compete with the Wrangler's traction capabilities in really rough going.
There doesn't seem to be a consensus on the RAV4's looks, considered everything from cute to ugly duckling to extra-terrestrial.
The RAV4 has been hailed as a welcome visual departure from a crowded highway of SUV lookalikes. Its wide body has tucked-in sheetmetal at the windows, a sloping hood with large air intakes, kicked-up rear quarter panels sculpted around big 16-inch tires. A side-opening door that swings toward the curb dominates the rear; it would be more convenient if it swung away from the curb.
An aggressively styled grille and front fascia coupled with bold wheel treatments lend a ready-for-action look to the RAV4. Two-door versions come with a swing-open window on the rear driver's side, and all versions offer privacy glass. Our all-wheel-drive model sported four built-in tow hooks, ready for a tug off the tundra.
New this year for the RAV4L Special Edition models is the option of a sport leather interior in addition to color-keyed body cladding (as opposed to standard charcoal) for three new exterior hues.
With the split-folding rear seat folded flush, it can handle 57.9 cubic feet of goods. Rear seat leg space is the same as the two-door, which isn't that bad for the vehicle's size. The only complaint from our testers was getting in and out through the small rear doors.
Powered by a 2.0-liter twin-cam four-cylinder engine, the RAV4 comes with either a five-speed manual transmission or a four-speed automatic.
A number of option packages are available that include a mix of interior and exterior components for customizing. For instance, the All Weather Guard Equipment Package adds a heavy-duty battery, a big 4.5-liter windshield washer tank, a heavy duty front heater and a rear-seat heater duct for a mere $70. Our RAV4 came with power windows, locks and mirrors, ABS, a limited-slip differential and aluminum wheels.
The cockpit is traditional Toyota, offering a sporty three-spoke steering wheel. Unibody construction lowers the step-in height, making it easier to get in and out, yet it carries a higher ride height than a sedan for traversing obstacles and deep snow.
The sloping hood, tall driving position, and generous greenhouse front and rear make visibility excellent. Our only caveat on the visibility score is the tailgate-mounted spare and tall rear door, which block rear vision just a bit.
Cloth seats are contoured and comfortable and controls and gauges are well located. The instrument cluster incorporates a digital odometer and dual trip meter and upgraded radio features. Sliding controls operate the ventilation system.
Our test car had full carpeting with carpeted floor mats. Standard are dual outside mirrors, intermittent front and rear wipers and a rear window defogger. Front door pockets provide storage, while dual cupholders are integrated into the lower instrument panel. Four-door versions come with an auxiliary power outlet in the rear cargo area for battery-powered coolers and other accessories.
All major safety bases are covered with dual airbags, front seatbelt pretensioners and force-limiters and side-impact door beams. Adjustable seat anchors are added to the front seats on the four-door model.
The RAV4 is not simply a sport-utility wannabe. It has proven itself to be a standard-bearer for this new breed of mini-utilities. A well-designed independent suspension and rack-and-pinion power-assisted steering make it nimble on and off the road.
Standard brakes are power-assisted front disc and rear drum; ABS is available as a $590 option.
We were impressed with the all-wheel-drive traction, finding it useful in snow and slush. Automatic transmission models have a center differential that automatically locks up when excessive slip is sensed between the front and rear axles. On manual transmission models, the driver utilizes a switch to manually lock or unlock the center differential. A limited-slip rear differential is optional and recommended for improved traction off-road.
The RAV4 is fun to drive. Its unibody construction gives it a handling advantage over truck-based sport-utilities with body-on-frame construction. The longer wheelbase on the four-door RAV4 smoothes some of the choppiness found in the two-door version. The engine feels peppy and can cruise at 80, but it runs out of power in the higher rpm range. Still, the RAV4 accelerates to highway speeds with reasonable enthusiasm.
We enjoyed the five-speed manual, logging miles at Pocono International Raceway and all over New England.
The RAV4 may not have the off-road capability of a Jeep Wrangler, but sales figures show it's a package that buyers like. It's tougher than a car, softer than a truck and as big as a small wagon. It offers some of that rugged image that's so popular today in a smaller package, while delivering a measure of spunk and fun with unique styling.
Comfortable for car-pooling, commuting and collecting groceries, the RAV4 is ideal for light action on the beach or in the backcountry. Compared with compact sport-utilities, the RAV4 falls short in towing capacity, passenger space and cargo space. The RAV4 has climbed in price this year. Our test model retails for $23,590.
On the other hand, it offers good fuel economy and Toyota's solid reliability and build quality. We'd expect it to offer good resale value as well. Those factors all help reduce costs in the long run.
Toyota City, Japan.
Options As Tested
Air conditioning, ABS, AM/FM/cassette/CD stereo, limited-slip differential, all-weather package, cruise control, aluminum alloy wheels, spare tire cover, security system, roof rack, upgrade package w/power windows/door locks/mirrors and tilt steering wheel.
RAV4 4-door 4WD.
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