In 1996, the Toyota RAV4 introduced America to the wonders of the car-based SUV. For the first time, consumers could enjoy the benefits of SUV cargo room and ride height combined with the road manners and fuel economy of a family car, and they loved it.
With the formula proven, a whole wave of competing crossover vehicles followed, such as the Honda CR-V and more upscale Lexus RX 330. The second-generation RAV4, introduced for 2001, stayed true to the original, but brought more power and refinement. After a significant freshening inside and out for 2004, the RAV4 continues nearly unchanged for 2005, with minor tweaks made only to the available Sport package, including a new metal mesh grille, silver sport pedals, and available fog-lamps. The RAV4 remains a strong contender as it awaits a redesign for 2006, complete with the first V-6 for the range.
In the grand Toyota tradition, the RAV4 is smartly designed, with handsome, somewhat-rugged-looking bodywork that hints at some small amount of off-road capability (which, for most RAV4s, means pulling into a grassy field). In "L" guise, the RAV4 looks more upscale, with body-colored mirrors, door handles, bumpers, and side moldings that replace unpainted black and gray plastic on lesser RAV4s. "L" buyers also get a full body-colored hard-shell spare tire cover to replace the combination soft/hard cover on base models. Sport-package buyers receive most of the body-color bits plus fender flares, a hood scoop, a stainless-steel roof rack, a metal mesh grille, and available fog-lamps. Non-package options include a black roof rack, rear spoiler, rear privacy glass, and 16-inch alloy wheels. Sizewise, the RAV4 is among the smallest in its class. Its 98.0-inch wheelbase is more than five inches shorter than a Honda CR-V’s, and its height is four inches shorter than a Ford Escape’s. Despite this size deficit, though, efficient interior packaging makes the most of the external dimensions.
Though its girth doesn’t quite match that of its competition, the RAV4 still boasts better front head- and legroom than any of the following SUVs: Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, Hyundai Santa Fe, and Kia Sportage. The RAV4 even bests the GMC Yukon and the Hummer H2. This great front legroom comes at a price, however, as rear legroom is significantly reduced when the front seats are pushed all the way back, making the rear fairly cramped for taller folks.
The RAV4 can haul plenty of stuff, even with its pinched proportions. It’ll hold up to 29.2 cubic feet of gear with the rear seats in and 68.3 cu ft with them removed, virtually identical to capacity of the Ford Escape. These figures aren’t class leading, but they match up well with the competition and are impressive considering the RAV4’s diminutive size. And if you’re hauling smaller items, like maps or your cell phone, the RAV4 comes armed with a multitude of small bins and cubbies—there’s even one below the steering wheel—to ensure that no item goes unstashed. The driving position is perfect, with command seating and a low dash combining to give the impression that you’re driving a bigger, taller SUV. The cabin is nicely assembled, with best-in-class materials that are easy on the eyes and nice to the touch, particularly the attractive silver accents and leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob. All of the RAV4’s switchgear, such as the A/C controls and power window switches, has a pleasing action and feel. The rear seats slide, fold, tumble, and recline to accommodate ever-changing passenger and cargo needs.
All RAV4s come equipped with a six-speaker CD stereo; power windows, locks, and mirrors; cruise control; and air conditioning. Upgrades include a power moonroof, keyless entry, and a tonneau cover for the cargo compartment. Sport- and L-package buyers can opt for items such as an eight-speaker JBL sound system, heated seats, a Homelink transceiver, and an auto-dimming rearview mirror.
The RAV4 comes well equipped with safety features; electronic stability control with traction control, dual front airbags, anti-lock brakes, a tire-pressure monitor, and a brake-assist system are all standard. (Brake assist determines whether the driver is attempting urgent emergency braking and, if so, applies additional pedal pressure to engage the ABS until the driver releases the brake.) Side and side-curtain airbags are optional.
All these features add up to make the RAV4 one of the safest vehicles in its class. Although the standard equipment listed above is also included on the Kia Sportage and the Hyundai Tucson, most other competitors don’t stack up. For example, the Chevrolet Equinox isn’t available with electronic stability control, and neither electronic stability control nor stand-alone traction control can be had on the either Ford Escape or the Honda Element.
The RAV4 performed well in NHTSA’s crash tests, earning five stars in the side-impact test for both front- and rear-seat occupants and four stars for both driver and passenger in the front crash test. These numbers compare well with those of the competition, though the Chevrolet Equinox and Honda CR-V earned five stars for all seating positions in both tests. The RAV4 was not tested for rollover safety.
The RAV4 is only available with one engine: a 2.4-liter four-cylinder unit that makes 161 horsepower and 165 lb-ft of torque. It can be mated to either a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic transmission. The optional autobox is smooth shifting, with quick downshifts. The DOHC engine ably motivates the 3,186-pound 4x4 RAV4 and is more than sufficient to propel two-wheel-drive models, which weigh 200 to 300 pounds less. Some buyers may be surprised at the lack of an available V-6, but the smallish RAV4 weighs less than most of its competition. The lightest Honda CR-V, for example, is more than 130 pounds heavier than the heaviest RAV4, and the Hyundai Santa Fe outporks the Toyota to the tune of anywhere from 360 to nearly 800 pounds. It’s no wonder, then, that the Hyundai only comes with a V-6.
The RAV4 is easy to drive, and, along with the Ford Escape, is one of the more nimble and sporting vehicles in its class. Its low center of gravity, carlike construction, and firm damping—which sufficiently suppresses body roll and allows for fairly aggressive cornering—combine to create an agile, sporty feeling. That firmness and short wheelbase, however, means that the RAV4 can get a little choppy over rough pavement. The brakes are vague and lack feel, and the low-effort pedal doesn’t allow for an accurate assessment of remaining pedal travel. Vagueness also describes the on-center feel of the slow steering. Once you begin turning the wheel, the steering system becomes more communicative.
The RAV4 isn’t a vehicle for the enthusiast—it’s not exciting or outgoing enough. What it is, though, is reliable, easy to drive, predictable, and efficient. In other words, it’s a Toyota, and the perfect ride for a buyer in the market for a vehicle that’s practical and provides decent fuel economy (around 23/28 city/highway mpg) along with versatile cargo space. It will even provide a modest amount of towing ability, as the RAV4 is rated to pull up to 1,500 pounds—as much as a CR-V or four-cylinder Escape. Fully loaded models can get a little pricey, but in addition to a great little sport/ute, that money nets Toyota reliability, quality, and resale value. Ending this generation on a high note, the RAV4 earned the 2005 IntelliChoice Best Overall Value award for Compact Utility Under $21,000. The RAV4 includes a three-year/36,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty, in addition to five-year/60,000-mile powertrain coverage and a five-year/unlimited-mile rust-through warranty.
With class-leading safety, reliability, and quality, the RAV4 remains a great sport/cute choice and an excellent value.