- The Washington Times - Friday, January 18, 2002

ATLANTA Just as there are sensibly priced, utilitarian sedans for moving families or commuters and recreational/work trucks that don't cost a fortune, so, too, there are practical, politically correct sport utilities.

A good example and it's by no means the only one available is Toyota's RAV4. Available in front- or four-wheel-drive versions, the RAV4 has a base price of $17,925 and has reasonably comfortable accommodations for as many as five adults.

It can be fun to get around in, and it's certainly easy to handle, thanks to a 98-inch wheelbase and overall length of 160.2 inches. Its 148-horsepower, 2-liter four-cylinder engine adequately powers the 3,000-pounder, and the only time its effort is ear-irritating is under really hard acceleration. Otherwise, wind and road noise are the aural bugaboos.

However, as the basic refrigerator-white test RAV4 demonstrated, it's as difficult to avoid loading it up with price-ballooning options as it is with most vehicles. The addition of anti-lock brakes, air conditioning, a good stereo system, power equipment, etc., pushed the price to $24,197. See what I mean by "ballooning?"

But who can stick with the basics these days? Without the air conditioning, power assistance and other add-ons, the RAV4 would be little more than a good vehicle for going off-road. It's got about seven inches of ground clearance, and there's hardly enough body lean or bounce to upset a beverage in the center console's cleverly adjustable drink holders.

Visibility is good, despite the large headrests and squat stance compared with full-size SUVs. But, in addition to remaining calm when taken off-road, the RAV4 may understeer when it's inadvertently pushed into an exit ramp too fast or called upon to make a sudden lane change, but it doesn't swing and sway.

The instrumentation is easily read, but it's very basic and not at all what most SUV drivers are accustomed to seeing.

The test RAV4 had the benefit of an optional tachometer. No frills, just what's needed.

Crank the stereo, find an uncluttered road or an approved place for off-roading and drivers soon come to appreciate the RAV4's drivetrain. It's nicely responsive and smooth, with a shifter that begs to be stirred and a short-throw clutch that aids it.

The steering isn't all it could be, but it's highly acceptable under most conditions.

It's entirely likely some drivers will find the RAV4 underpowered. But it's not intended to be a carrier of massive loads and, remember, those Environmental Protection Agency figures of 22 and 27 miles per gallon on regular unleaded are easy to live with and to defend when conversation turns to those road-hogging, gas-guzzling SUVs.

But some folks do need the big fellows. For those who don't but do want to move a little more than two people and a few grocery bags, the RAV4 may be just the answer.

It is a very likable machine.

Make car buying easier with access to Russ DeVault's auto reviews and other Wheels features through the AJC's Stacks Information Service. Article reprints are $10 each. Call 404/526-5668 or 800/756-4197.

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