- The Washington Times - Friday, March 8, 2002

Many credit Toyota with kicking off the mini-ute craze when it introduced the RAV4 in 1996. And while it didn't establish the segment Suzuki did that with its Sidekick Toyota did define it and brought to it a legitimacy that quickly had other automakers following Toyota's lead with their own small, carlike sport utility vehicles.

Redesigned for 2001, the RAV4 is basically unchanged for 2002. Last year it grew in every area from engine horsepower to passenger room. Not only was it improved in virtually every way, it received a personality boost through some futuristic exterior styling. More aerodynamic than its predecessor, the second-generation RAV4 has a youthful appearance much more so than the RAV4 it replaced.

Among the RAV4's shortcomings and yes, there are a couple are its stingy list of standard features. Beyond its tilt steering wheel and basic four-speaker audio system, the base RAV4 provides little in the way of creature comforts. Its $16,525 base price can rapidly swell to over $20,000 with just a handful of amenities such as anti-lock brakes, air conditioning and power windows.

Either front- or all-wheel drive, RAV4 is numbered among the mini-utes that simply are not engineered for serious off-road duty. Even when equipped with AWD, it doesn't have the legs for anything much more demanding than slippery surfaces.

On the road, however, RAV4 shines. Its fully independent suspension has been tuned a bit more toward ride quality, but the handling is still crisp for a sport utility. Cornering produces very little body roll. It answers the helm without hesitation. Highly maneuverable, the RAV4 is an urban warrior well suited to crowded side streets, narrow parking spaces and vehicle-filled boulevards. Toyota wants to sell the RAV4 to people who prefer the disposition of a sedan, but want the image of an SUV. Such target customers won't be disappointed.

Ranked toward the lower end of the segment in terms of engine performance, the RAV4 provides only a 2-liter, four-cylinder power plant. It produces 148 horsepower and 142 pounds-feet of peak torque. Some competitors offer a V-6 and some have more responsive four-bangers.

The RAV4 is still good for a sub-nine-second 0-60 time. All things are relative, but the engine is surprisingly noisy for a Toyota.

If this were almost any competitor, it wouldn't get a mention, but generally Toyotas are notoriously quiet. A five-speed manual transmission is standard. It's a tad sloppy, but still fun to drive. A four-speed automatic is optional. Fuel economy with the manual is 25 mpg in the city and 31 on the highway by Environmental Protection Agency measures.

Toyota has worked its magic on the RAV4 interior. In addition to the flawless fit and finish, the interior is neatly arranged. The uncluttered instrument panel has easy to use ventilation-system controls. The audio system is conveniently placed high up on the dashboard.

Although the seats are small enough to give larger folks a reason to gripe, they are highly supportive. Toyota bills the RAV4 as a five-passenger SUV. It will accommodate five in a pinch, but more than four adults is pushing it.

There is lots of cargo space behind the removable 50/50 split/folding rear seat. The side-hinged rear hatch opens wide for easy loading and unloading. Because of the slick exterior styling, some care should be taken when accessing the rear cargo area.

The rear door bends in fairly dramatically at the top, and if you're not paying attention, it's easy to bang your head on the top of the door as you load and unload.

Toyota has also incorporated various cubby holes and storage areas within the passenger compartment. Neat.

A number of options on my test RAV4 escalated its $16,525 base price. Anti-lock brakes, 16-inch alloy wheels, a roof rack, mud guards, tinted windows, and an option package with air conditioning, cruise control, upgraded six-speaker audio system with CD player, power windows/doors/outboard mirrors and carpeted mats pushed the bottom line to $20,195.

The $535 delivery charge brought the total price of the vehicle, as tested, to $20,730.

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