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February 5, 2001

Review: 2001 Toyota RAV4

Niche market vehicles are usually developed as an afterthought.  Sure, manufacturers have to develop a new shell and body panels, but essentially, the basic frame and the engine were all sourced from existing parts. The story is no different when the cute-as-button mini-SUVs began to invade the market.  The Toyota RAV4 for instance used a modified Corolla chassis and was powered by a Corona engine.  On the other hand, the Honda CR-V was based on the Civic chassis and engine.

When these mini-SUVs began to sell like hotcakes, companies considered them a mainstay in their line-up.  Even the Europeans and Americans came into the picture: Land Rover, for instance, came up with the equally impressive (but poorly built) Freelander and Ford came up with the Escape (co-developed with Mazda’s Tribute).

Realizing this, the Japanese had to rethink their strategies.  Since Toyota was the first to release their RAV4 in 1997, they logically had to be the first to introduce a replacement.  Part of Toyota’s ‘revolution of change’ in the Philippines, the 2001 RAV4 is radically different from its predecessor.  Launched as a Completely Built Up unit, the RAV4 is now assembled in Japan…this will very well address the concerns of build quality for those afflicted with colonial mentality.

Surprising fact is that the RAV4 that made its way in the Philippines is the Scandinavian-spec RAV4.  Based on the manual, this is the same vehicle that either Mika Hakkinen or A-Ha are currently driving.

Exhibiting a more manly exterior, the new RAV4 completely departs from the cutesy image.  It follows the lines of the much bigger Toyota Harrier, aka Lexus RX300: the sloping roof rear roof line and the sharp-edged creases are evidence of their similarity.  This new RAV4 also gains a more angular design than the previous generation's.

Beyond the RX300 roofline, the RAV4 gains some sporty cues from the Toyota Celica as well.  The huge front headlamps capped off with the small rear clusters are some clear examples.  The pull-type door handles are also a welcome change that adds character and class to the RAV4.  The side protection strip and the black plastic bottom that caused people to laugh at the previous RAV4 have all been removed.  In fact, the two-tone paint plus the excellently integrated door protection strips have added more styling points to the RAV4.

 However, the exterior is not without problems.  The biggest eyesore is most definitely the standard rear fog lamp.  Of course, being standard issue in the likes of Norway and Finland, the rear fog lamp is nothing more than a piece of accessory here (not counting their usefulness in heavy downpours).  But couldn’t  Toyota have thought of a better way to integrate this component rather than just drilling two holes and screwing in an aftermarket part?!  If we thought Toyota had a booboo with the Camry’s rear fog lamp, wait till you open the rear door.  It is still a single-piece swing out door that needs a lot of space to open up.  What Toyota should have done is let the glass open independently, similar to the CR-V's.

Inside, it’s the same story for the RAV4: a mixture of the good and the bad.  A good point is that the RAV4 materials have improved from the older model's.  Cheesy elements such as slide-type vent controls were taken out, and the result is a sportier SUV.

The RAV4 emphasizes the ‘S’ rather than the ‘U’.  The white-faced gauges with central tachometer (that reverses to orange text on black background at night), sporty seats, circular air con vents and the thick sports steering wheel won't look out of place in a Celica. The silver center console with the Allen-Type Screws complete the look.

More than just a visual treat, the new RAV4 has excellent ergonomics that thrashes the much older Honda CR-V.  The handbrake and gear lever are where they belong, not requiring a stretch and a bend just to pull it up. The ventilation controls are also within easy reach and so are most of the controls on the radio.  On the negative side, the window controls are too low to be considered comfortably reachable and the rear fog lamp switch is almost hidden near the bonnet opening lever.

Space is a premium inside the RAV4 as the suspension and four-wheel drive mechanisms intrude into the passenger compartment. The wheel wells bulge into the front footwells.  The rear passengers enjoy higher seating and enjoy a good view, but their  space is far from spacious.  The Honda CR-V still wins in the egress/ingress and space categories.  It's a shame that Toyota didn't use a flat rear floor for the RAV4.  If they could have devised this for the Echo Verso, they should have done so with the much more expensive and newer RAV.

Luggage space is also limited because of the large bulge caused by the rear wheel wells.  However, a good note is that the rear seats are split fold / tumble and thus adds considerable amounts of space.  If the fold / tumble seats are not enough, the rear seats are also removable without the use of any kind of tools (although the owner’s manual may come in handy).

Aside from the limited space, there are only two other irritating things about the interior: use of materials and the stereo system.  The materials, though improved, are still no match for any of Honda’s offerings.  Sure, they look sporty and the main driving tools (steering wheel, gear knob and handbrake) are excellent, but the rest of the cabin isn't.  The windows switches, for instance, came from the Toyota Hi-Lux and  so did the overhead lights and map lights.  The side pockets and glove box are made up of hard plastic material and rattle when any kind of object is placed inside (even a couple of CDs in their jewel cases).

The stereo system is also a shame.  With a head unit similar to the Toyota Echo's (or the Mitsubishi Adventure Super Sport's), you’d think it was bad enough.  Turn it on, and you’ll find out that the 4-speaker system is worse than awful…it’s pathetic.  Even a 10-year old Mitsubishi Galant GTi’s Kenwood 30 watt system is enough to kick the rear end of the RAV4’s speakers.  What’s even worse is that since the speakers are mounted on the door, people from the outside will have a good idea as to what you're listening to.

The standard 10-disc CD changer is tucked under the driver’s seat.  Not bad, until you begin to realize that you can read War and Peace while it switches discs. The silence while it changes discs is drowned out with the irritatingly loud whine from the CD changer mechanism.  The controller is quite illogical too in the way it handles the changer operation—and no cassette deck?  Where will I play my collection of songs on tape then?

Starting up the engine reveals that all VVTi's, whether 1.3-liter or 2.0-liter, behave the same way.  They have the same cranking sound, starter noise…its similar to starting up an enlarged Echo engine.

A positive aspect of the RAV4 is that that the cabin is ultra quiet.  Although still not at par with the Nissan Cefiro, it is considerably quieter than the Honda CR-V or even the Accord.  Toyota has done a good job of insulating the RAV4 from the sounds of the outside world.  Tire noise is considerably low, too, despite the fat, low profile 235 / 60 HR 16 tires.  Spin the engine past 3000 rpm and it no longer booms like other Toyota powerplants.  Either that, or the noise insulation is doing its job too well.

The engine, though quiet, is a disappointment of sorts.  The RAV4, having the same weight has as the Honda Accord, should have been zipping along with the grunt from the 2.0-liter inline-4's 148 bhp.  However, this is not the case.  The automatic transmission saps some of the acceleration, particularly on steep uphills climbs.  It stays in second gear even if you floor the gas pedal--requiring a shift to  ‘L’.

On a good note, the RAV4’s fuel efficiency is excellent.  Our automatic test unit easily beat the manual two-wheel drive Honda Accord and manual Nissan Cefiro in mileage.  The RAV4 averages 7.2 kilometers a liter, topping the Honda CR-V’s 6.0 kilometers a liter.

Steering is over boosted to the point of being numb.  However, the RAV4 continues  the previous model’s reputation of being maneuverable under tight circumstances.  The RAV4 is comparable to the Echo as both have quick ratio steering, noticeable during reverse parking.  Although tight-space control is quite good for the RAV4, the story is different during highway cruising.

It seems that this car suffers from a lot of understeer needing constant additional steering inputs just to maintain the car in the proper lane.  This is especially dangerous during ‘S’ bends or any kind of curves with a fast left or right movement.  RAV4 drivers must be kept alert to add more steering input than a regular sedan.  Although we reckon, this could very well be the effect of the full-time all-wheel drive.

Front visibility is superb from inside the RAV4, thanks to the tall ride-height and short bonnet.  The same is true for side and rear-three quarters view.  However, the biggest problems have to be rear visibility and the overly optimistic side view mirrors.

The rear glass is small enough—it's dinky! However, add the spare tire bulge there and the equation equals almost no rear glass.  Though the ‘doughnut’ rear headrests help in increasing visibility, it’s still not good enough.  Rear back-up sensors should have come standard with the RAV4.

The side mirrors are overly optimistic.  Sometimes, the magnification is just too much, causing some confusion as to how close the trailing car is.  The rule in the RAV4 is: the object in the mirror is MUCH MUCH closer than it seems.  The mirrors don’t provide a good view of the rear part of the car and there is a blind spot in both side mirrors.  Whenever the car at the back is about to overtaking the RAV4, especially when it's around half a meter away, it suddenly disappears from the mirrors—shocking and dangerous.

The increased height and fat tires should have translated to a comfortable ride, right? Think again.  The RAV4 suffers from a choppy ride that is very much like the Toyota Echo's. The RAV4 should have been designed with light off-road duties in mind, and if this car suffers very much from uneven pavement, how much more uncomfortable would it be in gravel?

The RAV4, however, absorbs deep potholes with ease.  With the increased ride height you’ll see the unevenness in the road some distance away, and you can use the powerful brakes to slow you down.  This car has meaty four-wheel discs, complemented by safety equipment such as dual airbags and, for the first time in the Philippines, Electronic Brake Force Distribution or EBD.

The RAV4 is indeed a design revolution from the previous model.  In terms of styling, the RAV4 is a giant leap from the previous model—clearly Toyota finds this segment worth spending its money on.  With a more macho look and an all-new engine, the RAV4 gets the looks and performance it needs (not to mention the fuel economy) to put it above or at least level with the Honda CR-V.

On the debit column, the RAV4 lacks the driver involvement factor that is so enticing in the small Echo.  The poor quality of materials in some areas make it hard to justify the P 1.350 million peso price tag.

Bottom line: if you want luxury, buy yourself a Nissan Cefiro or Toyota Camry.  Although both are rather uninvolving to drive, the same is true with the RAV4.   Want something that’s sportier? Go for the Honda Accord.

Compared to its direct rival, the Honda CR-V, the RAV4 beats it handily in styling, ergonomics and active safety, but in other areas, like interior space and engine performance, it still fails to deliver.  If the RAV4 can’t beat the old CR-V, what chance does it have when the new CR-V comes out in a year or two?

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