2001 Toyota RAV4


2003 Toyota RAV4

This 2003 review is representative of model years 2001 to 2005.
By Dan Jedlicka of MSN Autos
Rating: 6

Bottom Line:

Larger engine needed for this nicely built, small sport-utility vehicle.
  • Fairly roomy
  • Good quality reputation
  • New Sport Package
  • Noisy, overworked engine
  • Lazy highway performance
  • Costly options

The cute Toyota RAV4 opened the market in 1996 for small car-based/unit-body sport-utility vehicles and has been popular since then. Affordability, cute styling, economical operation and a car-like nature has kept it in the race.

Even the 2003 RAV4 has a noisy, underpowered 4-cylinder engine, which is fine in town but delivers mediocre passing on highways.

The first RAV4 had 120 horsepower, and the current model saw horsepower raised from 127 to 148 in 2001. That's when the second-generation RAV4 arrived with a slightly larger body featuring a roomier interior and nicely sculpted look.

Large Engine Needed
While improved, a larger, more potent engine is needed. An engine is the heart of a vehicle, and the main problem of the RAV4 is that it always has had a 2-liter 4-cylinder engine. It's fine for a small sports car or economy sedan—but woefully small for a sport-ute.

No matter what its size, an SUV is expected to comfortably handle more than average loads while providing good acceleration. The RAV4 provides decent—but far from neck-snapping—acceleration only with the standard manual transmission while just carrying a driver because that gearbox doesn't soak up horsepower as does an automatic.

Excessive engine noise always accompanies hard acceleration, and the RAV4 often calls for such acceleration to keep up with today's high-speed traffic.

Conversely, steady highway cruising creates no engine noise problem, although it's hard to keep a steady speed with congested traffic. And the tachometer shows the engine revving at a high 2,900 rpm at 70 mph with this vehicle's popular automatic transmission.

Generally Fun to Drive
Despite the engine, the RAV4 is generally fun to drive. It has quick steering, nimble handling and big 16-inch wheels. Racing through curves causes marked body sway, but the RAV4 maintains confident footing—as was the case with the tenacious old Alfa Romeo sports cars.

An all-independent suspension delivers a supple ride, but irregular pavement elicits some bounciness partly because the RAV4 has a short 98-inch wheelbase. The brake pedal is touchy, but stopping distances are short.

Generally Roomy
It's easy to get in and out of the front of the RAV4, but rear door openings are too small. Four 6-footers sit high and can fit comfortably if a driver doesn't shove his seat back too far.

While supportive, front seats should provide more thigh support. A low, wide rearview mirror can block vision through the windshield under some circumstances.

The nicely designed interior is acceptably quiet for a small sport-ute, except for that engine noise. And gauges can be easily read. Radio and climate controls are nicely sized and easily reached, as are the driver's power window controls. The turn signal lever operates with exceptional smoothness, as if pulled from a Lexus.

Front cupholders are positioned for no-spill use. The glove box is tiny, but the small console bin is deep. All doors have storage pockets and rear windows roll almost all the way down.

Large Cargo Area
The large cargo area has a low, wide opening. Happily, the entire rear seat flips forward or easily can be removed to greatly expand that area. The tailgate has no separate-opening window, though. And it swings toward the curb, which can complicate curbside loading. The tailgate also can be clumsy to use with the outside-mounted spare tire.

Most small engines provide good fuel economy, and the RAV4 doesn't disappoint here. With front-drive, it provides an estimated 25 mpg in the city and 31 on highways with the 5-speed manual gearbox and 24 and 29 with the popular 4-speed automatic transmission.

Figures with an all-wheel-drive RAV4 are 22 and 27 with either transmission. Only 87-octane gasoline is required.

Popular All-Wheel Drive
The RAV4 has base prices that range from $16,525 to $18,975. Its all-wheel-drive system has no low-range gearing for tough off-road driving, although that system is comfortable with dicey road conditions. About half of RAV4 buyers get all-wheel-drive.

New Sport Package
The biggest news for the 2003 RAV4 is a $2,067 Sport Package, which provides a racier appearance. The package has a special grille, aerodynamic multi-reflective headlights with blackout trim, large-but-nonfunctional hood scoop, gray fender flares and a tubular stainless steel roof rack.

The package also has comfort and convenience items, including air conditioning, cruise control, AM/FM/CD player with six speakers—and power windows, door locks and mirrors.

Moderately Equipped
The Sport Package underscores the fact that the RAV4 is just moderately equipped, with such items as front bucket seats, console, split-folding rear seat, AM/FM/CD player, intermittent wipers and a rear-mounted full-size spare tire.

Side airbags aren't available, which is a drawback in the increasingly safety conscious SUV market. Anti-lock brakes are available for $300 and have electronic brake-force distribution that optimizes brake pressure for greater control under braking.

Option Game
One problem with ordering a RAV4 is that a buyer often can't order an option without also ordering extras he might not want. For example, there's $840 leather upholstery, which calls for ordering the $2,153 Upgrade L package. It has air conditioning, cruise control, upgraded audio system, power windows, door locks and heated mirrors, color-keyed bumpers and body-side moldings, integrated fog lights, privacy glass and a hard-shell spare tire cover.

That's a lot of desirable stuff, but what if you don't have money for the L Package?

Stand-alone options include $985 air conditioning. But the $900 power sunroof requires the $1,433 Quick Order Package, Sport Package or Upgrade L Package. Remote keyless entry, which is a mandatory item for many drivers, costs $230. But it must be ordered with $760 Power Package, which contains power door locks and windows—or with a package containing power door locks.

Keep Watchful Eye
Those on tight budgets thus should keep a watchful eye on option prices, no matter how alluring options seem when sitting across a desk from a Toyota salesperson.

The durable, reliable RAV4 has good resale value, but it's best for urban or suburban driving until it gets a more suitable engine


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BB05 - 9/21/2014 11:55:16 PM