2003 Toyota RAV4
This 2003 review is representative of model years 2001 to 2005.
By Dan Jedlicka of MSN Autos
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
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
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.
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
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
New Sport Package
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.
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.
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
The durable, reliable RAV4 has good resale value, but it's best for urban or suburban driving until it gets a more suitable engine