If you are in the market for a small SUV that's affordable, agile and easy on gas, you owe it to yourself to take a trip down to the local Toyota store and ask to test drive the latest RAV4. Toyota's compact SUV competes with such top sellers as the Honda CR-V, Hyundai Santa Fe and Subaru Forester. In this class, a vehicle has to have more than just its good name to get by; it has to have standout appeal that turns heads and makes people say "Wow!"
The RAV4 certainly has everything going for it in the looks department; with its beautifully sculpted sheetmetal and jewel-like front and rear lenses, the RAV4 could just as easily wear a Lexus badge. Luckily for you, it's 100% Toyota through and through, which means the price is well within reach of the average working man and woman. Base prices for the front-wheel-drive RAV4 start around $17K and move up to just over $26K for a fully-loaded four-wheel-drive model. Toyota has left the base RAV4 pretty vanilla when it comes to standard features; this allows the customer to outfit the vehicle with the options and packages he or she likes best. For example, there are a number of luxury-like options such as leather seating and a power sunroof that show off the RAV4's softer side; likewise, there are value and protection packages for the more thrifty. New for 2003 is a Sports Package that adds multi-reflective headlamps, blackout grille and headlight surrounds, rear spoiler, hood scoop and a host of creature comforts inside.
No matter how you outfit your RAV4, you'll be getting the same high-reving 2.0-liter engine, good for 148 horsepower. Though this figure may not seem high, the RAV4's relatively lightweight frame and small size allows the engine to instill the RAV4 with a rather peppy personality. You'll find you get the most from the 2.0-liter when you stick with the smooth-shifting five-speed manual, but even with the four-speed automatic, performance in the RAV4 is still more than reasonable. The RAV4's long wheelbase and taut suspension make for a terrifically agile and maneuverable small SUV, and they also translate into an admirably smooth ride for a vehicle in this size and price range. Interior noise is a bit on the high side, owing it mostly to the standard 16-inch tires and the buzz of the engine, but it's not annoyingly loud and you soon grow accustomed to the extra decibels.
On the road, the RAV4 is surprisingly stable for such a small SUV. You'll like the direct steering that never wanders and the heavily-weighted steering response that requires very little effort to make course corrections. Opt for the four-wheel drive, and you'll get the added assurance that snow, mud and rain will pose no obstacle to your travels. The system is permanently engaged, requiring no input from the driver. It works by employing a center differential that routes the engine's power to the front or rear wheels, depending on which needs it most to secure traction; considering this option only adds about $1400 to the price of the RAV4, it really is a worthwhile investment.
Inside, you'll likely find the most comfortable place for two adults is in the front seats; the rear seats are tight on legroom but do provide plenty of hip and headroom. Folding the rear seats down makes the RAV4 a more practical vehicle, providing all the space you'll need for a weekend beach getaway for two. Speaking of the interior, you'll again be stunned by the Lexus-like level of craftsmanship and materials used inside the RAV4. The dash design is first rate, with a cool two-tone pattern, circular white-faced gauges and a large center pod that houses the audio and ventilation controls. Everything is within easy reach in the RAV4, partially due to its thoughtful placement and partially because the RAV4 is not very wide. You'll find the RAV4 comes with a great set of front bucket seats that are supportive without being rock hard; they're also height adjustble. Look hard, and you'll find some additional little touches like the rear grocery bag hooks, the 12-volt rear outlet and the front and rear dual cup holders.
Standard equipment on the base RAV4 includes cloth interior, rear wiper/washer, rear defrost, illuminated entry, dual remote-control mirrors, AM/FM stereo with CD, tilt-wheel and 16-inch styled steel wheels. Options are many and include upgraded audio, air conditioning, power windows and door locks, leather seats, alarm system, heated mirrors and even a fully-powered Bazooka subwoofer. Now you're styling.