In 1996, the Toyota RAV4 introduced America to the wonders of the car-based SUV. For the first time, consumers could enjoy the benefits of SUV cargo room and ride height combined with the road manners and fuel economy of a family car, and they loved it. With the formula proven, a whole wave of competing crossover vehicles followed, such as the Honda CR-V and more upscale Lexus RX 330. The second-generation RAV4, introduced for 2001, stayed true to the original, but brought more power and refinement. After a significant freshening inside and out for 2004, the RAV4 continues nearly unchanged for 2005, with minor tweaks made only to the available Sport package, including a new metal mesh grille, silver sport pedals, and available foglamps. The RAV4 remains a strong contender as it awaits a redesign for 2006, complete with the first V-6 for the range.
In the grand Toyota tradition, the RAV4 is smartly designed, with handsome, somewhat-rugged-looking bodywork that hints at some small amount of off-road capability (which, for most RAV4s, means pulling into a grassy field). In "L" guise, the RAV4 looks more upscale, with body-colored mirrors, door handles, bumpers, and side moldings that replace unpainted black and gray plastic on lesser RAV4s. "L" buyers also get a full body-colored hard-shell spare tire cover to replace the combination soft/hard cover on base models.Sport-package buyers receive most of the body-color bits plus fender flares, a hood scoop, a stainless-steel roof rack, a metal mesh grille, and available foglamps. Non-package options include a black roof rack, rear spoiler, rear privacy glass, and 16-inch alloy wheels.Sizewise, the RAV4 is among the smallest in its class. Its 98.0-inch wheelbase is more than five inches shorter than a Honda CR-V's, and its height is four inches shorter than a Ford Escape's. Despite this size deficit, though, efficient interior packaging makes the most of the external dimensions.
Though its girth doesn't quite match that of its competition, the RAV4 still boasts better front head- and legroom than any of the following SUVs: Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, Hyundai Santa Fe, and Kia Sportage. The RAV4 even bests the GMC Yukon and the Hummer H2. This great front legroom comes at a price, however, as rear legroom is significantly reduced when the front seats are pushed all the way back, making the rear fairly cramped for taller folks.
The RAV4 can haul plenty of stuff, even with its pinched proportions. It'll hold up to 29.2 cubic feet of gear with the rear seats in and 68.3 cu ft with them removed, virtually identical to capacity of the Ford Escape. These figures aren't class leading, but they match up well with the competition and are impressive considering the RAV4's diminutive size. And if you're hauling smaller items, like maps or your cell phone, the RAV4 comes armed with a multitude of small bins and cubbies--there's even one below the steering wheel--to ensure that no item goes unstashed.The driving position is perfect, with command seating and a low dash combining to give the impression that you're driving a bigger, taller SUV. The cabin is nicely assembled, with best-in-class materials that are easy on the eyes and nice to the touch, particularly the attractive silver accents and leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob. All of the RAV4's switchgear, such as the A/C controls and power window switches, has a pleasing action and feel. The rear seats slide, fold, tumble, and recline to accommodate ever-changing passenger and cargo needs.
All RAV4s come equipped with a six-speaker CD stereo; power windows, locks, and mirrors; cruise control; and air conditioning. Upgrades include a power moonroof, keyless entry, and a tonneau cover for the cargo compartment. Sport- and L-package buyers can opt for items such as an eight-speaker JBL sound system, heated seats, a Homelink transceiver, and an auto-dimming rearview mirror.