2003 Toyota RAV4 L 4×4 Auto Review

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Toyota RAV4 Hybrid

2003 Toyota RAV4 L 4×4

When thinking small makes sense

Bob Nagy on 03.01.2003

In today’s SUV market, bigger-is-better has become an all-too-familiar rallying cry. Spurred on by profit margins that rise in tantalizing lockstep with the physical scale of these super-utes, manufacturers have been only too happy to indulge the whims of customers who believe that the road to true happiness can only be negotiated in a vehicle whose curb weight and footprint dimension rivals those of a small condominium. Thankfully, saner minds do prevail in certain parts of the realm.


For those who feel that form really should follow function when it comes to right-sizing a sport utility-and things like gasoline prices and garageability really do matter-Toyota offers its petite yet practical RAV4.

The Sport Package, new for 2003, includes air conditioning, cruise control, AM/FM radio/cassette/CD with six speakers, power windows and door locks and side mirrors and cargo mats. A new grille, hood scoop, tubular roof rack and special sport fabric seats are exclusive to this new package designated by RAV4 S badging.

While still notably less thirsty than most SUVs, heavy doses of foot-to-the-floor motoring does ensure that the RAV4’s real-world fuel-economy numbers will differ significantly from the designated 22/27 mpg city/highway EPA ratings. A V-6 option-or at least a custom supercharger package from Toyota’s in-house TRD performance wing-would be a most welcome addition to the RAV4’s option list. In addition to adding more sport to its basic SUV formula, a well-mannered force-feeder would enable the RAV4 to tow considerably more than the current-and we’d guess rather optimistic-1,500-pound maximum.

While go-power is at a bit of a premium, ride and handling prowess are both abundant. This optimum mix of control and compliance comes courtesy of the RAV4’s fully independent coil-spring suspension and communicative power rack-and-pinion steering system. While clearly skewed toward tarmac touring, a couple of brief off-road forays showed that its passenger-pampering competence extends into the realm of light-duty dirt work as well.

The RAV4’s MacPherson-strut front underpinnings and double-wishbone rear hardware are each trimmed with a stabilizer bar to limit body roll and work pretty well with its generously proportioned 215/70SR16 standard tires. Those who plan to press hard into corners on a regular basis should consider stepping up to the optional 235/60SR16 boots for a bit of extra grip at the limit.

No matter what size shoes it wears, the RAV4’s relatively petite dimensions make it a master of close-quarter maneuvering. Just 167.1 inches long (including the spare-tie cover) and 68.3 inches wide, this diminutive do-it-all slips into and out of places its gargantuan kin can only dream about. With a modest 98.0-inch wheelbase, it also boasts a turning circle of just 35.4 feet, nearly half a foot less than a Celica.

Toyota RAV4 Hybrid

Whether traversing a narrow backroad, fighting freeway traffic in the heart of rush hour or navigating the confines of a packed parking lot desperately seeking that one remaining compact-scaled open space, the RAV4 is more than equal to the challenge.

In typical Toyota fashion, the RAV4’s passenger compartment is well-designed, well-finished and remarkably well-isolated from road noise. In short, it’s an easy place to spend quality travel time, regardless of whether the miles are being racked up transporting people or cargo. Despite modest exterior dimensions, the RAV4’s space-efficient cabin offers adequate room for four adults and can handle five on shorter treks. Numerous storage cubbies and a central covered bin add even more utility to the mix.

Although its well-formed front buckets are unquestionably the RAV4’s primo perches, a cleverly designed 50/50 split rear bench seat offers both fore/aft adjustability of the lower cushions and variable seatback recline. Each of the rear-seat elements can be flipped forward individually or easily removed altogether, a transition that increases total cargo capacity in the RAV4 from the basic 29.2 cubic feet to 68.3.

Despite generous proportions and convenient bumper-level lower margin, the RAV4’s single-piece rear gate does have one idiosyncratic design element. To accommodate its externally mounted spare tire, the hatch opens outward, not upward. Since the RAV4 was co-developed for the Japanese market, this access port also pivots from left-to-right.

While fine for moving items in or out in non-confining spaces, it’s hardly the best setup for coping with cramped curbside loading.

Although still relegated to an admittedly modest corner of the SUV universe in terms of absolute numbers, the light-makes-right legion continues to grow and prosper. That’s hardly surprising with a sprightly little fun-runner like the Toyota RAV4 effectively championing the small-can-do-it-all cause. Agile, economical, practical and comfortable to a fault, it’s an ideal less-is-more alternative for people with a natural aversion to excess for the sake of excess. (www.toyota.com)

Toyota RAV4 Hybrid
Toyota RAV4 Hybrid
Toyota RAV4 Hybrid
Toyota RAV4 Hybrid
Toyota RAV4 Hybrid
Toyota RAV4 Hybrid

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