Toyota RAV4
By Thomas Voehringer

As a progenitor of the mini-ute niche, Toyota's RAV4 established itself early and has maintained a foothold at the top ever since.

Mechanically, the '02 shows only those changes made for last year. The stalwart 2.0L four-cylinder I-4 and five-speed manual trans performed smoothly throughout the rev range. With nearly 150 horses on tap, the RAV moved through the timing gates with a respectable 0-60 of 8.9 sec. Controllable handling is the RAV's strong suit. The full-time four-wheel drive and neutral steering feel during transitioning is confidence inspiring. The four-wheel ABS helps keep things from getting out of hand. Be it sweeping S curves or tight mountain switchbacks, the RAV feels ready.

Toyota appears comfortable with last year's revamping. Look for only minor cosmetic changes in '02, the contrasting gray bumpers and side molding becoming standard on base models.

The tall cabin makes entry and exit a fearless endeavor, even for our 6-ft-plus testers. Forward and side visibility are excellent with rear vision hampered by the Toyota's tapered styling and spare-tire location. The two-tone cloth seats and swoopy interior are stylish and functional, providing ample room for extended freeway runs. White-face gauges with a dark surround make them easy to read. A seating position lower than its peers' adds to the RAV's sporty attitude. The shifter stalk is relatively tall, perhaps to prevent driver interference with the console storage/armrest. Stereo and climate controls are placed high on the center control pod for easy driver access.

Behind the driver, things get a bit tight. Rear-seat legroom for larger adults continues to be a point of contention in the RAV. On a real-world grocery-getting excursion, a family of four can quickly fill up the 29.2 cu ft of storage behind the second row of seats. You can more than double the available cubic capacity by removing the second-row seating--a real utility feature. Out back, the neat swing-away rear-access door and low loading platform are great for the parking lot but could pose an obstruction at curbside. The rear door supports the exposed spare tire yet is well balanced and easy to open.

Despite the RAV4 being the grand father of the mini-ute niche, it still represents a formidable combination of good looks, sport, and utility at a reasonable price.