Test Drive:

2003 Toyota RAV4 ‘Chili’

Story and photos by Grant Yoxon

On Toyota Canada’s website, the marketing wordsmiths say, “With its compact size and features like full-time 4-wheel drive (4WD), there are few places that are out of RAV4’s reach.”

Let’s get something straight right off. The RAV4 is not an off-road vehicle. Sure I’ve seen a RAV4 negotiate extremely difficult terrain with only minor damage, but I wouldn’t do that to my car, excuse me, SUV.

The RAV4’s 4WD system is an active safety feature that enhances traction, cornering stability and maneuverability. It will give you more comfort on gravel roads, get you home safely – if you drive cautiously – on a snowy winter night, but it won’t “take you places where other SUVs can’t go.”

Anyway, it is highly unlikely that anyone into serious off-roading would seriously consider a Toyota RAV4. But consumers who want the comfort and handling of a front wheel drive sedan and the added safety of 4-wheel drive should have a look at the RAV4.

2003 Toyota RAV4 Chili edition

2003 Toyota RAV4 Chili edition

2003 Toyota RAV4 Chili edition

2003 Toyota RAV4 Chili edition
Click image to enlarge

Typically, even small SUVs give up some ride comfort and handling ability to sedans, a natural outcome of having a short wheelbase and a high centre of gravity. Complex all-wheel-drive systems also increase noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) compared to simpler front or rear wheel drive vehicles.

But the RAV4 seems to have none of these less desirable SUV qualities. It feels more like a small wagon than an SUV – in fact, it really is a small, tall wagon.

With respect to four-wheel drive, this is as simple as it gets. As my wife said when she took a turn behind the wheel, “it feels like I’ve been driving this car for years.” High praise indeed. But also note that she called it a car.

The RAV4’s full time four wheel drive system ensures that torque remains equally distributed between the front and rear wheels at all times. Its operation is imperceptible and fully automatic. There are no driver controls, switches or shifter settings to learn – just get in and drive.

The RAV4, first introduced as a 1997 model, underwent a complete re-design for the 2001 model year with new styling, full-time 4WD and a new 2.0 litre, 4-cylinder engine.

In base trim, the RAV4 is equipped with a five-speed manual transmission, 16″ steel wheels and wheel covers, power door locks, power tailgate lock, 4-speaker AM/FM/CD sound system, illuminated entry, intermittent wipers, rear window washer/wiper and new for 2003, power windows and power remote heated mirrors.

Several option packages add a variety of comfort, convenience and safety features. Package ‘B’ adds air conditioning, roof rack, keyless entry system and cruise control. Package ‘C’ continues with 16″ aluminum alloy wheels and P235/60R16 all-season tires, antilock brakes (ABS), electronic brake force distribution (EBD), colour-keyed fender flares and door
handles, privacy glass, fog lamps and hard spare tire cover. Fully loaded, the RAV4 Limited includes leather seating, leather-wrapped shifter knob and steering wheel, power moon roof, 6-speaker sound system with AM/FM/CD/Cassette, rear spoiler, engine immobilizer and anti-theft system.

Our tester was a special ‘Chili’ edition – new for the 2003 model year – equipped with the optional 4-speed automatic transmission. Available in either white or black, the Chili edition takes elements from other RAV4 option packages to create a RAV4 that will appeal to younger buyers. The RAV4 Chili shares the non-functional hood scoop, front grille and black headlight surrounds of the base model and contains the comfort and convenience features of the “B’ option package. Additionally, the RAV4 Chili has 16” aluminum alloy wheels, special ‘Chili’ decals and floor mats and a 200-watt Panasonic AM/FM/CD/MP3 audio system with remote control and removable faceplate.

Tony Wearing, Group Vice President of Vehicle Sales and Marketing for Toyota Canada, says “the ability to take MP3 technology on the road will make the Chili RAV4 a particular hit with young enthusiasts.”

I can’t say the Panasonic unit was a hit with this old enthusiast. MP3 capability aside (I like bringing my own tunes along for the ride), I found the audio controls and menu system complex and difficult to learn. Perhaps I’m too old to master new technology, but I know a major driver distraction when I see one.

At $28,600 ($27,400 with manual transmission), the Chili special edition is priced mid-way between the ‘B’ and ‘C’ option packages.

2003 Toyota RAV4 Chili edition

2003 Toyota RAV4 Chili edition

2003 Toyota RAV4 Chili edition

2003 Toyota RAV4 Chili edition
Click image to enlarge

I like the front-end styling which the Chili shares with the base model and the aluminum alloy wheels look attractive against the black on black exterior treatment. However, I wish that Toyota would also include the ABS and EBD that comes with these wheels on the more expensive RAV4s, or at least make them optionally available. ABS and EBD are active safety features that might come in handy should a driver become overly engrossed in fine-tuning the MP3 player.

Speaking of safety, the 2003 Toyota RAV4 received four stars for both driver and passenger in frontal impact crash tests conducted by the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and five stars in side impact tests.

The RAV4 is smaller (and lighter) than many of its competitors in the compact SUV segment, including the Ford Escape, Mazda Tribute, Subaru Forester, Kia Sorento, Mitsubishi Outlander and Honda CR-V and internal cargo-carrying capacity is also smaller. If you do a price vs. space comparison of the RAV4 and its competitors, you won’t like the result.

However, the RAV4 makes the best use of its limited space. Each side of the 50/50 split rear bench seat folds, tumbles and can be removed entirely. The seats also slide fore and aft up to 150 mm (6 inches) to help maximize either cargo space or rear passenger legroom.

Useful accessories include six grocery bag hooks, cargo anchor hooks, several storage compartments in the rear cargo area and a cargo net pocket on the back door. A two-stage cover, now standard on all RAV4s, helps ensure cargo area privacy.

2003 Toyota RAV4 Chili Edition

2003 Toyota RAV4 Chili Edition
Click image to enlarge

A full-size spare tire is a standard RAV4 feature, mounted on the rear door and covered with either a soft or hard cover depending on the model. The mounting position does not obscure rearward vision.

The RAV4 interior is an attractive blend of two-tone fabrics, different shades of interior plastic and faux metal trim on the centre control panel, around the shifter and on the door grips. The gauges are easy to read, despite a beige background colour, and all other controls are easy to reach and simple to use.

Despite having one of the smallest engines in the compact SUV segment, the 2.0 litre, 4-cylinder engine is right-sized with the lightweight (1,305 kilogram/2,877 pounds) RAV4. This engine produces 148 horsepower at 6,000 r.p.m. and 142 pound-foot of torque at 4,000 r.p.m., which is more than sufficient for most tasks even with the 4-speed automatic transmission.
Engine noise at cruising speed is low, but makes its presence known under hard acceleration.

In around town driving, the RAV4 is as nimble and responsive as a compact sedan, with quick, precise steering and a firm, comfortable ride. In fact, the RAV4’s fully independent suspension is better than many small sedans I’ve driven. It is easy to forget this is an SUV.

Marketing types have an expression for this: ‘car-like’. This might fit if the RAV4 was a real SUV. In truth, the RAV4 is a capable compact wagon, one that is certainly ‘SUV-like’, but a wagon nonetheless.

Technical Data: 2003 Toyota RAV4 Chili Edition

Base price (RAV4) $24,485
Base price (Chili) $27,400
Options automatic transmission ($1,200)
Freight $1,260
Price as tested $29,860
Type 5-passenger, 4-door compact SUV
Layout transverse front engine/all-wheel-drive
Engine 2.0 litre DOHC 4-cylinder
Horsepower 148 at 6,000 r.p.m.
Torque 142 lb.-ft. at 4000 r.p.m.
Transmission 4-speed automatic (5-speed manual standard)
Brakes power assisted front ventilated discs/rear drums
Towing capacity 680 kilograms (1500 pounds)
Ground clearance 170 mm (6.8 in.)
Wheels and tires 16″ aluminum alloy wheels, P215/70R16 all-season radials
Curb weight 1305 kg (2877 lbs)
Wheelbase 2490 mm (98 in.
Length 4195 mm (165.2 in.)
Width 1735 mm (68.3 in.)
Height 1680 mm (66.1 in.)
Cargo capacity 1909 litres (67.4 cubic feet) behind front seats
  0.678 cu. m. (23.9 cu. ft.) behind rear seat
Fuel consumption City: 10.6 litres/100 kilometres (27 m.p.g.)
  Highway: 8.2 L/100 km (34 m.p.g)
Warranty 3 years/60,000 Km
Powertrain warranty 5 years/100,000 km

Grant Yoxon is an Ottawa-based automotive journalist and managing editor of CanadianDriver

More Test Drives….

Connect with Autos.ca