2004 Toyota RAV4 Limited
Photos show a 2004 Toyota RAV4 Limited. Click image to enlarge

by Haney Louka

Whenever people shopping for a new cute-ute ask me what I think of Toyota’s RAV4, I normally cite its underpowered engine as the main reason I hesitate to recommend it. Until now, that is.

That’s because in the presence of more powerful and equally capable competitors, last year’s RAV4 was always a step behind in my books. Its 148 horsepower 2.0 litre engine provided merely adequate power with the five-speed stick, and with the four speed automatic it really strained.

So for 2004, Toyota has injected some much needed power into its entry-level sport-utility and offers it at the same price as last year. This time, ‘fun to drive’ is an accurate description when talking about the new RAV.

The Lineup

2004 Toyota RAV4 Limited
2004 Toyota RAV4 Limited

2004 Toyota RAV4 Chili
2004 Toyota RAV4 Chili. Photo: Bill Petro. Click image to enlarge

The RAV lineup starts at a reasonable $24,485 and includes such standard niceties as 16-inch wheels and tires; tumble forward (and removable) rear seats; CD/MP3 player; and power windows and door locks.

My ‘Package B’ tester (yeah, real original naming) included necessities such as air conditioning, cruise control, keyless entry, roof rack, and a bunch of other items for $26,300 – this is the real bargain in the family. The ‘Chili’ special edition model contains Package B options and adds several cosmetic upgrades for $27,790. It’s the model to have if the B is a little too plain-Jane for you. Mind you, though, the Chili includes the hood scoop that is thankfully not offered on any other RAV trim level.

Check the ‘C’ box on the order form and after doling out $28,790, buyers get alloy wheels, anti-lock brakes, fog lamps, a tire pressure monitoring system, and other goodies.

Limited Package D is for the luxo crowd: the price tag is $32,350 and the equipment list includes heated leather seats, tinted windows, moon roof, leather-wrapped wheel and shift knob, and a theft deterrent system.

A four-speed automatic transmission can be had on any model for an additional $1,200.

Nuts and Bolts

2004 Toyota RAV4
Click image to enlarge

Replacing the meagre 2.0 litre engine from last year’s model is a new 2.4 litre unit that produces 161 horsepower at 5,700 rpm and 165 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm, compared against 148 horsepower and 142 lb-ft for last year’s model. In addition to the larger displacement, the new engine employs Toyota’s VVT-i variable valve timing to optimize power delivery throughout the rev range.

Power in my test vehicle was transferred through a slick-shifting five-speed manual transmission to a full-time four-wheel-drive system – vastly superior to those part-time systems that run in front-drive most of the time and dump power to the rear wheels only when needed.

In the RAV, the stick is the way to go. In addition to maximizing use of the available power, it’s so well executed in the RAV that it’s actually – dare I say it – an SUV that’s fun to drive.

There are three differentials in the RAV: a viscous coupling centre differential and an open differential at each axle. The viscous coupling directs power front-to-rear as required and each axle’s differential controls side-to-side power.

2004 Toyota RAV4 Limited

2004 Toyota RAV4 Limited

2004 Toyota RAV4 Limited
2004 Toyota RAV4 Limited. Click image to enlarge

Brakes and suspension are fairly typical for this class: front discs and MacPherson struts in front, with rear drums and an independent wishbone setup maximizing control in the rear.

Inside and Out

The RAV has undergone a tasteful mid-cycle freshening in the styling department. The look is a little stubby because of its short wheelbase (2,490-mm (98 inches)) and tall height (1,680 mm (66.1 inches)). Enhancements for 2004 include restyled headlight and taillight lenses, an updated centre dash stack, variable intermittent wipers, and power outside mirrors.

The RAV’s interior is hard to fault – stylish, ergonomically sound, and nice to look at and touch. A sporty cue: the tachometer is mounted in the centre of the instrument pod and the gauges are white with black markings, changing to amber on black at night.

The aforementioned CD/MP3 player proved to be a disappointment as it was lacking in the output department – weak-sounding and tinny. The optional 200-watt Panasonic system promises to fix that, but it’s only available on the Chili model.

The RAV’s compact dimensions mean it lags behind the competition in important interior measurements such as rear seat legroom and cargo capacity.

The Driving Experience

The newfound power under the RAV’s hood doesn’t appear on paper to be a significant increase, but the numbers don’t tell the whole story. The larger displacement coupled with VVT-i make for a better rounded and more capable powerplant, particularly when it comes to summoning torque at lower engine revs.

2004 Toyota RAV4 Limited

2004 Toyota RAV4 Limited

2004 Toyota RAV4 Limited
2004 Toyota RAV4 Limited. Click image to enlarge

What’s great about the RAV is that it possesses some important car-like qualities while providing the cargo flexibility, four wheel drive, and higher ride height of an SUV. Two of those important car-like qualities are fuel economy and a fun to drive nature. Transport Canada rates economy at 10.7 L/100 km city and 8.1 highway. That’s 26 and 35 miles per imperial gallon, numbers that would be more likely used to describe a Camry than an SUV. And even better than a Honda CR-V, long considered one of the most fuel efficient SUVs in its class.

It’s also fun to just get in and drive the manual-equipped RAV4. It’s a machine that has been designed for superior on-road performance and sometimes even manages to hide its high centre of gravity. Steering response is quick, the clutch is smooth, and the slick shifter has relatively short and direct throws.

Complaints? Few. Other than a cargo area that’s among the smallest in its class, the panic button on the key fob is too easily pushed and activates the horn right away rather than after holding the button down for a couple of seconds.

And then there’s the rear wiper. On every rear wiper-equipped Toyota and Lexus vehicle I’ve driven, the wiper can be activated by twisting the wiper stalk either up to turn it on, or down to spray the rear window. The problem is that when twisting it down to spray the window, the wiper itself doesn’t actually move until the driver twists the stalk in the other direction. Minor, I know, but I can’t figure out why it’s designed like that.

To Sum It Up

The RAV is a stylish, affordable (in most trim levels), and fun to drive mini-ute that doesn’t possess many of the traditional SUV vices while providing most of the utility people look for.

Shopping Around

There are more and more entries in the hot cute-ute segment each year. And each year the competition gets stiffer. Prices below are for base versions of four- or all-wheel-drive vehicles:

  • Chevrolet Tracker ($25,605)
  • Ford Escape ($27,825)
  • Honda CR-V ($27,200)
  • Honda Element ($28,900)
  • Hyundai Santa Fe ($27,395)
  • Jeep Liberty ($25,695)
  • Kia Sorento ($29,845)
  • Mazda Tribute ($25,445)
  • Mitsubishi Outlander ($26,757)
  • Nissan Xterra ($28,798)
  • Saturn VUE ($26,095)
  • Subaru Forester ($27,995)
  • Suzuki Grand Vitara ($24,995)

    Technical Data: 2004 Toyota RAV4

    Base price $24,485
    Price as tested $26,300
    Type 4-door, 5 passenger compact SUV
    Layout transverse front engine/all-wheel-drive
    Engine 2.4 litre 4 cylinder, DOHC, 16 valves, VVT-I
    Horsepower 161 @ 5,700 rpm
    Torque 165 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm
    Transmission 5-speed manual
    Tires P215/70R-16
    Curb weight 1,305 kg (2,877 lb.)
    Wheelbase 2,490 mm (98.0 in.)
    Length 4,195 mm (165.2 in.)
    Width 1,735 mm (68.3 in.)
    Height 1,680 mm (66.1 in.)
    Ground clearance 170 mm (6.8 in.)
    Cargo capacity Behind rear seats 678 litres (23.9 cu. ft.)
      Behind front seats 1,909 litres (67.4 cu. ft.)
    Fuel consumption City: 10.7 L/100 km (26 mpg)
      Hwy: 8.1 L/100 km (35 mpg)
    Warranty 3 yrs/60,000 km
    Powertrain warranty 5 yrs/100,000 km
  • Connect with Autos.ca