2003 Toyota RAV4 Chili edition
2003 Toyota RAV4 Chili edition. Click image to enlarge

By Chris Chase
Photos by Grant Yoxon

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Funny how everything Toyota touches seems to turn to gold. That was certainly the case in 1997 when it launched its first compact SUV, the RAV4. This was the company’s first foray into building the kind of car-based SUV that was emerging as the new popular replacement for the subcompact station wagon that had pretty much all but disappeared by the late 1990s.

One telling sign that the compact car-based ‘ute segment was the next big thing (figuratively, at least) was that the RAV4 was launched the same year as Honda’s CR-V. Many readers may remember that Honda and Toyota hit it big in North America during the gas crisis of the late 1970s, when drivers flocked in droves to smaller, more fuel efficient cars. This time, there was no fuel crisis, but a sense that many drivers would appreciate a truck-like vehicle a little smaller and more efficient than the Ford Explorers and Jeep Cherokees that had become so popular in the mid-90s.

2003 Toyota RAV4 Chili edition
2003 Toyota RAV4 Chili edition. Click image to enlarge

The success of the first-generation RAV4 proved that Toyota’s decision to get into this segment was a wise one, and it also dictated that Toyota had to follow up with a new model featuring the usual improvements that go along with any new model. And they did that in 2001, with the launch of the redesigned, and slightly larger, second-generation trucklet. Like the outgoing model, the new RAV4 had a 2.0-litre engine under the hood, but with 148-horsepower in place of the 120-hp unit in the old model. For 2001, the two-door model was dropped from the line-up, and all-wheel-drive became a standard feature.

Despite the added power, Natural Resources Canada’s fuel consumption ratings for the new truck showed that it actually used less fuel than the 2000 model: 10.6 L/100 km city and 8 L/100 km highway for 2001, compared to 10.9 L/100 km city and 8.6 L/100 km highway for the 2000 RAV4. Fuel economy ratings stayed about the same for 2004, despite Toyota’s dropping a more powerful 2.4-litre engine, borrowed from the Camry, into the RAV4. The base transmission was a five-speed manual, and a four-speed automatic was an option.

2003 Toyota RAV4 Chili edition

2003 Toyota RAV4 Chili edition
2003 Toyota RAV4 Chili edition. Click image to enlarge

Reliability is a strong point for just about every Toyota that’s ever been built, and the RAV4 is no exception, with no major trouble spots to look out for in well-maintained examples. Not a single recall was issued for the second-generation RAV4. If there is a downside to the RAV4, it’s a small back seat that’s the result of the relatively short wheelbase. The CR-V has a little more room between the front and rear wheels and offers a little more space in back.

Crash safety is a major plus: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) gave the RAV4 four stars each for driver and front passenger protection in frontal impacts, and five stars for front and rear seat occupant protection in side impacts. In the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s (IIHS) tougher frontal offset crash test, the RAV4 from 2001 to early 2004 earned an “average” rating. Structural changes made to models built after December 2003 earned later 2004 and 2005 models the IIHS’s “good” rating in the frontal offset test. In the IIHS’s side impact tests, the RAV4 scored poorly, however (side airbags offered in the U.S., but not in Canada, improved results significantly).

2003 Toyota RAV4 Chili edition
2003 Toyota RAV4 Chili edition. Click image to enlarge

Good reliability is typical for Toyotas, and so are high resale values. For sure, you’ll pay more for a used RAV4 than you would for, say, a Ford Escape – also a capable small SUV, though it can’t match the Toyota’s reliability. You’ll pay a little less, too, for a Suzuki Grand Vitara, though its truck-based body-on-frame construction can’t provide the refinement that the RAV4’s car-based structure does. Honda’s CR-V will be priced similarly to the RAV4, and will offer similar dependability and a little more interior space.

Starting at the low end, a 2001 RAV4 is worth $14,400, while a top-end 2005 model is worth $23,150, according to the Canadian Red Book. Over the five years the second-gen RAV4 was produced, its base M.S.R.P. increased by about $1,200 – no doubt a tactic employed to keep the RAV4 competitive in a market that continues to be lucrative for those automakers who have a player in it. Unfortunately, used RAV4 prices probably won’t be affected by the introduction of the newer, much bigger 2006 model that was recently introduced.

There are other sport utilities that would be better suited to serious off-roading – the RAV4’s set-up is best suited to snowy side streets – but few will offer the combination of refinement and reliability in a compact package that the RAV4 has on its side.

Online Resources

www.toyotanation.com – this is a great Canadian-run site that caters to owners of all Toyota models. The main page features Toyota-related news items and links to many other sections of the site, including a busy forum. The RAV4 gets its own forum section, but it’s fairly new, so there hasn’t been a lot of activity yet. Give it time, though, and this section should gain attention, especially with the recent launch of the all-new 2006 RAV4.

www.rav4world.com – In short, this site is a must-visit for all second-generation RAV4 owners. There’s an excellent FAQ, and the forums are reasonably busy for a site with just over 1,300 members. Those members seem to be well-informed and helpful, too. The forums are split up into those for first-gen models (1997-2000), second-gen (2001-2005) and third-gen (2006 and newer) RAV4s. While Toyota Nation is a great Toyota site, RAV4World.com is a terrific RAV4 site that’s definitely worth a look for both present and potential RAV4 owners.




Used vehicle prices vary depending on factors such as general condition, odometer reading, usage history and options fitted. Always have a used vehicle checked by an experienced auto technician before you buy.

For information on recalls, see Transport Canada’s web-site, www.tc.gc.ca, or the U.S. National Highway Transportation Administration (NHTSA)web-site, www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on vehicle service bulletins issued by the manufacturer, visit www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on consumer complaints about specific models, see www.lemonaidcars.com.

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