Once on board, be sure all electronics work as expected—paying special attention to the automatic climate control system (if equipped), all windows, and the power seats and sunroof (if equipped). On models with a sunroof, press your hand or a rag into the front footwell carpeting, under the floor-mats, to check for signs of moisture—which could result from a leaky or plugged sunroof drain.
Then, find a place you can drive at low speeds and make plenty of turns. You’re checking for a well-documented problem with the RAV4’s steering system, likely caused by a faulty steering shaft.
Turn moderately, and at fairly low speeds, and ‘listen’ for a clunking, popping or knocking sound. If it’s present, call it into pricing negotiations and arrange to have the problem checked by a Toyota dealer—who will be familiar with it. Note that this may be a safety concern, so be sure to attend to it. Additionally, the problem seems to affect mainly early models, 2006 and 2007.
Next, check the instrument cluster for any warning lights. These should turn off a few seconds after starting the engine. Warning lights may indicate a problem with the brakes, engine electronics, four-wheel-drive system, transmission, or just a loosely-tightened gas cap. If you see a warning light, be sure to determine why it’s lit up. Your favorite mechanic can help.
A RAV4 that’s slow to start and performs poorly may be suffering from a battery that’s about to kick the bucket. If you suspect this may be an issue, budget for a new battery alongside your purchase price. If you take your used RAV4 candidate to a mechanic ahead of a purchase (you should), have them check the condition of the battery to be safe. A pre-purchase mechanical inspection will also tell you if the seller is trying to pass off a badly worn set of tires, brakes or other issues.
2010 Toyota RAV4. Click image to enlarge
Be sure the mechanic also inspects the RAV4’s rear suspension for signs of excessive rust that could be caused by an improperly aligned or improperly installed bolt. Check the level and condition of the RAV4’s engine oil, transmission fluid and engine coolant, too.
Finally, check to be sure there’s no oil leakage in the engine bay of the model you’re considering, especially if it has the V6 engine. The 3.5-litre engine had a well-documented problem with external oil lines that like to rupture and break, spewing engine oil all over everything but the important stuff inside the engine. If this happens to your RAV4, you’ll experience anything from a giant mess to a blown engine. Note that this problem applied mainly to earlier models.
The Verdict: Don’t let Toyota’s largely good reputation for reliable vehicles cloud your judgment when shopping for a used RAV4. Toyota or not, a RAV4 is a machine made from parts and components that will eventually wear down and break. Poor maintenance speeds this process up.
As such, be sure the model you’re considering has been treated to factory-prescribed maintenance measures, as set out in its owner’s manual. Frequent oil changes are important, too.
Since the RAV4’s most worrisome problems are of moderate concern (and easily identified), a pre-purchase inspection from a Toyota mechanic ahead of your purchase is strongly advised. With a two-thumbs-up from a mechanic, you can expect your used RAV4 candidate to be a confident, surprisingly flexible and agile little crossover.