1997 Toyota RAV4, 1997 Honda CRV
Is there a less appropriate term than "sportutility vehicle"?
A mid-size station wagon has as much people and cargo room as
most SUVs. So much for utility.
Sport? Not in any automotive context. A 2,000 kg truck with an
eyeball-level centre of gravity? C'mon.
But the smash-hit success of Toyota's RAV4 in the United
States since its debut in April — from an initial projection of
35,000 units, it's currently tracking at 60,000 suggests
"sportutility" may no longer be an oxymoron.
It also indicates that a sliver of sanity may be descending
upon this market segment. The RAV4 offers considerable "ute", a
fair degree of "sport", plus the traction,
visibility-generating high seating position, safety features and style
these otherwise illogical consumers demand, without the weight,
bulk, uncivilized dynamics and atrocious fuel usage of
If further proof of a burgeoning small-SUV market is needed,
Honda has rushed its sportute contender, the CRV, into
production for a January, 1997 onsale date. Details on that in
RAV4 (for Recreational Active Vehicle, 4-wheel drive) began as
a concept vehicle at the 1989 Tokyo Motor Show. (It was spelled
"RAVFOUR" back then — maybe fewer letters in the badge mean
less weight and cost.)
Wheels contributor Jody Ness suggests the pronunciation
should be "rave", rather than "rav", considering the enthusiasm
with which it has been received. Maybe Toyota feared buyers
would take some Ecstasy and drive all night. (If you don't get
that, ask anybody under 25.)
Masakatsu Nonaka, the RAV4's chief engineer, is a motorcycle
fan; the Tokyo show car had an enduro bike inside it. His point
was that a vehicle could serve many purposes but still be
carlike in performance, and in its consumption of space and
Nonaka had a tough time convincing Toyota's conservative
management that a market existed for something like RAV4, and if
so, that it was worth developing the unique platform needed to
The phenomenal reception RAV4 has received, in Japan, Europe
and the U.S., is proof his vision was correct. Canada gets its
chance later this month when it hits our streets.
A large part of RAV4's appeal is styling. Its tall, narrow
body and upswept window sill line are unlike anything else on
our roads. While Toyota expected it to attract young people, the
average age of buyers in the U.K. has been something like 46. As
Alfred P. Sloan Jr., the genius behind General Motors' success
in the '20s, once said, "You can sell an old man a young man's
car, but you can't sell a young man an old man's car."
RAV4 comes in short-wheelbase two-door and longer (by 21.0 cm)
wheelbase four-door versions, with front-wheel or full-time
four-wheel drive, five-speed manual or four-speed automatic
transmission. All permutations are available from the factory;
each importing division of Toyota selects from the menu the
combinations it thinks it can sell.
Based on the U.S. experience, where only 3 per cent of sales
have been of the two-door four-wheel drive version, Toyota
Canada has decided against bringing it here. Too bad I. It's by
far the most interesting from a sporting perspective. Nonaka
says a 160 horsepower engine is offered in Japan, but it's not
certified to meet our emissions laws. Too bad II.
Americans have overwhelmingly chosen the four-door, four-wheel
drive autotranny iteration. Initial orders by Canadian Toyota
dealers are running about 70 per cent that way as well,
suggesting consumers aren't looking for a mini-ParisDakar racer
but a cheap Cherokee. In other words, more utility than sport.
The Canadian RAV4 fleet will consist of the shorty in
front-drive only and the four-door in either drive-train, with the
automatic an option on all but front-drive four-doors, where
it's the only transmission offered. Got that?
A 120 horsepower 2.0 litre twin-cam 16-valve engine generates
excellent performance and vastly better fuel economy than most
SUVs. It also generates considerable noise, something
largerdisplacement Toyota fours have been known to do when not
equipped with balance shafts ( cf. Celica). My test cars were
1996 U.S.spec models; our 1997 model year RAVs will have added
sound insulation in the firewall, which should help.
The suspension MacStruts up front, an exclusive-to-RAV
independent setup at the rear is tautly but supplely sprung,
resulting in a firm but pleasant ride and handling that has led
British car magazines to dub the RAV4 the Volkswagen GTI of the
Chunky 215/70 Bridgestone tires on 16-inch wheels help give
RAV4 19.0 cm of ground clearance. While it will hardly challenge
a junior Jeep for mountain-climbing ability (there is no
low-range transfer case ratio), it'll handle any cottage road or
snow-filled ski cabin laneway you'd ever conceive of tackling.
Manual transmission cars have a driver-switchable lock-up
centre differential if extra grip is needed; an automatic
speed-sensing electrically activated multiplate hydraulic clutch
does the duty in autobox RAVs. A Torsen-type limited-slip rear
differential is optional with either transmission.
Stepin height is very modest, a huge issue with the female
audience that makes up a big part of RAV4's target. Flashy
upholstery apart, the interior is nowhere near as dramatic as
the exterior more '70s than '90s. In typical Toyota fashion,
it's ergonomically sound and well finished.
The cabin is narrow, but headroom is ample. The rear seatback
splitfolds forward for cargo, or rearward to make a sort-of
bed, once the headrests are removed. The right-side hinged rear
door can't close when the seats are fully reclined, though, so
you'll either be sleeping al fresco or partially upright.
Prices haven't been announced, but the range in the U.S. is
US$15,000 (two-door, front-wheel drive) to US$22,000 (loaded
four-door auto 4×4 with air and ABS). A straight application of
current U.S. dollar-loonie exchange rates makes that roughly
CDN$20,000 to CDN$30,000, which I'm guessing won't be far from
Options like anti-lock brakes and air conditioning, plus
accessories like a hardshell spare tire cover and decorative
aluminum side sill tubes that look like rocket launchers will,
according to Toyota, let customers customize their RAV4 to their
own ends. That this strategy means a lower advertised list price
and added profit potential for their dealers, I'm sure, never
crossed their minds.
The pricing doesn't sound unreasonable compared to the
outrageous amounts people are throwing at Grand Cherokees and
Explorers which, in the final analysis, don't really offer much
more, except, possibly, status.
If RAV4 sets the new standard for SUV chic, the image pendulum
might finally swing to vehicles that can still go anywhere
you'd reasonably want to go, but with far less impact on the
But before Toyota dealers flip their kids' college education
funds into Muskoka cottages in anticipation of massive RAV4
profits, they should be aware that Honda's CRV could well prove
RAV4's worst nightmare.
CRV is Civic-based, but you'd never know it because it's
bigger than that and bigger than Toyota RAV4
It's unlike Honda to be a trend-follower rather than a
trend-setter, but the CRV concept vehicle at the 1995 Tokyo auto
show showed they are a quick study. Given the speed with which
the car has reached production, it's likely the goahead had
already been given by the time the car hit the show circuit.
CRV debuted in North America as a concept car at the Detroit
show last January. That car's gaudy, most unHonda-like chrome
lower front fascia (beneath the grille) has been dumped in our
production version. Good news, because it was really ugly. Bad
news in that it leaves the CRV with nowhere near the visual
impact of its Toyota competitor.
CRV is Civic-based, but you'd never know it; it looks and
feels bigger than that. It's also bigger inside than a RAV4,
most notably in width. The rear seatback splitfolds forward,
as in RAV4, but doesn't recline as far sleeping isn't really
We will get CRV only one way: four-door, full-time four-wheel
drive, four speed automatic transmission. The engine is a new
twin-cam, like the RAV4 displacing 2.0 litres but generating
more power (128 versus 120) and more torque (137 poundfeet
versus 125). There's no great subjective difference in
performance, but the Honda has considerably less engine (and
Shades of Odyssey, CRV's autobox is governed by a
column-mounted shifter, allowing a minivan-like walk-through into
the rear. It also allows for a hinged table with two cup
recesses that pops up between the front seats. My Japanese-spec
tester had it — it's cool but it won't be available in Canada
until "later". Honda doesn't say exactly when.
Honda measures CRV's ground clearance at 20.5 cm, 1.5 cm more
than RAV4 despite one-inch-smaller tires. It sure doesn't look
as tall off the ground as the Toyota; perhaps they measure from
a different point.
I drove it on the same off-road course I tried in the RAV4.
CRV had only a slight problem, needing a second chance to
handle one steep, dirt-surfaced hill, which wouldn't be
attempted in a passenger car by anyone in his right mind. I
guess that excludes me.
CRV's ride is even more car-biased than RAV4's, at least
partially due to the less aggressive tires. Honda's usual
light-footed handling is much in evidence, although since this was
a Japanese and therefore right-hand drive vehicle, I was hardly
up to tossing it around corners with my usual abandon.
With its style and handling, the RAV4 is the sportier choice.
But if the utilitarian aspects of these small SUVs are what
counts getting the kids to hockey practice, regardless of
weather, and the sales mix of RAV4 in the U.S. suggests they are
then on first blush, CRV has the advantage over the Toyota,
with more space, power and quietness.
Jim Miller, Honda Canada's senior vice president, automobile
sales and marketing, expects CRV to price out in the
mid20,000's. It'll come fully equipped, with auto, air, ABS,
cruise, and power everything.
RAV4 and CRV are the first salvos in a battle that looks set
to escalate. Ford is working on a Contour-based SUV, due around
the turn of the century. An even smaller Escortbased vehicle is
currently slated for Europe, but if the Japanese are successful
here, you can bet Ford won't be far behind.
Suzuki and General Motors will claim that the new
alphabet-soup competitors are simply following their lead: the
Sidekick, Tracker/Sunrunner joint venture. It takes about 10
metres of driving either RAV4 or CRV to disabuse yourself of
that notion: both are vastly more comfortable and carlike than
the microtruck-based Suzuki. Perversely, the added marketing
effort Toyota and Honda will throw at their cars might bring
such vehicles into more people's field of vision; a rising tide
lifts all boats.
Above the manifold virtues of both of these vehicles, anything
that deflects consumer interest from huge, gas-guzzling trucks
is okay by me.