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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

truck-based SUVs.

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

a moment.

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

resources.

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

exploit it.

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

'90s.

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

reality.

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

earth.

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

an option.

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

road) noise.

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.

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