Economic Stimulus

Tow Test: Toyota RAV4

The year was 1996, and Toyota was the first manufacturer to create an SUV from car parts. Last year, that model, the RAV4, was refurbished in a slightly larger format without abandoning the original concept of a four-cylinder engine and full-time four-wheel drive propelling a compact unibody.

These mini-utes are perfect for small-boat or waterbike owners because they’re more affordable and fun than real trucks. The combination of rack-and-pinion steering, four-wheel independent suspension, and a tight turn circle (35.4′) gives the RAV4 agility that medium-to-large trucks can only envy.

Toting over two tons of combined weight sounds like a lot for the RAV4’s 148-hp two-liter four-cylinder engine. To see how well that micropowerhouse could handle the load, we hitched up a single-axle trailer and two waterbikes. We were a touch over the RAV4’s towing capacity of 1,500 pounds, but given the lack of mountain grades and high temperatures we planned to encounter, we were confident.


Our test SUV was equipped with a five-speed manual transmission. Although an automatic offers more torque multiplication, which is useful for coaxing heavy loads up launch ramp grades, the RAV4’s driveline shouldered its task without a whimper. The traction available from ordinary Toyo radials energized by the RAV4’s always-engaged single-range four-wheel drive is quite phenomenal. The cold slippery ramp we used failed to elicit even a hint of wheel slippage. And although the RAV4 is no speed demon, it came close to cracking the 10-second barrier during unloaded 0-to-60 runs, and we clocked the burdened sprint at a reasonable 15.8 seconds.

The interior design of the second-generation RAV4 is quite versatile. The rear seats not only carry two large passengers in comfort, they also slide fore-and-aft, provide backrest tilt adjustment, split, fold, and tip forward with ease. To stretch the cargo capacity from 29 to 68 cubic feet to accommodate boating gear, the seats are also easily removed.

Engine 2.0-liter DOHC 4-cylinder
Net hp/rpm 148/6000
Net torque (ft-lb/rpm) 142/4000
Transmission 5-speed manual
Suspension Front strut-type, coil springs
Suspension Rear control arms, coil springs
Tires Toyo Tranpath P215/70SR-16 M+S
Wheelbase (in.) 98.0
Length (in.) 167.1
Width (in.) 68.3
Height (in.) 65.3
Curb weight (lbs.) 3,080
Towing capacity (lbs. max.) 1,500
Cargo capacity (max. cu. ft.) 68
Fuel capacity (gal.) 14.7
0-60 mph acceleration (without/with 1,600-lb. towed load, sec.) 10.2/15.8
60-0 mph stopping distance (without/with 1,600-lb. towed load, ft.) 145/233
Observed towing fuel economy (mpg avg.) 16
Price (as tested) $22,645

LAST WORD. If your towing needs are modest and your budget is tight, Toyota’s RAV4 is the smart alternative to a big truck.