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Used Toyota RAV4 review: 1994-2000

If you’d nodded off in the late-1990s and snoozed through the next decade or so you’d be amazed at the change that had taken place on our roads while you were off in slumberland. Back in the late-1990s there would have been a lot of four-wheel drives on the road, sure, but nothing like as many as there are now.

When you went to sleep a typical four-wheel drive was a huge monster that was built to conquer the toughest conditions it might encounter in the bush, but there’s been a revolution in the past decade or so and the majority of four-wheel drives are now much lighter wagons that are more likely to be seen on the school run or supermarket scramble than the outback.

The vast majority of four-wheel drives now sold rarely leave the bitumen, and the result is a new generation of wagons with the high viewpoint of a four-wheel drive, but with more safety and better handling and comfort than the traditional off-roader. The trade-off is in their off-road capability, but if you don’t plan to go bush that’s immaterial.

Toyota’s RAV4 was one of the first so-called soft-roaders to cash in on this trend. It was conceived as a funky little multipurpose wagon that looked good round town, and was still quite capable if its city slicker owner decided to go away for a weekend in the bush or to the beach.

In subsequent years the RAV4 has grown into a vehicle that is more likely to transport the family as four-wheel drives have gained in popularity as alternatives to boring station wagons.

MODEL WATCH

The RAV4 was shown to the world for the first time at the 1989 Tokyo Motor Show, but it didn’t become a production reality until early 1994, the year it arrived here.

The first RAV4 was really aimed at the funky few, who wanted to look like they went bush or beach while they cruised around the trendy suburbs of our major cities.

At first it was only available as a compact, a short wheelbase three-door hardtop, although it would also later become available as a long wheelbase wagon.

It boasted the same monocoque construction we normally associate only with regular cars, and that gave it strength and rigidity. It also allowed designers to create front and rear crumple zones which gave it better crash protection than most regular four-wheel drives, and with side intrusion bars and optional airbags it was quite a revelation in off-roader safety.

Monocoque construction was not only a boon for safety it also provided a stiff and stable platform on which quite reasonable handling could be built. Of course the high centre of gravity meant its handling could never be as sharp and precise as a normal family sedan or wagon, but it was clearly a step up for ponderous four-wheel drive wagons.

Power came from a 2.0-litre double overhead camshaft fuel-injected four-cylinder engine that developed a healthy 96 kW at 5800 revs and 180 Nm at 4400 revs, which was enough to give the RAV4 punchy performance on or off the tarmac.

There was a choice of five-speed manual or four-speed auto. The rear diff was a limited-slip unit, and drive was constant four-wheel drive, with a centre diff that could be locked when greater traction was needed in rough going.

Under the curvaceous skin there was independent suspension that delivered a comfortable ride with quite reasonable handling, along with quite competent off-road capability.

Brakes were a combination of disc front and drum rear, and ABS was available as an extra-cost option.

Inside, the RAV4 was typically Toyota, neat with quality plastics and cloth-trimmed buckets for the front occupants and a flexible split-fold bench in the rear.

Flexibility was a key to the RAV4’s interior. The rear bench seat could be split and folded to provide plenty of carrying capacity, and if needed all four seats could be laid flat for overnight accommodation.

Mud flaps, body side protection mouldings, power steering, a radio/cassette sound system with four speakers, and tilt steering column came standard, while options included antilock brakes, air-conditioning, sunroof, driver’s airbag, a Cruiser dress-up pack, and a Safety Pack.

RAV4 grew up in 1995 when Toyota added a long wheelbase five-door wagon to the range. It wasn’t then just a fashion statement; it had become a practical full-sized family wagon. Its appeal was widened even further in 1998 when a three-door soft-top was added to the range.

IN THE SHOP

Mechanics report few problems with the RAV4. Older cars with higher mileage may show some minor oil leaks from the engine, but these are routine rather than cause for concern.

The engine is basically the same as that in the Camry, which has shown itself to be quite trouble-free. Same goes for the drive line, although one mechanic reported two instances in which the manual five-speed was jumping out of fifth due to wear in the ‘box. Both instances were at quite high mileages.

Interior trim stands up well to the ravages of the harsh local sun, so expect little deterioration inside.

Likewise the exterior stands up quite well, but it’s worth checking the body and underbody thoroughly for obvious signs of bush bashing. On the outside look for scratches down the sides, heavy dust in door jams, hinges and other body equipment, while underneath look for bashed in bodywork, flattened exhausts and dings on suspension components. So few RAV4s have gone offroad in any serious manner that you’re unlikely to find much damage.

The trade reports that the cost of body components is quite high, even with components like reflectors, tail light lenses, and bumpers etc., so it’s worth making sure none of these need replacing.

As always look for a service record that shows consistent servicing that can be verified.

LOOK FOR

• good blend of on-road manners and off-road capability

• good visibility from high driving position

• strong and stiff construction

• comfortable ride and acceptable handling

• funky styling

• good reliability

Pricing

Year Price From Price To
2000 $2,400 $6,160
1999 $2,400 $5,500
1998 $2,400 $5,500
1997 $2,400 $5,280
1996 $2,400 $5,610
1995 $2,400 $4,840
1994 $2,400 $4,400

View all Toyota RAV4 pricing and specifications

Pricing guides

$3,400
Based on third party pricing data
Lowest Price
$2,400
Highest Price
$4,400

Range and Specs

VehicleSpecsPrice*
(4X4) 2.0L, ULP, 4 SP AUTO 4X4 $2,600 – 4,400 1994 Toyota RAV4 1994 (4X4) Pricing and Specs
Graham Smith
Contributing Journalist

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