Before the first Toyota RAV4 was launched for 1997, small SUVs were bare bones machines. They were great off-road, but left a lot to be desired as daily drivers. The RAV4 changed that notion forever. With its car-like ride, nimble handling, comfortable interior, and easy-to-use four-wheel drive system, the RAV4 began the trend to making SUVs behave more like cars. The first generation Toyota RAV4 design was sold from the 1997 to the 2000 model year. It was available as a 4-door hardtop and as a 2-door semi-convertible, both with front-wheel drive and as a 4X4.
Indeed, the RAV4 was not just designed for all-weather highway use. High ground clearance, a torquey 2-liter 4-cylinder engine, available single speed four-wheel drive, locking center differential, and optional rear limited-slip, also made early RAV4s quite capable off-road.
Toyota vehicles are known for their quality, and the RAV4 is no exception. MotorWeek’s Pat Goss says that first generation RAV4s had no major problems. Minor issues included late automatic transmission upshifts when cruise control is engaged, and a brake clicking noise. Both are considered normal. One warning about RAV4s, and most modern SUVs. If you do break down, have it towed on a flat bed to prevent transmission damage.
As for prices, considering their quality, used RAV4s are quite affordable. 1997 models are priced between $5,600 for a 2-door front-drive, and $8,000 for a full-up 4-door 4X4. Only the 4-door was available in 2000, priced from $11,600 for front-wheel drive, to $13,100 for 4-wheel drive. A new RAV4 starts around $19,000.
So, if you’re considering a small SUV as a second or third family car, and you want a reliable vehicle to get you through the winter and that you can have some dirt-digging fun, we think a 1997-2000 Toyota RAV4 will be a fine, and very affordable, trail to take.