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2004 compact suv buyer's guide - comparison shopping for women, sport utility reviews
by Martha Hindes

Toyota RAV4
Toyota RAV4 SUV

"WOW" was a catch phrase for Toyota's RAV4 when it first graced the small sport utility world a few seasons ago. (I remember chasing after an early test version spotted on the road in the only possible color. Red.)

This quirky combo of cute and practical is now a standard resident in many garages. No doubt its catchy looks (cartoon whimsy, say some) has tickled more than a few motoring fancies, hence its spot in our newest "cute ute" lineup.

Now, the start of its second generation as an '04, brings some fixes in function, plus design updates, with arched roofline, new head and tail lamps, fresh changes in exterior colors and a more car-like interior. Most welcome is a larger, more powerful 2.4 liter, four-cylinder engine with 161 horses and more accelerating gusto through low to higher speeds. Barely a memory is the unimpressive 120 horsepower, 2.0 liter engine it used at it's original launch.

Also new on this truck-based utility are some serious safety features. Among them, an anti-slip stability system
designed to keep tires rolling on their intended course.
Rear disk brakes were added to shorten stopping distances. But the smoother-riding independent suspension it was born with didn't need a change.

For folks who like the "hands on" control and outright fun of a stick shift, there's still a five-speed manual transmission as well as the expected four-speed automatic.

RAV4, capable of serious off-road travel as well as comfy highway cruising, sneaks under our arbitrary pricing wire with a base just under $18,500 (four-door, two-wheel-drive). Those with loftier tastes can load it with extras, particularly with the sport package. The goodies list includes leather seating and steering wheel, side curtain airbags, 16-inch aluminum wheels, power moonroof, rear spoiler and that luscious JBL Premium sound system found on upmarket Toyota models. Optional leather shift knob and front fog lamps add punch.

Yes, you could spend some serious bucks with all those extras. But a RAV4 aficionado might tell you even the basics are nice. After all, it's a Toyota.