Toyota RAV4 guide

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Buying a Toyota RAV4
The original Toyota RAV4 was introduced back in 1994 and can take the credit for creating the modern compact SUV. This class has seen enormous growth ever since and, with the model now on its fourth incarnation, there are a host of imitators fighting it for market share.

But the RAV4 Mk 1 nearly didn’t make it to showrooms at all. Although it was previewed by the RAV Four concept at the 1989 Tokyo Motor Show, Toyota spent four years deliberating over whether to put the car into production. Booming sales from the start showed it made the right decision and the RAV4 has since grown into one of the most recognisable SUVs, on and off the road. Stuart Morton from Auto Express takes us through what to consider when looking for a RAV4 Mk 1.
Toyota RAV4
Which one to buy?
At launch in June 1994, the RAV4 was only available as a three-door. This didn’t deter buyers, who were instantly drawn by the chunky looks and jacked-up ride height. But they no longer had to compromise on practicality from March 1995 when Toyota introduced a five-door that was 400mm longer. A soft-top was also added in February 1998, although this is now very rare.
The regular three and five-doors provide plenty of room up front, but while access to the rear is obviously easier in the five-door, there’s not that much back seat space in either model. Boot space is reasonable and the low lip makes loading easy, although the side-hinged tailgate can be a pain to open in tight parking spaces.
Toyota RAV4 engine
Under the bonnet
There was only one engine option — a 2.0-litre 16-valve four-cylinder petrol, sourced from the Celica. Toyota hadn’t really developed its diesel engines in the mid-1990s, but this petrol engine delivered a reasonable mix of performance and efficiency. When hooked up to the five-speed manual gearbox, it promised 0-60mph in around 10 seconds and 30mpg fuel economy. The rare four-speed automatic wasn’t quite as fast or frugal.
The interior of the Toyota RAV4
As it’s fitted with permanent four-wheel drive, the RAV4 is reasonably capable off-road, although it’s not intended for the kind of challenging terrain a Land Rover Defender takes in its stride. A locking differential was an option, but there was never a low-range gearbox. The 4WD system comes into its own on grassy tracks or in wintry weather, but the suspension isn’t really designed for hardcore off-roading.
Buyers had a choice of GX and VX specifications at launch, with the GX featuring twin sunroofs and electric mirrors, while the VX added luxuries such as alloy wheels, leather seats and a roof spoiler. A host of special editions joined the range later in the Mk 1 RAV4’s life, while more equipment was added as part of a revamp of the range in 1998. But all versions will be looking quite dated inside now. Don’t forget that early cars are around 20 years old, and the materials and internal layout show it.
Toyota RAV4 rear-view
You can pick up a well-used RAV4 Mk 1 for under £500, but even mint examples only fetch around £2,000. Just bear in mind that the youngest cars are going to be approaching 15 years old, so they’ll have fairly high mileage.
As with all Toyota models, the RAV4 won’t be especially cheap to service and parts can be expensive compared to those from other brands. But the company’s reputation for durability is deserved and most owners report that their RAV4 rarely breaks down if properly maintained.
Owners pay a flat rate of £225 a year in road tax — for now, at least — as the RAV4 Mk 1 pre-dates the emissions-based Vehicle Excise Duty regulations introduced in 2001. And the 25–30mpg fuel economy many drivers report isn’t bad considering the age of the engine. All models also sit in insurance group nine, so premiums should be competitive.

Toyota RAV4 three-door
Reliability has been a real strength of the RAV4 over the years. It was named Britain’s most reliable car in the Auto Express Driver Power 2002 satisfaction survey and has a reputation for running forever as long as it’s well cared for. But even though you can now buy a RAV4 for banger money, you should still carry out the same checks you’d do on any potential car purchase.
Look through the service history and ensure this and any old MoT certificates verify the mileage. Also make sure the recall work has been carried out. Toyota called the RAV4 back once over a potential front coil spring fracture that could damage the tyre.
Also look for signs of rust around the sunroofs and in the footwells — some owners have reported leaks in these areas. Uneven tyre wear is a fairly common complaint, too. Most examples of the RAV4 won’t have seen any terrain rougher than a farm track, but always check for signs of underbody damage just in case.

Toyota RAV4 soft-top
The original RAV4 is showing its age now and tidy, low-mileage examples are becoming increasingly rare. But do your homework before you buy and this workhorse off-roader should still provide years of reliable service as a family car for all kinds of terrain — and for a fraction of the price of a more modern SUV.
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