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Phase One of Project RAV4X4 is in the books [Video]

by Drew Johnson

And now the fun begins.

Perhaps winter wasn't the best time to start a project. Between the frigid temperatures in my uninsulated garage and all the travel to various auto shows and first drive events, I haven't had much opportunity to work on my 1997 Toyota RAV4, aka Project RAV4X4.

But finally, nearly four months after my initial purchase, I've reached a major milestone in my quest to turn a normal crossover into an off-roady SUV -- it no longer gushes oil.

Basically, I've spent whatever free time I could find over the last four months just trying to get everything baselined on my RAV4. After one month of toiling away I'd managed to fix a broken gas tank strap, change out the water pump and timing belt, clean the interior and install a new radio. But with most things in life, it was one step forward and two steps back.

A leak I thought was coming from the oil pan was actually coming from the oil pump, located just above. And in order to replace the oil pump gasket, you have to take most of the motor apart, including the timing belt I spent days installing.

Since I was getting pretty tired of working in the RAV4's front passenger's wheel well, I decide to just change the entire oil pump assembly. At $45 the new oil pump was a lot more than just a new gasket, but I was happy to shell out the money knowing I'd never have to think about it again.

With that headache out of the way, I was able to tackle a lot of the RAV4's other needs that didn't require as much effort. I changed just about every fluid the RAV4 has (transmission, front differential, rear differential and steering). Next up was a tune up that included new spark plugs, spark plug wires, air filter and PCV valve. That last bit was unexpected (I snapped it off when disconnecting hoses on the valve cover) but it turns out that the book calls for a new PCV valve, which is part of the vehicle's emissions system, to be installed every few years, so I'll call that an accidental win. And at only $15, it wasn't a huge pill to swallow.

I then splurged on a set of taillights on eBay. My lenses were in fine shape, but I just far prefer the look of the 1998 and up rear lights on the RAV4. Unfortunately Toyota also changed the taillight bulb type in 1998, so the new lights required cutting and splicing of the RAV4's wiring harness. But it all went together without much fuss and I think the new lights are a good cosmetic upgrade for $70.

Finally, it was time to install a brand new exhaust system from the manifold back. The front and the rear sections of the new exhaust system went on without much fuss, but the same couldn't be said for the middle bit. That's because I had accidentally ordered a mid pipe for a shorter two-door RAV4 model. Luckily Amazon sells everything, so the correct pipe was installed two days later.

Several shakedown miles have revealed a couple of remaining oil leaks, but nothing major. The power steering pump also feels like it might be on its way out, but since that pumps lives in the cursed passenger's side front wheel well of the RAV4, I'll leave that issue until I actually have to address it.

So with Phase One of Project RAV4X4 in the books, it's on to Phase Two -- modification. I'll start with the lift kit before moving on to the Ivan "Ironman” Stewart wrap and then the KC driving lights. With any luck, I'll finish Project RAV4X4 just as winter ends and it becomes pleasant to work in an uninsulated garage.

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