First drive: Project RAV4X4 is finally done [Video]

Time to take the finished product for a spin.

Six months ago I began a two-week project to turn a normal first-generation Toyota RAV4 into a mini monster truck. Obviously I went a little over schedule (OK, a lot over schedule), but alas, the project is done. And to commemorate the completion of Project RAV4X4, I decided to give it a first drive review.

The biggest reason Project RAV4X4 went 22-weeks over schedule was because I underestimated how long it would take me to sort out the mechanicals. I spent months fixing various leaks and replacing vital components just to get my $1,500 RAV4 into fighting shape.

Unfortunately, my RAV4's strong mechanical health isn't readily apparent on the road. The engine does seem to run a little bit smoother and a whole lot quieter (no surprise there since the engine is now connected to the muffler), but there's no extra pep in its step; it feels just as slow as the day I bought it.

But there has at least been a change in its ride and handling. Even though the Old Man Emu lift kit I installed raised the vehicle by a little over an inch, the thicker springs actually prevent the vehicle from leaning as much as it did on its stock coils. And the new shocks and struts I installed along with the new springs have improved the vehicle's ride over rough surfaces.

Braking has also improved thanks to new hardware at all four corners. And not only does the car stop noticeably shorter, but brake pedal feel has improved, too.

But the biggest improvement, by far, is the vinyl wrap. Without it, Project RAV4X4 is just a $1,500 car that isn't worth a first look, let alone a second. But with it, it's a parking lot hero that garners attention from everyone. And it's just impossible not to smile as you're driving around, staring down at a white, yellow and orange-striped hood.

There really isn't anything I'd change if I had to do Project RAV4X4 over, but there is one thing I would add -- sound deadening. NVH tuning wasn't what it is today back in 1997, and 250,000 hard miles have only compounded the issue, so the interior of Project RAV4X4 is rather loud. It booms over bumps and rattles over rough pavement. But there is surprisingly little tire noise, especially given the aggressive tread on Project RAV4X4's all-terrain tires.

Now that Project RAV4X4 has completed its maiden voyage on-road, it's time to get its tires dirty. I'm still working out the details, but an off-road first drive of Project RAV4X4 will be coming soon. So be sure to check back for that and, in the meantime, you can browse through my RAV4X4 playlist to get caught up on the project's progression.

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