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Video review: Project RAV4X4 hits the open road

by Drew Johnson

We're reviewing like its 1997.

It's taken a grueling four months, but I've finally fixed everything that was wrong with my 1997 Toyota RAV4. Well, when I say "everything,” I mean everything that I actually care to fix, but let's not get bogged down with the details.

And with nearly all of the mechanical issues sorted, I decided it was high time to get my RAV4 out on the road for a proper first drive review.

What is it?

If you haven't been following along, allow me to introduce you to Project RAV4X4, which is just a 1997 Toyota RAV4 at this point. But soon enough, it'll be a hardcore off-road machine with a lift, a wrap and some cool driving lights.

What's it up against?

My mechanical skills and desire to see the project through.

What's it look like?

Unfortunately, it still looks like a worn out 1997 Toyota RAV4 at this point. But check out those upgraded taillights I installed!

And the inside?

The inside of the RAV4 is a master class in simplicity. Four-zone climate control? How about just four switches for the entire HAVC system?

While that kind of simplicity is refreshing in an increasingly complex world, Toyota might have taken the idea a step too far. That's because in its minimalistic approach, Toyota omitted a lot of important stuff, like storage space and cup holders.

But does it go?

If you keep the RAV4's rightmost pedal fully depressed, it will eventually go.

When new the 1997 RAV4 had just 120 horsepower, and I'm not confident the whole herd is still present. Acceleration is lethargic off the line, but the little four-cylinder under hood actually does a decent job of building power above 4,000rpm.

But any gusto is likely down to weight rather than power. At just 2,800 pounds, my RAV4 is a Lotus compared to new compact SUVs.

That lack of weight also makes the RAV4 a decent handler. Steering obviously isn't the best, but without much weight to move around, the RAV4 is eager and willing to change direction quickly. The RAV4 doesn't feel sporty, but it certainly feels more nimble than some of its modern counterparts.

My 1997 RAV4 also has much better outward visibility than modern SUVs. Since people in the 1990s didn't care about roof strength standards, all of the RAV4's pillars are toothpick thin, so there's glass everywhere. It almost feels as though you're driving around in a greenhouse. Come to think of it, my RAV4 is probably as safe as a greenhouse in a rollover accident.

My biggest complaint -- well, second biggest, just behind having to share one cup holder with four other people -- is the interior noise. I've heard drum solos quieter than the RAV4's interior. But in its defense, it is a 22 year old car that's traveled the distance to the moon, so it was likely quieter in its younger days.

Leftlane's bottom line

The 1997 Toyota RAV4 is a small SUV that has some features, but not many. It's loud, not particularly safe or fast, but would make for an excellent grow house in a pinch. And now I shall turn it into a monster truck.

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