Toyota's RAV4 owns the distinction of being the first bite-size sport-utility vehicle. The RAV4 debuted in 1996 when most SUVs were still unwieldy, body-on-frame beasts. In contrast, the car-based Toyota was small and easy to drive. That it was shaped like a jelly bean hardly seemed to matter. With plenty of sales success behind it, it gave rise to a whole new segment of vehicles often called mini-utes or cute-utes.
Like its modern-day competitors, the 2007 Toyota RAV4 isn't so mini anymore. It's still manageably sized and practical for city use, but now there's room for a V6 engine and a third-row seat -- features that would have been unimaginable in the original. During its last redesign in 2006, the vehicle saw the most dramatic changes of its decade-long history. Not only did this give Toyota's compact SUV a more substantial, less toy-like look on the outside, it opened up 4 more inches of legroom in the second row and 8 more cubic feet of luggage space.
The previous-generation RAV4's 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine carried over and continues to provide adequate motivation for what's now a 3,400-pound vehicle. However, in an effort to attract power-hungry buyers with more flexible budgets, Toyota also slotted a new 3.5-liter V6 into the lineup. The V6 is good for an amazing 269 horsepower and still gives the four-wheel-drive RAV4 a 21/28 mpg rating.
Even with its heftier size, the current RAV4 continues to provide the sharp handling dynamics that made earlier models so popular. While the Mazda CX-7 surpasses it in this regard, the Toyota is still one of the most entertaining SUVs available for less than $30,000. It's also an excellent, all-around choice for singles, couples and young families shopping for a versatile utility vehicle. Other candidates you may want to consider, along with the CX-7, include the Chevrolet Equinox, Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, Hyundai Santa Fe and Mitsubishi Outlander. Of this group, the Honda is the most refined, while the larger Hyundai offers a true midsize-SUV experience for a compact price. The Mitsubishi is the closest match in size and amenities, but even with its new V6, it's not as quick as the RAV4.
In fact, no SUV in this price range can match the straight-line performance of the V6-equipped 2007 Toyota RAV4 -- an advantage that will continue to set this well-rounded compact SUV apart from competitors more focused on utility than fun.