Toyota Rav4 Crawling: Recapping our Build of the Trucklet

Mar. 11, 2009 By Justin Fort


This thing wasn’t supposed to happen. The trucklet was meant to haul snowboarders and 4-year-olds and to be left at Lindberg Field for weeks at a stretch. Imagine a can of cheap Japanese beer: worth drinking, but if stolen from the airport while you’re in New York or some damn place, it wouldn’t matter much. Unfortunately, the little Rav4-that-could wound up mattering to a host of fans it won over in the off-road community. I bonked the living shift out of it on- anf off-trail and it proved to be a skilled little off-roader well worth it’s beans – and a reliable daily driver, to boot.

If the term “quintessential trait” could be applied to a used Rav4, it would ring several traditional Toyota bells: reliable, indestructible, and functional. I was on a quest for a disposable little four-door that could haul people and stuff, remain inexpensive and possibly be all-wheel drive. I searched for a Honda CRV first, checking Rav4s as an afterthought. The Toyota wound up being less expensive and more inviting, and it was pleasant to drive. Short of Honda, Toyota’s rep for reliability was already up there, but I had no idea how well they its stuff would handle the “indestructible” and “functional” department. Some research and I was sold, and along came a five-speed all-wheel drive ’98 with the near-unobtanium center locker. Then $5,500 later, I had the perfect snowmobile.

Had this little thing been bought with off-roading in mind, it might not have been bought at all.  Other trucklets like the Suzuki Sidekick can be adapted to dirt more easily. It was a fluke discovery that clued me into this one’s off-road prowess - on the last weekend of December 2007, the Rav4 hauled a load of firewood, camping gear and one ornery girlfriend to meet some neighborly friends near Truckhaven for a New Year’s Eve of beer drinking, gun shooting, dried-out Christmass Tree burning and a bit of off-roading. I’d not really had a chance to push the Rav4 anywhere near its limits, but this turned out to be one of those serendipitous opportunities, and I discovered what a Rav4 would do with sandy washes and lots of rocks.

Parts & Labor

Suppose you want one of these trucklets for yourself. So what are the upsides? It has 95 percent trail capacity with minimal prep, only stopped by the weirdest, rockiest and lumpiest. It is cheap, effective, never dies, and is always eager.

What parts do you seek? A simple shock & strut lift from Old Man Emu: about 1.5-inch lift in back, about an inch in the front (nose-low, what they call the Aussie-style – Old Man Emu being an ARB product). This hardware was dynamite. It was firmer on the road, more pliable with more travel on the trail, and a serious improvement over the OEM boingers. I had trouble with the back shocks, but it turned out we’d installed them in the factory manner instead of using the Old Man Emu method. My bad. ARB took care of the problem with a replacement set of shocks that have made none of the noises of the first set.

If the trucklet craze continues to grow, maybe a magazine like this could happen? Former editor Jaime Hernandez spent some of his spare time worshipping the trucklet with this cover he designed (right). Hey, it could happen.



Proper tires? I used Dunlops over and over, the RVXT (235/70/16) and then the R/T (225/75/16). The R/T was two-tenths of an inch taller than the RVXT and touched at full-stuff.  The RVXT ate up everything but mud and the really rocky stuff, and was especially potent handling snow (rendering the trucklet nigh unstoppable in the white stuff). The R/T did the rest, making rocks and rough trail a matter of how much clearance I could muster instead of how much traction.

The Armor Craft skid plate was by far the smartest thing we did for the trucklet – bar-none. Cross-eyed PIAAs are visible snuggled in the bumper.

Protection was a necessity. Lots of OEM rigs have respectable shielding, but the trucklet was guarded by a few pieces of plastic that had a hard time telling a stiff breeze “No.” Being as this was a transverse-motored vehicle, you’re covering up the engine and trans at the same time. Rich from Armor Craft built a killer skid plate for that, one that protected between the inboard ends of the lower arms, and from the front bumper aft to the rear lower arm mounts. But it was also removable with eight high-grade bolts and was still strong enough to jack up the front.

Lighting was not a strong suit for the Rav4, so I outfitted proper cross-eyed PIAAs that turned forward illumination into a real 180-degree deal, vertically and horizontally. The PIAAs also did a quality job brightening the oncoming trails down low.  Think “flood,” not “spot.”

Always a requirement but more like religion with Toyotas, regular maintenance was praying at the Altar of Reliability. If it’s going bad, you fix it, and the Toyota will stick with you. The Rav4 was nothing different – stay ahead of the curve and you’ll never experience the catastrophic failures that make vehicle ownership miserable.  I did a fuel pump, some engine mounts, suspension point, the shocks and struts, oil here and gear lube there, plugs, wires, the fuel filter, and checked a bunch of things that didn’t need to be replaced. This was a cherry trucklet when we bought it – thanks, Todd.  Smart shopping will get you into good used vehicles, and smart maintenance will keep them that way.

Parts We Were Left Wanting

One item stands out that we never handled – the front strut spacers, top-outs, or whatever you call them. We’d been planning to build them with Rich from Armor Craft, who’d fabbed up the all-important skid-plate, but our schedules stopped intersecting as the holidays got busy. It would have been a half-day job for a properly outfitted shop, with longer studs in the struts used to reach through 24mm of plate steel (probably two pieces of half-inch plate welded together).  With that, we would have had a hair less than two-inches of lift in front, as much as possible without overextending the half-shafts.

Buried deep in the Cleveland National Forest is the ego of trucks much less capable than this Rav4.

Rav4: Functional Little Off-Roader

So it’s not 100 percent truck. I can live with that. If there’re any missing genes, it’s the lack of a low-range in the gen-one Rav4, which meant the most aggro trails were off-limits. The five-speed made it even more difficult, where an autobox might have squeaked by (though rendering the Rav4 more boring on the street).

The upsides of the early Rav4 were far greater than a few missing parts that were of questionable merit for a car made as a mom-mobile sold primarily for low-impact use anyway. Useful, functional, fun to drive, very capable for a small off-roader with a fully independent suspension, nimble, and readily adaptable to a host of aftermarket parts not exactly made for it, the first series of Rav4s are an excellent little tool for stomping in the dirt. Newsletter
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