Home » Here’s Why The First Toyota RAV4 Beats The Honda CR-V In Snow

Here’s Why The First Toyota RAV4 Beats The Honda CR-V In Snow

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It’s been snowmageddon lately for basically anyone east of Des Moines, and the snow built up on the roads and your local municipality’s horrible inaction to plow the streets may have you wondering “Should I eschew my sensible hatchback for a beater old-school crossover with all-wheel-drive?”

No! Or yes, I don’t care, it’s your money, and you ain’t asked me to pay for it, so knock yourself out. If I thought with logic, I probably wouldn’t have purchased nearly 50 cars over the years, of varying conditions with nearly no real significant value to anyone who isn’t that strange combination of weird and boring.

Anyways, as controversial as crossovers can be with some enthusiasts, the extra ground clearance and available AWD are really handy for pile-driving through snow drifts and just being above all the road slush nonsense. [Ed Note: Provided you have the right tires, obviously. Don’t be this guy.-PG] So much so, that basically, the entire Autopian crew is seemingly perusing the online classifieds in search of first-generation Honda CR-Vs and Toyota RAV4s.

Now, as a guy who has owned (and lost money on) a 2001 Honda CR-V EX, and driven plenty of RAV4s, they’re both fine little crossovers. But, if you’re looking for a real go-to AWD system, one reigns superior—and it’s not the Honda.

Toyota Rav4 1996 1600 06

Photo: Toyota

See, maybe I am biased; for some reason over my nearly 50-car tenure, I have had the weirdest bad luck with Honda products. I’ve owned three Civics, one of which I’ve lost money on, and currently I’m pretending that I didn’t buy a 2011 Honda CR-Z last year that I haven’t figured out how to start. My 2001 Honda CR-V was a crapwagon, likely of my own doing. A less-seasoned 21-year-old me purchased one with a busted transmission and spent three months replacing it myself, only to realize I had aligned everything wrong, leaving me with a terrible, terrible driveline vibration that caused me to pull the propeller shaft, cut my losses, and sell it as a FWD CR-V. 

Still, my inexperienced, incompetent fucking-over-of what was at one point a nice crossover, my opinion still stands. The Honda CR-V is merely okay.

Now, we love its available manual transmission (mine was an automatic, but I owned it at the same time a friend of mine had a Manual AWD car), smooth B-series DOHC engine, and Pixar-car-esque huge glass area and great sightlines, but the AWD system is kind of, uh, maybe mid.

The CR-V uses Honda’s “Real-Time 4WD” setup, which is a clutch-based viscous setup that clutches in the rear axle when the front wheels are slipping too much. In normal use, it’s generally fine for many normal drivers, allowing you to just power out and get unstuck in snow or mud that would probably trip up any sedan.

But, if you ask it to do more than that, you’ll probably be disappointed. 

Honda Cr V 1997 1600 04

Photo: Honda

For starters, the RT4WD, especially on the early generation vehicles, employs a viscous coupling that can’t be locked manually; it relies on the dual pump fluid getting hot enough to engage the clutch to make the rear wheels spin. Meaning, the front wheels need to spin at least a little for the rear axle to come on. Not ideal for slow-going obstacles where you’ll need AWD to be engaged from the start. It can be annoying when it cuts in too, as you’ll start out with wheelspin, only for the rear wheels to suddenly gain power and traction after a moment of spinning. Fun, but not always usable.

Second, the dual pump fluid that controls the coupling can overheat during use. To prevent damage, the rear axle will uncouple to let the fluid cool back down, meaning, you’ve just got the front wheels doing all the work. Basically, the rear wheels are designed to get you unstuck, then quietly turn off when you’ve regained traction.

I mean, for most folks, the CR-V’s limits are well within the bounds of what people expect from a compact crossover. Honda has sold millions of the damn things, and the RTAWD system is a popular swap for Honda fans seeking to mitigate traction issues in high-powered Honda projects. But, there’s an alternative that was way, way better off-road: the original Toyota RAV4.

Toyota, in its all-seeing wiseness, ported the same rally car AWD system found on its Celica All-Trac coupe. Maybe the rear differential is smaller, but given the RAV4’s measly 120 horsepower, it doesn’t matter, right? The early RAV4 came with a full-time AWD setup, even available with a rear LSD on some models. The center differential can be locked in 50-50 mode, although on some automatic transmission models Toyota cut that feature, meaning the AWD system will always operate in auto mode. Either way, it’s a more capable system than what the CR-V got.

Personally, I’m partial to the RAV4. It’s not as roomy, and that 2.0-liter four-cylinder is a fuel-swilling dog, especially with the automatic transmission, but it’s a dog that will go a surprising number of places. It’s tiny inside compared to the CR-V, but arguably the RAV4 is better at emulating an SUV than the CR-V ever was. The RAV4, Suzuki Sidekick, and Ford Escape are a crop of early SUVs/crossovers that had a surprising amount of capability for a car-based crossover. If you’re in search of a good off-roader, get the RAV4, not the CR-V. 

Anyway, I’ve probably said too much. Let me get to perusing the classifieds for a 5-speed AWD RAV4 before they all disintegrate and return to the earth.



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29 Responses

  1. i passed 2 of those down to the step daughter, still run and drive fine. she parks them now she is working from home.

    i upgraded to the 2004. pretty happy with that one too.

  2. Had a first gen CR-V in the family for about 2 years.

    Absolutely horrific in the snow. Could not climb the hill that was regularly trod by by 2 wheel drive vans in any sort of weather.

  3. Yes, the Rav4’s AWD with a center diff lock is a bit better than the CRV’s system, but still lacks one important thing: low range.
    The Rav4 is a decently capable all-rounder vehicle, but neither of these are ‘good off-roaders’.

  4. We’ve owned our 2000 CR-V SE for over 20 years. It’s is a valued and beloved member of the family. Living in Colorado it never let us down in the snow. Other vehicles have come and gone but the Honda remains my wife’s favorite if only for the flat front floor that affords space for purses and other essentials as opposed to those with big center consoles.
    My only objection is the road noise. Tried most every type of tire over the years to no avail. I’d have to tear out the interior and DynaMat it to make a dent in that but that’s not going to happen. At this point the Honda is mainly our around town car.

  5. Not only all the above, but the first gen RAV4 was also offered as a 2 door convertible!! Once I’m done with my Peugeot in 2-3 years I need to find me one with AWD and a manual of course!

  6. And worse, many Honda dealers even refuse to sell you the FWD version and force you to buy the useless AWD. Even newer CR-V’s have garbage AWD that’s just there for show. This 2014 got its ass handed to it by a Ford Escape:

    Also, I love the first-gen Rav4. It looks cool whether as a 4-door hardtop, 2-door hardtop, or a 2-door convertible. It came with the 3S-FE, so a 3S-GTE swap should be easy 😀

    And the first-gens of these small crossovers is all awesome. Good size, good reliability, big windows, decent mpg (except Subaru LOL). The first-gen Rav4, CR-V, Forester, and X-Trail are all cool, even if the Forester leaves a bit to be desired in terms of reliability.

    NOTHING beats a 90s Toyota!!!

    Sadly, only the Forester keeps the virtues of the older small crossovers (it still has real windows and even the giant sunroof), though it has gotten much better for reliability and mpg, even if it can’t quite match Honda and Toyota).

  7. “The CR-V uses Honda’s “Real-Time 4WD” setup, which is a clutch-based viscous setup that clutches in the rear axle when the front wheels are slipping too much….it relies on the dual pump fluid getting hot enough to engage the clutch to make the rear wheels spin.”

    So it’s neither viscous nor does it work by fluid heating. It’s a geroter loop where pressure is built up with speed difference. The pressure is routed to a clutch pack to increase clamping load. The clutch is the friction added. With a Viscous system the viscous coupler is the friction adder. You got the bulk of it correct where it’s a dual pump system, but the pumps build pressure not heat. I mean, they build heat like anything does, but they work on pressure.

  8. I also am always looking out to replace my 1996 RAV4. I will never find one that meets the list and isn’t a wreck, but Im always on the lookout. Mine was a manual with the center locker (a functional dog clutch locker, not clutch based) and the Torsen rear LSD. Holy crap that thing was a donut machine in the snow. It had the WORST understeer though; It’s just too light and if you lock the center diff you make it way worse. The good news is that its just a blip of the throttle back to oversteer. The other good news is that it was light enough that I could take it just about anywhere, even on packed snow that would easily sink heavier stuff. Whats funny is that my current car, which is still a 90’s Toyota but as far spiritually as possible from the RAV4 (Land Cruiser) has the exact same switch for the center diff lock. The only difference is the RAV4 came with it standard, with the Cruiser, I had to buy it and instal it myself (no late model 80 series came with the button, even though it had the wiring for it pre-installed. They just made it lock automatically when you went to low range, and stay unlocked the rest of the time.)

    1. I keep my old 2004 TJ around for winter storms like this one. I have some gnarly tires and a LSD in the rear. A long term plan for it is to swap in a NP242 from an XJ into it. Of course, that is if I can mate that to the NV3550 or an AX15. Since I don’t do any rock crawling, I don’t have to worry about the 242 being slightly weaker. A TJ with the option of awd just sounds awesome.
      This storm was bad enough in my area that we were totally blocked in for 48 hours. On Christmas day, the weather broke enough that between my John Deere and the neighbor’s Kubota, we were able to clear the major drifts. We were without power for just over 5 days. Thankfully, the generator I bought last year was up to the task.

  9. Sorry this contest is about which car sucks less. For $5k you can get a decent Isuzu Vehicross with a decent 3.5 GM motor and a Borg Warner 4 wheel drive, leather interior, isuzu quality build and distinct styling. Why would you buy a mall crawler?

    1. Vehicrosses are kinda unicorns, though. I’ve only seen one like three times ever, and it’s been the same one each time. They’re thin on the ground, and the people who have them, have them because they specifically wanted the weirdest-looking off-roader they could find.

      1. I mean, there are exactly three for sale within 1,000 miles of me as far as I can tell, and they all look beat to absolute shit. Also, the cheapest one is $7,000.

      2. There is one at an apartment complex near me. I always look for it when I drive by. Someday maybe I will see a for sale sign on it. Isuzu was having fun at that time. The Vehicross and Axiom were both odd ducks. Id love to have one of each in my dream “Fleet of Mediocrity”

  10. I believe the first gen highlander shares the AWD system? It is at least actual full time AWD with a center diff. Regardless they’re both way more legit than the Honda, which has a disappointing AWD system. Just look at the rear CVs and it’s obvious…

  11. The transmission and drivetrain work so well in the Gen 1 RAV4 as they are derived from the 1988 – 1995 Corolla alltrac 4wd mechanicals. Some alltrac owners have been bolting the rav4 parts straight in for a little more ground clearance and the rear lsd. Even the butting on the centre diff lock is identical.

  12. When Toyota was designing the original Rav-4 they were essentially trying to make a world wide small Land Cruiser/ Land Cruiser Prado family member, and thus why it had full time AWD and a center locking diff. To my knowledge the GX460 and Land Cruiser/ LX570/600 are the only current products in Toyota’s line up with an actual locking diff. Everything else has evolved to electronic controls and fake locking diffs.

    The first gen Rav-4 is marvel because they actually tried to make a truly capable car that carried family DNA, but as most things go they continued to style the rav-4 to look like a smaller Prado, but realized there was no point in making it as capable as one any more.

  13. I’m not generally a fan of mini-crossovers, but we got a 1-2 feet of snow last night & I saw my neighbor’s sedan snow plowing down the road. The extra inch or two of ride height on these crossovers & the AWD would be great for days like today. That said, I’d still probably look at a mid-size SUV or truck. But in a Shitbox Showdown, I’d go for the RAV4.

  14. You should watch Papadakis Racing’s channel on YouTube, the guy there bought a manual 2-door first-gen RAV4 and built it into a pretty cool little off-roader.

  15. I am all for small, capable vehicles. Much preferred the size and style of the ’90s RAV4.

    But, to be honest, I want to read more about the CR-Z! Please provide an update when you have one.

  16. I bought a 2002 CR-V in 2014, attempting to save some $$ as our second child was on the way. At the time I was driving a leased Optima and was dangerously close to being over miles. I got out of the lease and paid cash for the CR-V to keep our monthly expenses low.

    Worst vehicle decision of my life (and I have owned a lot of vehicles). The AWD was terrible in the snow. Driving on the highway in slow traffic during a snowstorm and it constantly felt like I was going to get stuck. The car seat didn’t fit in the back without the seat all the way forward. Finally, 5 months in to ownership, the Car Gods told me something when a ball joint broke at 45mph, pulled me across 4 lanes of traffic and into the ditch on the other side. Miraculously, nothing was harmed except the CR-V. Towed it to the Mazda dealer, took whatever they offered on trade and drove away in a Mazda 3.

    The crazy part- I test drove a RAV the same day I bought the CR-V and chose the CR-V for the sight lines and comfort. Worst decision ever.

  17. My folks bought a CR-V the first year they came out, then couldn’t get rid of it fast enough- with the base engine it was unbearably slow through the hills. The V-6 RAV4 that followed it was a lot more enjoyable to drive, but dang did you pay for it at the pump.

  18. well, I can recall my mom getting a 2001 Ford Escape v6. I thought it was terrible, but she liked it, never had an issue with it and when she went to trade it in the dealer offered her quite a bit less than I thought it should go for, so I bought it from here to winter beat on. the FWD to Auto AWD was pretty great, the ground clearance helped as well. outside of the notorious Ford spark plug throwing issues tat hit this one as well (heli-coil to the rescue) I really never ha any major issues either and drove by many “better” SUV’s on many a Des Moines snowy road. I ended up selling it to a band guy in need and he took it at 179K miles and still drives it at over 300k miles, but i know he eventually had to put in a lower mile LKQ 3.0. That thing got 21MPG as I recall. Probably an anomaly, but still surprising what these early 2000’s Crossovers could do.

  19. I know it isn’t a great off roader, but god I do have a soft spot for the 1st-gen CR-V. It was my first car (debut year with the anemic engine, automatic, 210000mi). I had room for a beater a couple years ago so I hunted down a single-family-owned, fully documented, ’99 manual. I loved the damn thing. So open and airy on the inside. Everything you need and nothing you don’t. The folding picnic table under the rear trunk floor, the lifting tailgate glass, the visibility, and the huge amount of storage space was amazing. I also am a huge fan of the exterior styling especially from the rear. Clean and simple, boxy in all the right places, exterior spare, plastic cladding before it was really cool. Love em!

  20. I loved our ’99 CR-V, such a fun little buggy of a crossover after some of the larger vehicles we had. I always liked the slightly scrappier look of the same gen RAV-4 though, and the 2-door is frankly adorable. Learning about the drivetrain differences was interesting, I figured the Toyota would be more robust but wow!

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