Curbside Outtake: “Suddenly It’s 1997” – Ford Expedition and Toyota RAV4 – Two Contrasting SUV Pioneers

It’s easy to forget that the SUV era we live in goes back a ways. Like 1946, actually, although that was just the beginning. But the seeds planted with that first Willys Station Wagon yielded a highly unexpected bumper crop; more like an invasive species that has come to dominate the market.

There were a number of key milestones in the expansion of that market segment, but arguably the key one was 1996-1997, when two key segment players appeared that would quickly dominate their respective sub-segments: the 1996 Toyota RAV4 and the 1997 Ford Expedition. And here’s two survivors of each at the curb to remind us of that pivotal time.

The Expedition was the first “tweener” full-size SUV, bridging the gap between the two-doors (Bronco, Blazer, Ramcharger) and the long Chevy Suburban. It turns out our Ford identified a vast gap indeed; more like a grand canyon. The Expedition was a huge (literally) success, and quickly gained a rep for its outsized profits for Ford of over $10k per unit, thanks to its very prosaic F-150 underpinnings and half its body. What a formula for success!

The Expedition ignited a huge fad for large 4-door SUVs that has only grown, along with their size. Due to its popularity, the Expedition became something of the poster boy with a target on its back from the anti-SUV contingent. They were attacked for all the obvious reasons, not that it did any good. Folks have just given up and now they’re driving…RAV4 hybrids.

My presumed shot of the RAV4 turned out to be a dud, but you know how these looked. Along with the Honda CRV that arrived one year later, they defined the segment that has come to be the most popular in the country, and much of the world: the unibody “compact CUV”. They were a lot more compact back then than they are now, but the name has stuck. The RAV4 has been the best selling non-pickup in the land for some years now, with the Tesla Model Y breathing down its neck.

The RAV4 has grown a lot more since these two first appeared than the Expedition, adding 17″ of length (163″ to 180″ currently), whereas the current Expedition is only 4″ longer  (210″ vs. 206″) than the original.


Related CC reading:

Curbside Classic: 1946 Willys Jeep Station Wagon – The First Modern Station Wagon and SUV

Curbside Classic: 1997 Ford Expedition – My Introduction To Excess

Curbside Classic: 1994-2000 Toyota RAV4 – Light Trail Blazer