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

Toyota is often a cautious company, generally focused on maintaining their reputation for quality and reliability and avoiding costly mistakes and unnecessary risks. When they do try something different, however, they have a habit of reaping tremendous rewards. Just look at their Hybrid Synergy Drive or the first Lexus RX or this, the first-generation Toyota RAV4.

Toyota’s own RAV4 (Recreational Active Vehicle) is generally credited as being the very first crossover. There had been others that approached the concept in the past. For example, the AMC Eagle had four-wheel-drive underpinnings beneath a passenger car body; the Matra Rancho had passenger car underpinnings under an SUV-styled body albeit with no option of all/four-wheel-drive. Even Toyota’s own Sprinter Carib (aka Tercel and Corolla All-Trac) had wed four-wheel-drive hardware to a passenger car platform.

The RAV4, however, introduced the modern concept of the crossover — a unique, taller body on a passenger car platform with the option of all/four-wheel-drive. What makes a “true” crossover is purely academic, however, such is the nebulous nature of a group of cars interchangeably called crossovers and SUVs. Moreover, some of today’s crossovers are little more than regular hatchbacks and wagons with a smidgeon extra ride height and some cladding. In that context, an AMC Eagle seems more a crossover than a Buick Regal TourX.

The RAV4 was introduced in Japan in 1994 and arrived in the US for the 1996 model year, narrowly beating the Honda CR-V to market. Development started in 1989 and the RAV4 was first previewed at the 1989 Tokyo Auto Show with the RAV Four design study. Strip away some of that cladding and you can roughly make out the shape of the production three-door RAV4, which was previewed in near-production form in 1993.

The first RAV4 used elements of existing Toyotas: an engine borrowed from the JDM Carina and Camry ranges, suspension and transmissions from the Celica GT-Four/All-Trac, and other mechanical components like the steering from the Corolla. Unlike similarly-sized and priced SUVs, the RAV4 used unibody construction and four-wheel independent suspension (struts up front, unequal-length A-arm at the rear). In markets like the US, the RAV4 was available in either 2WD or full-time 4WD with a locking center differential and an optional limited-slip rear differential. Even with 7.5 inches of ground clearance and optional 4WD, the RAV4’s off-road repertoire was limited to light trails and paddocks and the like. There were no low-range ratios like in more rugged rivals.

Not that it mattered. For many buyers, off-road ability came a distant second to style. The 1980s had seen the rise of the SUV with cars like the Jeep Cherokee and by the 1990s there were plenty of fashionable, compact off-roaders like the Isuzu Amigo and Suzuki Vitara/Sidekick. Chief Engineer Masakatsu Nonaka reportedly hit roadblocks getting the RAV4 to market as some Toyota executives thought creating an entirely new segment was a risky move. The “sensible” thing to do would have been to create a mini-LandCruiser of sorts to rival the Isuzu and Suzuki. The smart thing to do, however, was to give SUV buyers what they wanted – unique styling, the option of four-wheel-drive, the high driving position – while also giving them things they didn’t realize they could have, like passenger car levels of comfort and dynamic ability.

The only engine was a 2.0 double overhead cam, 16-valve four-cylinder producing 120 hp at 5400 rpm and 125 ft-lbs at 4600 rpm. Transmissions were a five-speed manual and a four-speed automatic. Although the 2.0 produced around 20 ft-lbs less than the 2.2 in the “wide-body” Camry (Scepter in Japan), the RAV4 weighed around 500 pounds less. Though compact crossovers have drained the life from mid-size sedans lately, the first RAV4 was considerably smaller than its descendants. Three-door RAV4s had an 86.6-inch wheelbase, five-doors a 94.9-inch span. For context, the E100-series Corolla had a 97-inch wheelbase and measured ten inches longer overall than the five-door RAV4.

A two-door convertible variant was introduced in 1998 but Toyota soon realized the salad days of drop-top two-door SUVs were over. When the second-generation was launched, the convertible was nowhere to be found. Even the regular three-door only survived for another generation, the market having coalesced around the more practical, family-friendly five-door wagon format.

Although the RAV4 got off to a good start in the European market, the first-generation model was consistently outsold by the cruder if more rugged Suzuki Vitara (Sidekick). Not so in the US where Toyota’s little crossover wiped the floor with the Suzuki. Toyota’s North American operations waited until 1996 and the introduction of the five-door RAV4 to roll out the range, the Toyota reaching the market at the same time as the body-on-frame first-generation Kia Sportage.

Regardless of the market in which it was launched, the RAV4 took some explaining. It was unibody like a Jeep Cherokee but based on a car platform. It was sized and styled similarly to a Sportage but it wasn’t body-on-frame. It was priced close to rivals from Suzuki and (outside North America) Daihatsu but it lacked their off-road bona fides. But though the RAV4 was an unfamiliar concept to buyers globally, it became a hit in markets as far-flung as Japan, Australia and the UK – in its first couple of years in Japan, it sold almost 100k units annually. It didn’t have this niche to itself for long, the conceptually similar Honda CR-V and Subaru Forester soon following it, but Toyota had the first-mover advantage.

With a relatively spacious interior, expressive styling, available all-weather traction, and car-like, even fun handling, the RAV4 was a sensible if somewhat pricier alternative to something like a Corolla wagon. With the RAV4, Toyota showed you didn’t have to put up with a crashy ride and tippy handling if you wanted an SUV. Today’s RAV4 has grown in every dimension but it still follows the basic concept of its ancestor and buyers have only become more enthusiastic about that concept with the passage of time. Toyota took a chance and it paid off handsomely.

Photographed in Spring Hill, Brisbane, QLD in April 2018 and Inglewood, CA in September 2018.

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