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.
Curbside Capsule: 1987-92 Toyota Corolla All-Trac/4WD Wagon – Wholesome Carib
Our Curbside Classic: 2000 Subaru Forester – The True Cost Of Ownership, So Far
Excellent, Mr S.
Toyota management wanting a mini version of a legendary product in the Cruiser seems quite logical, but it didn’t work out too much for Mitsubishi with the little iO (aka Shogun/Pajero Pinin).
It is rather clever to have begun a new product segment with the invention looking so right, as these still do. Some slight poking and pulling and likely some angry-bastard eyes and you could sell them today. I wonder if there is any individual styling credit?
It’s also right-sized, as proved by the enormous popularity of this size (or so) in crossUV’s today. I get this appeal: it’s the size I’d want myself.
Given the open window and roof and the plentiful pepper tree vomitus on the car, not to mention the battery in the back seat, parking tickets and lack of plates, surely this car is either stolen and abandoned, or it is the result of a failed effort to revive it one last time (also followed by abandonment)? Either way, you need to be careful, young William, as on the 7th photo down, there’s a seriously shady-looking character in a blue shirt watching you from behind…..
Funny as I was actually just thinking of these the other day. I think it’s because the third generation and onward have become so popular here, it seems like there should be more of this very first generation left, as there aren’t many.
I can’t recall ever actually riding in a first generation RAV4, but I knew plenty of people who had them way back when.
I’d love to find a well preserved gen 1 RAV4 with a stick shift (and optional rear LSD while I’m dreaming). For the sort of “offroad” that I do, it is perfectly adequate and a more fitting match than the rather overkill 4Runner I have now. These have a lot going for them to me: “Peak” Toyota quality/design, huge greenhouse, a “true” fulltime AWD system. I rented a Diahatsu Terios in Costa Rica a few years ago which in many ways was very similar: compact unibody 4wd stick shift trucklet without low range (the Diahatsu has a longitudinal layout with a solid rear axle though). I had an absolute blast bombing around jeep trails in that thing, more so than I would have in a larger Prado.
For all their pluses though, it seems like the gen 1 CRV was the clear winner both in sales for that generation and for charting a path forward: larger interior with more emphasis on carrying the family.
It is funny, it never occurred to me until now that I can expound at length on the origins of the minivan but would have been left scratching my head if asked about the first crossover. So thanks for this!
A friend bought one of these but I never got a ride in it. I have long had a minor itch for an original CR-V ( one likely to go un-scratched at this late date) but now realize that one of these would do me just as well. And they were styled quite nicely.
It’s interesting to mention the minivan in the context of the RAV4 as the 1984 Chrysler minivan is widely regarded as a gamechanger with zero competition for many years.
OTOH, the RAV4 was almost immediately met by the similar Honda CR-V, with many others following suit not long after. I suspect it’s all the competition to the RAV4 that inhibits it from garnering the same ‘gamechanger’ reputation as the T-115. I can only surmise that it was much easier for other manufacturers to quickly create their own version of the RAV4 as opposed to creating an identical version of the Chrysler minivan.
I mean, really, what is a CUV but a small, FWD/AWD station wagon with a higher center of gravity? It’s not exactly an engineering marvel but more of a well-packaged, marketing feat.
The problem with “first crossover” is how do you want to define what is a crossover. Some earlier vehicles like the AMC Eagle, 4WD Tercel, and even the Stanza Wagon could qualify as CUV’s. You could even make an argument for the Jeep Cherokee as it’s not a traditional BOF SUV etiher.
To me, the first crossover is the 1998 Lexus RX, because it established the basic formula for the modern CUV that hasn’t really changed at all in 20 years.
A minor aside for most, since it remained a JDM only model, but at the same time as the introduction of the 5-door, Toyota also began offering the 3S-GE in both body styles as the “Type G”. In this application it produced approximately 163 horsepower and 142 pound feet of torque, making for a very useful increase in performance, especially when paired to the manual transmission. Never offered in the convertible body style, it remained in the lineup thru the end of the first generation’s production run.
That would have been a much better pairing, and actually quite fun to drive in that light body, especially with a manual. Honda quickly upped their B20 from 126hp to 146hp after 2 years of CRV sales after widespread criticism of the car being underpowered IIRC.
By modern standards, the first two generations of RAV4 would be considered subcompact CUVs. Even in its time, the 5-door RAV4 was smaller than the CR-V, Forester, and later the Escape.
Excellent review of what will likely be considered one of the seminal vehicles of our time. I’m no fan of crossovers, but examining the niche’s early beginnings is fascinating.
I do have a good bit of appreciation for these early RAV-4s, and actually like this 1st generation much more than the 2nd generation design, which to me looked flimsier. These early RAVs may not be outstanding to drive, but they sure look fun, which probably counted for a lot of their appeal.
Oddly, I noticed a few weeks ago that my local drugstore had a whole bunch of toy cars for sale, and they were RHD 1st generation RAV-4 convertibles. One of my kids actually bought one. Very random thing to see in Virginia.
I saw one of these just a few days ago being piloted by a middle-aged woman. It got me to thinking that Subaru seems to have found a female demographic with their brand, while the RAV4 is probably the only Toyota product that you see driven primarily by women.
I have never driven one of these, but have driven several gen 1 and gen 2 CR-Vs. I can see why men might avoid them as they can be cramped feeling inside.
Of the half dozen Toyotas that we’ve owned over past 25 years all but one have been my wife’s daily driver. This includes a Celica, two Camrys, a Highlander and the 2017 RAV4 that is her current vehicle. The other Toyota was a Solara that I drove for a few years back in the late oughts. I have only limited experience with previous generations of the RAV4 but the one we have is well suited for our purposes. I only drive it occasionally, other than on vacation trips, but I find it much less fatiguing to drive than the Highlander. After driving the Highlander on a trip it would take me a day or two to readjust to my Mustang; this is not the case with the RAV4.
There’s still a fair number of them here, which attests to their inherent longevity and usefulness.
One of my co-workers who is also a farmer has one just like this. Combination of 5-speed and 4WD is perfect for his off road needs of crop touring in the summer and getting out of snowy unplowed rural roads in the winter.
It is indeed a little cramped inside, but holds two tall guys, a bunch of tools and a bag of soybeans just fine. I don’t think you can buy anything like it now.
The neat thing about these 1st gen Ravs (and maybe 2nd gen too?) is that the rear row of seats is easy to remove entirely out of the car, leaving a surprisingly large and tall cube of usable space.
Didn’t know that about the removable seats. Doesn’t that qualify it as a minivan or truck rather than a car? I remember that was the case with the PT Cruiser.
It might explain how Toyota was able to get away with that rear spare tire carrier as a ‘bumper’. I distinctly recall how Consumer Reports gave the RAV4 a very low rating because of how that rear tire carrier would smash the rear window glass in a low speed impact.
The RAV4, like most other CUVs, achieves “light truck” status despite being car-based not because of its removable rear seats, but because of its light off-roading capabilities.
This status must be location specific. All the SUVs/CUVs we have had (Bronco II, Pathfinder, RAV4, QX50 and 2 Foresters) have all been classified here in BC as “wagons” and their plates could be moved between “cars” and the CUVs. They also meet the passenger car safety requirements while light trucks are exempt from some, and even more when you get to the 3/4 ton and up range.
Also surprising how capable these can be off road; I figured my ’09 Forester could take me to 90% of the places my ’02 Pathfinder could. Both used in my forestry consulting business, so pretty serious use. Almost 9″ of ground clearance helps tho…..lack of low range being the big inhibitor. The RAV with only 7″ not so much, not that my wife would let me take it off pavement anyway lol.
If I ever find a convertible in good nick with a 5-speed, I will own it.
There is someone in our building that owns a white 1st gen RAV4 which does not look its age at all. It is a fair bit smaller than the 2011 3rd gen that we have. While certainly not a enthusiast’s drive by any means, it does what it was designed to do very well. Personally, I think the 3rd and 4th gens hit the sweet spot of big enough, without being too big. It is also the easiest thing that my 5’0″ wife has ever driven, short of her not-at-all lamented Chevettes.
I was a fan of the Suzuki Samurai like open 2-door configuration, they were more common in the Chicago suburbs than you’d expect them to be. I would have never thought they’d be the hottest vehicle on the market 20 years later, but then 8 year olds don’t have the best foresight.
There’s a certain sense of ‘just right’ about the styling of these first-gen RAV4s. They’re distinctly different from anything else on the road and still seriously attractive. Later models have filled the market segment all right, and sold, but have totally forgettable styling; I can’t even be bothered checking what they looked like.
I had no idea how rare the two door was, all I knew was that the neighbor’s Rav4 was super cute. When they offered to sell it to me at an astonishing friend price there was no denying its place in our stable. After realizing what a unicorn it is, we had it repainted and installed Lexus es300h wheels & performed at least 20 years of deferred maintenance all at once.
It would be ideal if it was a body-on-frame vehicle like a Samurai or Geo Tracker, but it’s good enough for the mean city streets.
Our Rav4. Apparently images must be edited to tiny proportions before they’ll post. I wonder what the max allowable dimensions are?