(first posted 4/17/2012) My son has made a career out of writing about the car industry, and most of what he’s learned is through his own efforts, but there were a few paternal teaching moments along the way. One sunny late-fall day in 1997, we were walking down the street when we came upon our first-ever Lexus RX 300. I took it in for a minute or two, and then, in the usual fatherly way, imparted words of (hopeful) wisdom and insight: “there, my son, is the future of the car”. True enough, as the CUV segment has been the hottest one since about then, and shows no signs of abating. But despite the broad sweep of my prediction, it still didn’t quite fully encompass the breadth of the RX’s significance.
An automobile that provides that kind of insight doesn’t exactly come along every day, and the RX is no exception. One can argue about what was the first true CUV, but it’s mostly a semantic issue. We’ll look at some candidates below, but as history has shown, the RX300 really was the first CUV as the market has come know and define it. And in so doing, it was perhaps the most revolutionary and influential car of its time, along with its stablemate, the Toyota Prius, which also arrived about the same time. Was this a high point in Toyota’s evolution? Were the Japanese finally no longer copiers, but innovative leaders? And has there been a new car as influential as the RX since?
Yes, passenger-car based all-wheel drive vehicles have been around for a while; it can get pretty messy trying to argue what was the first CUV. The term has been around for some time, and was actually first used for the first time in the 1989 (at least in print) in this book “The Auto Industry Ahead: Tough Times Demand Change”, and is from a quote from a Chrysler spokesperson discussing the acquisition of AMC/Jeep:
Clearly, he’s referring to the Jeep Cherokee and other small AWD utilities/CUVs, like the Blazer S10 and Ford Bronco II. Many might now call those compact SUVs, but their less-trucky size and demeanor were clearly seen in the market to be crossovers, of some sort.
But let’s stick to the current (and my) modern definition: a taller and unique body with available all-wheel drive but sitting firmly on passenger-car underpinnings, and offering passenger car ride and comfort. That excludes the AMC Eagle, which certainly was a legitimate precursor, but lacked the unique and taller body (by taller, I mean the body itself, not just the ride height).
So who gets the honors? How about this oddball, the 1994 Nissan Rasheen? With styling inspired by the East German Wartburg 353, it falls into the retro “Pike” family, like the Pao and Figaro. But it does meet the criteria, more or less.
If the Rasheen is a bit too esoteric and maybe not tall enough, Toyota can certainly take some pioneering honors in the category with its own RAV4, which also first appeared in 1994. Given its influence and widespread appeal, it certainly launched what was then called the “cute ute” category. But it really wasn’t quite a modern CUV, due to its rather jiggly ride and tight accommodations; more like a somewhat-more-civilized alternative to the then-popular Suzuki Samurai and Sidekick mini-SUVs.
It was rightfully Toyota’s 1997 Japanese-market Harrier (typical weird Japanese ad above) that etched the template for all the genuine CUVs to come: medium-sized, very passenger-car-like accommodations and ride, and enough height to set itself up well above mere “cars”.
The Harrier/RX 300 nailed it, with a very right-sized 180 inches overall length, and highly comfortable cabin for four. And its buttery-smooth drive train and velvety ride instantly set class standards that no one has yet to definitively surpass. The RX didn’t just pioneer in the usual way; it instantly set a lofty standard that had everyone playing catch-up.
And the formula is of course very much intact, except for the usual bloat.
Honda’s best-selling CRV is now exactly the same size as the original RX 300, and the RAV4 is even a couple of inches longer than it. The RX has grown in each of its successive generations, but what else is new. Time for a Lexus RX 250?
The RX’s profound influence wasn’t just felt in the US either; it triggered a global phenomenon. I remember well the first review of it in Germany’s auto motor und sport; they raved about it; every bit as much as the American press. And just like in the US, Europe too quickly adopted the CUV format as the hot new thing. For a Japanese car to do that in Europe was a very significant thing indeed. Frankly, there’s no question that this makes the RX300 the most influential Japanese car in Europe, as well as the rest of the globe. The CUV is a global phenomenon.
The CUV has been defined as a melding of mini-van and SUV. Well, that’s a bit of a stretch, or shrink, as the case may be. Whatever; but what it did do is permanently damage both categories, and hard. Old-school SUVs are getting mighty scarce, and the minivan category has been shrinking too for years; dating right about to the time CUVs started to sell well. Needless to say, anyone with several kids is better served with a mini-van, but tell that to Mommy.
Yes, women love that high seating position. And everything else about it. Now there’s hardly a stigma attached to a man driving a CUV anymore, but let’s face it, the CUV is a female car by nature, and represents another growing phenomenon in modern society: the steady rise of women professionals. Or should I say dominance? And I don’t say that as an angry white man. Women really are the superior sex, and the CUV was made to order for them. So I guess my teaching moment with my son wasn’t quite complete. I should have said: “there, my son, is the future of the world”.