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Future Classic Friday: Toyota RAV4

Published 21 April 2017

The idea of a small, hatchback-sized SUV can trace its roots back to the Suzuki SJ, but it was Toyota that finally bridged the gap between 4x4 styling and road car dynamics.

The RAV4 (which stood for Recreational Activity Vehicle 4-wheel-drive) was first proposed at the 1989 Tokyo Motor Show, with the RAV4 prototype. It had a more utilitarian look than the eventual production car, but many of the styling cues were carried over, as was the ethos of the concept, which was to create a small, fun-to-drive and economical car that would be just as at home inside the city limits as it would be beyond them.

Toyota began selling the RAV4 as a three-door, with a choice of either hard of soft-tops, in Japan in May 1994, with UK sales starting shortly afterwards.  After less than two months on sale, the RAV was such a hit that Toyota doubled its forecast (and its production).

Mechanically, it was quite simple, but also well designed. It used the 2.0-litre, 16-valve, four-cylinder engine already in use in the Carina E and Camry, with permanent four-wheel-drive that used a viscous coupling to deliver drive to both axles, with a bias towards the front.

Toyota RAV4 (2) (1)

While primarily a road car, with a strong focus on dynamics that went against its rugged appearance and tall ground clearance, the RAV4 gave a pretty good account of itself off-road, too. It had short overhangs and was extremely lightweight, while the permanent 4WD offered tenacious grip in slippery conditions.

In March 1995 a five-door model was introduced, with a longer wheelbase and more practical luggage bay, plus seating for five. The bigger RAV4 wasn't quite as agile or characterful as the three-door, but it was an instant hit on the school run, and transformed the model from a fun plaything into a practical family motor, which took sales away from more mainstream hatchbacks and estates.

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so when rivals such as Honda, with its HR-V and CR-V, joined the fray over the next few years, the RAV4 became one of a pack, and throughout the late Nineties and early 2000s, the compact SUV grew to such an extent that it evolved into relative anonymity. It's a fate that has befallen many a trendsetting car. The Renault Megane Scenic and Peugeot 206CC, for example, are cars whose innovation was engulfed by a sea of mediocrity.

Toyota RAV4 (3)

But as the car market has evolved, and the 'Crossover' (as it has become) has morphed into the staple of family car ownership, casting the likes of Ford Mondeos and Vauxhall Insignias asunder, the RAV4 has more than earned its place in the history books.

Love or loathe the market that the RAV4 created, it was clearly an innovator.


f1kwa    on 22 April 2017

I've had my 1998 five door for seven years, I bought it as a 'runabout' but it's become more than that to me. It's very reliable, practical and being relatively light for an SUV it's quite economical too. It also draws admiring glanses and occasional comments all of which tends to suggest this could be a future classic.

Robbutt    on 22 April 2017

I'm on my second Rav4, a mk1 Giant model which is a paragon of reliability and try to offset the higher fuel cost and low mpg against reduced service bills. Sometimes I want to keep it forever as it is used for all the trips to the tip and moving a plethora of stuff whilst I have been doing up the house. Will it be a classic? I am not sure, like all mass produced stuff it takes a while before they become rare and in good condition. I am afraid this will be difficult to achieve for the Rav4 as they seem to go on forever with the minimal of maintenance. Whilst mine has just under 140,000 miles on the clock and is an automatic I would happily jump in it tomorrow and set off to the sand dunes of Morroco if only I could afford the fuel, around 22 around town around 32 on a run. The debate over what to replace it with has been running for the last 18-months!

JFA    on 29 May 2017

I own a 1996 2dr. It is our vehicle we tow behind our RV. Our family owns 4 Toyotas and this is our favorite. Everything works on it . It has 291000 original miles. Everyone comments? on it wherever we go. Toyota owner forever.

   on 11 September 2019

Iv had my mk1 giant for over 2 years and all its needed is front brake pads. The best heater in any car Iv had and the best air con too! If I had to fault it I could only say the electric windows take two months to go up and down other than that I adore it and will keep it until it goes bang

kenneth lawson    on 2 January 2020

we have had our 1998 mk1 for more years than I can remember, it is an auto and has air con. This car has never ever missed a beat, nothing has ever been replaced, (besides oil and filters etc.) and when we retired to southern spain three years ago we drove the 1.300 miles to our new home, and as the car has only done 88000 miles I think it will last for ever !

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