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I Think the Original Toyota RAV4 Is Kind Of Cool Now

I recently came across an original Toyota RAV4. The 1990s one. The very first-generation model with the available 2-door version and the tiny 4-cylinder engine. It was in perfect shape: a well-maintained, clean, 4-door model in the press-color blue. And I realized something: I think this RAV4 is kind of cool now. See the used Toyota RAV4 models for sale near you

That’s right. I’m saying that I think the original RAV4 — a front-wheel-drive, Corolla-based compact SUV with 120 horsepower — is kind of cool. But before you tell me that I’m absolutely insane, that I’m in the wrong profession and that my sense of what’s cool is so off-kilter that you’re worried my next DougCar will be a 2001 Honda Accord Coupe (which, let’s be honest, is also kind of cool), hear me out.

First off, some history: The original RAV4 came out for the 1996 model year to vast critical acclaim. Automobile Magazine named it Automobile of the Year. This would be a hugely important victory for the RAV4 if the magazine hadn’t also given the same award 3 years earlier to the Dodge Intrepid.

Initially, the RAV4 was viewed skeptically as a Toyota interloper, crashing the party of tried-and-true, body-on-frame off-roaders such as the 4Runner and the Land Cruiser. Eventually, Toyota softened the styling and made it bigger, and sales really took off to the point that I believe every single person on my block now possesses a Toyota RAV4, including people who initially wanted a pickup truck.

But it’s the first RAV4 that especially stands out to me, and one of the reasons is its styling. Just look at it! There’s none of that cheeky "I’m cute!" stuff you get from the later models. This one is boxy, capable-looking and simple, just like an SUV should be. Its design runs circles around the original Honda CR-V, which came out the following year and now looks as though it actually debuted many years earlier, back when sticks were the preferred method of starting a fire.

And then there’s the durability. Even though we weren’t sure of the original RAV4 at first, it’s surely proven itself by now. There are currently 20 listed on Autotrader with more than 200,000 miles on the odometer, including a one-owner ’99 model with 232,624 miles and a big dent on the front fender — a love dent.

Plus, who doesn’t love an SUV that offered an awkward 2-door version for only a few years before it went away due to laughably bad sales? And who doesn’t love an SUV that came with a stick shift? And who doesn’t love an SUV that got 21 miles per gallon in the city and 24 mpg on the highway … 20 years ago? And who doesn’t love the fact that there was an electric version? An electric version! With a 75-mile range!

Clearly, the original RAV4 was ahead of its time. And if I happen to run across the one I saw again, I might just leave a note on the windshield asking to buy it. It was, after all, Automobile of the Year. Find a used Toyota RAV4 for sale

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Doug Demuro
Doug DeMuro writes articles and makes videos, mainly about cars. Doug was born in Denver, Colorado, and received an economics degree from Emory University in Atlanta. After graduation, Doug spent three years working for Porsche Cars North America. Eventually, he quit his job to become a writer, largely because it meant that he no longer had to wear pants. Doug’s work has been featured in a... Read More about Doug Demuro

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21 COMMENTS

  1. I just saw this now.  And I’m shocked . I was thinking the same way exactly and that’s why I just bought low milage 1998 rav4 5 speeds manual.   I can’t belive it but I’m excited to drive an suv lol 

  2. I am the second owner of a 1997 Rav4 L AWD. It had about 40,000 mile when I bought her.  She is still going strong today at 145,000 miles. She is one of the most reliable cars I have ever had. I have run over signs on a highway when i was slipping in a snow storm. Medians, etc and she takes a licking and keeps on ticking! They dont make them like her anymore unfortunately. I will keep her until she no longer runs. 

  3. I have a 2 door manual transmission 1998 RAV4. I love it! I drive about 60 miles a day and it’s great in the snow, on gravel roads and everywhere else. With just 132,000 miles on The Green Goddess hopefully we will be riding together a while longer.

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