With the introduction of the 2019 Toyota RAV4, the brand’s best-selling model turns up the heat on the very segment it created in the mid 1990s. It looks and is more capable than the previous four RAV4 generations. Yet, it offers more technology, safety and convenience than its predecessors. None of this is by serendipity.
Some improvements can be credited to relentless evolution, but its soul flows from the inspiration of the project leader, chief engineer Yoshikazu Saeki. Before journalists could pepper him with questions at the national media introduction of the 2019 Toyota RAV4, Saeki-san said that he knew everyone was interested on where he arrived at the idea for the next-generation crossover, “In the bathtub,” he quipped.
He was sharing his ever-present sense of humor, but there’s more than a kernel of truth. Much of what he wanted for the next-gen RAV4 came to him organically, through his own experience as a driver. Concentrating on his preferences as a consumer, driver and passenger, he set about creating a crossover catering to a wide American audience.
Saeki takes the RAV4 and its success very personally. “My goal is to always put the customer first,” Saeki said. “How will the vehicle be used? How can RAV4 best accommodate everyone’s needs?”
Wishing to dig a bit deeper, we sat down one on one with Saeki for 30 minutes to get the full story.
With a bachelor’s degree in engineering, Saeki joined Toyota in 1987. As with young engineers at any carmaker, his early engineering assignments began small with specific components, growing in scope to encompass entire systems. Eventually, he began product planning for various models like the Avalon, the Camry and the Lexus ES300. Spending three years at the Toyota Technical Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan, he received his badge in winter driving.
His experience with the RAV4 originated with its third generation, which was released as a 2005 model. He joined the RAV4 project in 2003 as assistant chief engineer, and moved up to chief engineer in 2015.
From the beginning, Saeki refused to rely solely on other input at planning meetings to determine what the American driver wanted and needed. In working on RAV4 over the years, Saeki often traveled from Japan to Toyota’s former U.S. headquarters in Torrance, California. Always refusing to take a cab or hire a car, he would rent a car to experience American traffic and interact with American drivers firsthand. California’s notorious 405 (Interstate bypass for I-5 running directly through Los Angeles) served as Saekisan’s lab as he studied American traffic and the habits of its drivers.
Crossover Versus SUV
According to Saeki, perceptions are key in how drivers feel about a vehicle when behind the wheel. Convinced small crossovers have become too car like, he points to some competitors like Honda’s CR-V, and more recently Nissan Rogue. Is that what people really want? “I stepped back and thought about what an SUV should be,” he told us. Relocating the spare tire to the rear door of the redesigned 2005 RAV4 was primarily to make it look more rugged, more SUV like.
He knows roughly 50 percent of crossover buyers are female. When driving on snowy or icy roads, he wants them to have the confidence the RAV4 will get them safely home. “I wanted you to be able to look at it and feel confident,” he explained. “That’s why the exterior (of the 2019 RAV4) is much more SUV like.”
In that spirit, minimum ground clearance was the first item on Saeki-san’s checklist to be tackled. He increased it by more than two inches to 8.4 inches over the current RAV4. “Ground clearance and especially wheel size really matters in the small SUV market,” he explained. Although the wheel size on the lower grades remains 17 inches, for the upper grades he increased it from 18 inches to 19 inches.
The new Adventure grade is the ultimate in RAV4 SUV-like appearance and capability. Displaying a different face inspired by Toyota trucks, the Adventure not only looks more capable, it (and the Limited grade) gets an all-wheel-drive system including torque vectoring that transfers power from one rear wheel to the other for better handling on and off road.
Camry Versus Corolla
Through its first four generations, the RAV4 used the Corolla’s platform. For 2019, it shares Camry’s TNGA platform. This, Saeki told us, allowed engineers and designers a much greater degree of freedom. With the Corolla platform, they were always working at its limits. With the Camry architecture, there’s more room for development.
Although the wheelbase is slightly longer, the overall length hasn’t changed much, but the newest RAV4 is a bit taller and wider than the current model. The new version also has about 2.5 cu ft. more cargo space.
Keeping It Real
According to Saeki, minimizing driver stress is always a key motivator for him. This covers a lot of ground from negotiating the traffic on the 405 with its network of concrete barrier walls, to providing as much driving range as possible. “I don’t worry so much about miles per gallon,” he admitted. “I think about range. Searching for a gas station in the middle of the night is stressful. I’m always thinking about that.”
Travels on the 405 also inspired the available digital rearview mirror, using a rear-mounted camera to deliver a wider view of what’s behind. “Even when driving the speed limit on the 405,” he said, “cars sneak up on your out of nowhere. It increases driver awareness.”
As with many of the brand’s new models, Toyota Safety Sense with its suite of safety- and driver-assist features is standard. “I’m always thinking” he said, “How do I cater to people who aren’t going off roading? In all of those daily uses I want people to think, I’m glad I chose a RAV4.”