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A Look Back at the Toyota RAV4

Today’s small crossover SUV market is filled with well-known names like the Honda CR-V, the Ford Escape, the Chevy Equinox and the Nissan Rogue. But in 1996, only one name filled this segment, the vehicle that helped start the small SUV revolution in this country: the Toyota RAV4. First shown in Japan as a concept and later as a production vehicle, the RAV4’s odd-sounding name is actually an abbreviation for “Recreational Activity Vehicle with 4-wheel drive.” Though not all RAV4’s were actually 4WD SUVs, the idea of a small, rugged, fuel-efficient and reliable utility vehicle clicked instantly with the car-buying public, and the rest is history. Of course, there were other small SUVs before the RAV4, namely the wildly popular Suzuki Samurai and Jeep Cherokee, but neither had a very good track record of reliability, fuel economy and, in the case of the Samurai, safety.

The RAV4 Comes Ashore

The RAV4 first arrived in Japan and Europe as a 3-door SUV with standard all-wheel drive and a choice between a 5-speed manual or a 4-speed automatic transmission. The RAV4 had enough ground clearance to help it tackle modest off-road adventures and even offered an optional center-locking differential to prove the point. By the time it was introduced in the U.S. in 1996, a 5-door version was added, offering more rear-seat legroom, a better ride and more cargo space. Before the RAV4, American SUVs were thought of as big, gas-sucking giants meant for hauling families and trailers. In fact, the smallest of the lot would have been the Jeep Wrangler, which by RAV4 standards was still pretty big. Unlike the Jeep, however, the RAV4 was built from a car platform (hence the term “crossover”) with a modern suspension and a sophisticated 120-horsepower 16-valve 2.0-liter engine.

In 1997, Toyota created the first electric RAV4, a move designed to satisfy California’s strict new zero-emissions laws. In 1998, the RAV4’s horsepower increased to 127, and a convertible version was introduced on the 3-door model. By 2000, sales of the 5-door RAV4 remained brisk, but the 3-door hardtop was discontinued because of lagging interest, although the soft-top version carried on another year until the second-generation RAV4 debuted.

Alone No More

By the time the second-generation RAV4 arrived in 2001, the field of competitors was deep, with such well-known names as the Honda CR-V, the Kia Sportage and the Ford Escape now racing to compete. The second-generation RAV4 left the vehicle’s cute-sy image behind. In its place was a more sophisticated crossover SUV with a more powerful 148-hp 2.0-liter motor. Around the world, the 3-door RAV4 continued production, but for the U.S. market, the 5-door was our only option. Unlike most of its rivals, the RAV4 retained its unique one-piece side-opening rear door and large plastic cover for the rear-mounted spare tire. In 2004, a lager 2.4-liter engine good for 161-hp debuted, along with vehicle stability control.

Beyond wildly successful sales numbers, something else about the RAV4 began standing out to Toyota executives. According to registration and survey data, the second-generation RAV4 proved exceptionally popular with women drivers, opening up a whole new marketing strategy for Toyota.

Compact in Name Only

The third-generation Toyota RAV4 arrived in 2006 bearing very little resemblance to the original version. Bigger, more powerful and more Americanized, the RAV4 now offered an optional 3.5-liter V6 borrowed from the Toyota Avalon sedan. With 269 hp, the RAV4 was one of the most powerful small SUVs available at the time. Also new that year was an optional third-row seat, giving the RAV4 a leg up on its competition by offering room for seven passengers. In 2007, front-seat side-impact airbags and 2-row side-curtain airbags became standard, while the 2009 model brought a more powerful 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine that bumped horsepower to 179 hp.

New options included a navigation radio, a rear backup camera and proximity keyless entry. The RAV4’s exterior was also updated during this run, and features once reserved for the top-line trims continued to migrate to lower grades, including the JBL audio system, Bluetooth and the power moonroof. Transitioning to the third generation, the RAV4 lost both its manual transmission and its rear-mounted spare tire, but it gained nearly 14 inches in length. In 2012, a joint venture with Tesla Motors revived the RAV4 EV, which had an estimated range of 113 miles.

A Cleaner, Leaner RAV4

In 2013, the fourth-generation RAV4 arrived as a leaner, cleaner model designed to regain some of the sales lost to the smaller and more nimble Honda CR-V, Ford Escape and Subaru Forester. The V6 engine was dropped, as was the third-row seat. The RAV4 displayed a more sophisticated look with more than a passing resemblance to the latest Lexus designs of the day. The RAV4’s length was shortened, and the side-opening rear door was jettisoned in favor of a traditional liftback design. Power for the 2013 RAV4 came from a single source: a 176-hp 2.5-liter engine paired with a new 6-speed automatic transmission. In 2014, the RAV4 received more high-tech features, including new Entune infotainment systems with apps, a blind spot monitor, rear cross-traffic alert and lane-departure warning.

In 2016, the first RAV4 Hybrid debuted, pairing the 2.5-liter engine with three electric motors for a combined output of 194 hp and an EPA-estimated 34 miles per gallon in the city and 31 mpg on the highway. The system, borrowed from the Lexus NX, provided much faster acceleration than the standard gasoline model, shaving nearly 2 seconds off the RAV4’s 0-to-60 mph time. In 2017, Toyota’s TSS-P driver-safety suite was made standard on every model and included pre-collision braking, adaptive cruise control, automatic high beams and lane-departure alert. A new Platinum trim was added to the lineup, with high-end features like a heated steering wheel and a foot-activated power rear lift gate.

The year 2018 marks the final for this generation, as well as the introduction of another new trim, the Adventure grade. This model was Toyota’s attempt to meet the challenge posed by more off-road-capable SUVs like the Jeep Cherokee and the Subaru Forester. The Adventure adds more ground clearance, larger wheels and tires, heated seats, a heated steering wheel and front wiper de-icers. A new Tow-Prep package increases the AWD model’s tow rating to 3,500 pounds.

Ready to Take on the World

The year 2019 is bringing the all-new fifth-generation RAV4. This version promises to be the best RAV4 yet, with more room, more power and more off-road capability. A 200-hp 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine paired with a new 8-speed automatic transmission will power gasoline models, while Limited and Adventure grades will feature an advanced AWD system with Toyota’s Rear Driveline Disconnect, a system that can electronically disconnect the rear wheels from the driveline, reducing drag and improving fuel economy. The hybrid models will be the most powerful to date, and will be marketed with an eye to performance as well as fuel economy. The 2019 RAV4 is scheduled to arrive in dealerships this winter.

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Joe Tralongo
Joe Tralongo
Joe Tralongo is a longtime contributor who started in the industry writing competitive comparison books for a number of manufacturers, before moving on in 2002 to become a freelance automotive journalist. He’s well regarded for his keen eye for detail, as well as his ability to translate complex mechanical terminology into user-friendly explanations. Joe has worked for a number of outlets as... Read More about Joe Tralongo

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  1. We have a 03 model rav that is still going strong after 200,000 miles, and a 13 model. They have both been great vehicles.

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