Toyota RAV4 History: A Closer Look at the Popular Crossover’s Heritage

Although it was born in an era dominated by minivans and sedans, the Toyota RAV4 continues to prove it has staying power. The crossover has experienced a long and twisty road to becoming Toyota’s best-selling vehicle in the U.S., and now, is the RAV4 is preparing to enter its fifth generation. Here, we take a look back at one of the most influential crossovers in history.


The Idea

If the RAV4 were a person, it would call itself a millennial. The small crossover made its debut in 1989 as the RAV Four concept at the Tokyo Motor Show. In 1993, Toyota revealed a revised version of the concept that would more closely resemble the final production version. The idea was simple: Create a vehicle that mixes the light off-road capability of an SUV with the on-road comfort of a passenger car. The spirit of this vehicle was captured in the seemingly random RAV4 name, which actually means “Recreational Active Vehicle with 4WD.”


First Generation: So Many Variants

At last, the production RAV4 arrived in Japan and Europe in 1994 followed by the U.S. in 1996. Here, it was powered by a 120-hp 2.0-liter four-cylinder gas engine paired to a standard five-speed manual or available four-speed automatic. The vehicle was offered in two- and four-door versions. Globally, Toyota sold nearly 300,000 copies of the RAV4 in its first three years on the market, a small number compared to the more than 400,000 units a year that model sells today in the U.S. alone.

An all-electric RAV4 with a nickel-metal hydride batteries launched in 1997 to satisfy California’s zero emissions requirements. This model would be offered until 2003. For 1998, Toyota introduced a cabrio version, which we recorded hitting 0-60 mph in 9.8 seconds. That same model year, the RAV4 received an increase of 7 hp.


Second Generation: Getting More Power

Although new players were beginning to challenge Toyota in the small SUV segment, the automaker was consistently making changes to keep the RAV4 fresh. Moving into its second generation, the 2001 Toyota RAV4 became more powerful. It was now producing 148 hp and 142 lb-ft of torque from its 2.0-liter four-cylinder, and we tested it hitting 60 mph in 10.4 seconds with the four-speed automatic and 8.9 seconds with the five-speed manual. In the U.S. market, only the four-door version was available, but a two-door continued to be available in other markets. In Motor Trend’s 2001 SUV of the Year evaluations, we praised the RAV4 for its generous legroom and nice interior feel.

By the time the 2004 model year rolled around, the RAV4 upgraded to a 2.4-liter engine making 161 hp and 165 lb-ft of torque. We tested the RAV4 with this engine reaching 60 mph at 9.3 seconds with the four-speed auto and 7.8 seconds with the five-speed manual.


Third Generation: Upsizing

For the 2006 model year, Toyota offered a V-6 for the first time. The Avalon-derived 3.5-liter unit made an impressive 269 hp and 246 lb-ft of torque, and reaching 60 mph took just 6.4 seconds, according to our tests. Four-cylinder models also had more juice: 166 hp and 165 lb-ft of torque, and we clocked a 2008 model reaching 60 mph in 9.5 seconds.

The U.S.-spec RAV4 ballooned in length by 14 inches, making it more practical but allowing it to slowly creep into the Highlander’s territory. A third row was offered, though room was tight back there. We enjoyed the vehicle’s acceleration in V-6 form.

In a review of the V-6 Sport model with a firmer suspension and other updates, we wrote “The RAV4 is nimbler than ever due to the steering rack’s direct mounting to the frame, and its reflexes are especially striking in the nimble Sport version, where the RAV4 feels like a sports car in hiking boots.”

For 2009, the RAV4 jumped in power again, this time to 178 hp from a new 2.5-liter engine. This generation, the engine came with the familiar four-speed automatic, but V-6 models had a five-speed auto. No manuals were offered in the U.S.

At the end of the generation, Toyota tried its hand once again at an electric RAV4. It delivered 100 miles per charge with the help of a battery pack and electric powertrain designed and produced by Tesla. Maxing out at 154 hp and 273 lb-ft of torque, the RAV4 EV boasted a sport mode that offered more spirited driving. Production on the model would end in 2014.

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Fourth Generation: Time to Scale Back

When the new RAV4 made its debut at the Los Angeles Auto show in 2012, it had already fallen behind the Honda CR-V and Ford Escape in the sales charts. It had lost its original charm as a small, maneuverable SUV and had grown too far from its roots. For its fourth generation, the RAV4 reversed many of the changes from the third-generation model. The V-6 engine was gone, and instead, U.S. models only had a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine with 176 hp, a tiny decrease from the previous generation. A new six-speed auto replaced the old four-speed auto.

Toyota also axed that third row. Going back to basics, the new RAV4 shrank 2 inches in length and an inch in height, although it grew slightly in width. Instead of a single-hinged liftgate door, the RAV4 switched over to a more traditional design hinged at the roof. Another deletion: the model’s signature spare tire mounted to the rear. More practical but less fun, the spare tire was now hidden underneath the floor.

For the 2016 model year, Toyota introduced a hybrid version that shares its powertrain with the Lexus NX 300h. Utilizing a 2.5-liter four-cylinder and three electric motors, the model makes a total of 194 hp. In its 0-60 run, the RAV4 hybrid managed 7.8 seconds in our tests. Because it’s more powerful than the standard RAV4, it’s no surprise the hybrid beat out the 2017 RAV4 SE we tested at a more leisurely 9.3 seconds. Perhaps more importantly, the hybrid blows other crossovers out of the water in our Real MPG tests, averaging 34.3/39/36.3 mpg city/highway/combined.

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Fifth Generation: Era of TNGA

The fifth-generation RAV4 debuts at the New York auto show on March 28. So far, Toyota has released one shadowy image of the model, but it appears the model will receive a more upright body and more raked rear windshield.

At this point, the RAV4 is Toyota’s best-selling vehicle in the U.S. by a large margin. Toyota sold 407,594 copies in 2017, ahead of its next best-seller, the Camry, at 387,081 units. We expect the RAV4 to offer improved fuel economy and a more powerful naturally aspirated engine, possibly paired to a new eight-speed automatic transmission. Most importantly, it will sit on the Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA), which should have positive implications for ride quality and handling.

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