The Toyota RAV4 is a beloved SUV that was introduced in America in the late 1990s. It was one of the first small crossover SUVs on the market. That can be hard to imagine now with so many models flooding the segment today. It’s a model known for its blend of good fuel economy and competent road manners. As long as you take care of yours and service it with OEM parts, it'll outlast practically anything on the road. Here’s how the RAV4 has grown over the years.
Toyota Dreamed Of Something Different
When Toyota launched the RAV4, it created a segment of its own: the compact sports utility. This new class bridged the gap between the traditional off-roaders and passenger vehicles.
The construction was unique while keeping a favorable height and good ground clearance. It used the chunky looks of a traditional 4×4 but enlisted a car-like unibody design. The result was a crossover that was comfortable, affordable, and roomy.
Toyota’s development team had been toying with the idea of the model as far back as 1986. It was then that the concept was initially discussed. The first actual RAV4 made its way into the spotlight during the Tokyo Motor Show in 1989. Toyota repackaged this concept for the 1993 show circuits. It was much closer to the production version.
In making the RAV4, Toyota would use components from its trusted catalog.
- The platform was borrowed from the Corolla
- The engine and some driveline parts were borrowed from the Camry
- The suspension was borrowed from the Celica GT-four
The result was a unique recipe that other automakers would later go on to copy.
Launched Into Success
Toyota launched the first generation of the RAV4 in May of 1994 in the United States. It started out as a 2-door, 4-seater with a 2.0L 4-cylinder 16-valve engine. The 3S-FE engine was a near hot-hatch level performance engine. It offered a permanent four-wheel drive platform, with a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic. An optional locking center differential was available for serious off-roaders. The RAV4 was a hit amongst drivers and critics alike.
The following features made most auto buyers happy:
- Compact size
- Car-like handling
- Impressive off-road capabilities
- Surprising equipment levels
Yet, some felt it could stand for more passenger space and luggage room. To correct this, Toyota announced a four-door version in 1995 and turned it into a full five-seater.
It wasn’t until 1996 that Toyota would launch the four-door RAV4 in the USA. The 1996 models also introduced an optional entry-level front-wheel-drive only version. 1997 would be the year of the all-electric RAV4 EV model made to comply with the California mandate for zero-emission vehicles. The well-advanced model had a 120-mile driving range.
A facelift in 1998 would also bring:
- More equipment
- Improved safety features
- More power
- A little more refinement
New headlights and lenses gave the RAV4 a sharper look. Toyota also introduced the Cabrio model.
Second Generation Success
When the new generation rolled in during the 2001 year model, the RAV4 had more competition. It was now a longer, wider, and roomier vehicle than before. Yet, it wasn’t any heavier than before. It shared fewer components with other Toyotas and was now 70% unique to itself.
Two and four-door models were produced again. Both had unique side opening tailgates. The transmissions were once again five-speed manuals or four-speed autos. The four-wheel-drive setup now came with a center differential, a unit derived from the Lexus RX300.
The S-series power train was replaced with the new AZ-series 2.0L alloy engine with variable valve times and 148 horsepower. The only notable change for 2004 was an upgraded power train in some markets.
The Third Generation Rolls In
In 2005, the RAV4 exhibited maturity. The size and standard equipment level grew once again. A new unibody design was 76% stiffer than the outgoing model. This offered improved safety and durability. NVH (noise, vibration, and harshness) in the RAV4 was also improved. It also rode on a double-wishbone independent rear suspension with diagonally-set dampers. Ground clearance was increased and steering was now electrically assisted.
For the 2009 year model, the RAV4 was given a mid-cycle makeover with a number of changes, such as:
- A new 4-cylinder engine
- A new front end
The Limited model got a different grille and bumper cover from the rest of the lineup. 2011 saw a new facelift as well, with no substantive changes beyond appearance.
Toyota Introduces The Fourth Generation
Toyota revealed the new 4th-generation of the RAV4 at the Los Angeles Auto Show in 2012. Sales began in the United States in early 2013. With a single 4-cylinder engine option and a 6-speed automatic, the new model was simpler than the outgoing 3rd gen RAV4. While the V6 was lost, the 2.5L 4-cylinder offered a great mix of power and fuel efficiency. It produced 176 horsepower while reaching almost 30mpg on the highway (29mpg for AWD models, 31mpg for FWD models). The 4-cylinder was also quick, with a nearly 7-second 0-60 time.
One of the biggest changes with the 4th generation RAV4 was moving the spare tire from the rear door to the undercarriage. This change cleaned up the appearance of the RAV4. It also made it possible to change the rear liftgate from a side opening gate to a vertically opening gate. That was a well-received change. On the inside, the newest RAV4 featured an upgraded interior with a richer, more luxurious appearance.
Finally, the 4th generation RAV4 is notable for its substantial cargo space, with or without the rear seats folded. Folding down the rear seats is straightforward – just one lever to pull – opening up a 73 cubic foot cavern. Quite a change.
2016 RAV4 Changes
For the 2016 year model, Toyota refreshed the RAV4 in several different ways. The 2016 model featured:
- A new, edgier design
- A new SE package that gave the RAV4 some seriously sporty looks
- Safety enhancements, including an available pre-collision warning that automatically applied the brakes
- A new hybrid model
The 2016 RAV4 hybrid model offered more performance than the standard gas powertrain. Toyota tuned the hybrid to offer nearly 200 horsepower (194) and an extra 30 lb-ft of torque. This made the hybrid a full second faster than the standard model from 0-60. The hybrid delivered great fuel economy too, with an estimated 34mpg in the city and 31mpg on the highway.
The Fifth Generation Makes Its Grand Appearance In 2018
Toyota unveiled the fifth generation RAV4 at the 2018 New York International Auto Show. The 2018 RAV4 was available in gasoline-powered and hybrid-powered variants. The fifth generation RAV4 shares a platform with the following popular Toyota models:
- Lexus E
The fifth generation RAV4 has some modern features not found on previous models, such as:
- A Multi Terrain Select feature that maximizes traction when driving on rough terrain (such as mud, sand, or rocks)
- 7-inch multi-touch screen that comes with Etune 3.0, Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, and Amazon Alexa
- Larger screen with JBL Audio and a Wi-Fi hotspot (optional on some trim levels)
- QI Wireless Charging with up to 5 USB ports throughout the vehicle
In September 2021, Toyota updated the RAV4 with some new features, such as:
- LED headlights
- Alloy wheels in either silver or black
- USB-C charging ports
Summing up, the RAV4 has changed a lot over the years. It went from an affordable little 2 door SUV in 1994 to a comfortable and fuel-efficient family vehicle in 2022. The RAV4 defined a new automotive segment. Toyota took great care to transform it over the years. It did this by:
- Improving the RAV4's performance and comfort levels
- Fixing the most common RAV4 problems, including door lock failure
Toyota hit a home run with the RAV4 too, as sales have only increased over time. The RAV4 is one of Toyota’s stand-out vehicles. It will be interesting to watch it evolve further.