We recently explored the history of the SUV in search of the origins of the species. We traced the lineage of the SUV all the way back to the Jeep Wagoneer, which we claimed was the very first of its kind.
After the Wagoneer, the basic formula for the SUV stayed the same for almost 30 years. You took a massive body, dropped in a huge V8 engine and adorned the interior with all the comforts you would find in a saloon car of the same era. It’s a recipe that is still being used today on the Range Rover, BMW X5, Mercedes ML and Porsche Cayenne.
It’s staggering that the thinking behind the SUV was unchanged for so long, especially when you consider how many segments today can trace their roots back to the Jeep Wagoneer. These days we have Sports Activity Vehicles (SAVs), medium-sized SUVs, crossovers, SUVs masquerading in coupé bodies and compact SUVs.
The last segment is of particular interest to us, because it’s one that seems set to explode over the next few years. In SA we can already choose between the Nissan Juke, Ford EcoSport, Renault Duster and, within a month or so, the Peugeot 2008. Honda, Jeep and Volkswagen will be entering their contestants within the next two or three years.
It’s strange that this segment should be booming all of a sudden, because it was one of the first branches to grow out of the SUV tree. And it all started with what is now considered a medium-sized SUV, the Rav4.
The Rav4 was first showcased as a design study at the 1989 Tokyo Motor Show. The design was a bit of a flop, but the rest of the package seemed like a solid investment. The bean counters gave the go-ahead, albeit two years later, and the rest, as they say, is history.
No one could predict what a sales sensation the Rav4 would be. It was launched in 1994 and that year Toyota sold a grand total of 53 000 worldwide. By 1995, Toyota had improved that figure threefold.
At first the Rav4 was available only as a three-door model with a 2,0-litre petrol engine, and it measured just under 4m in length. That’s roughly the length of the current Yaris…
A five-door model was added to the line-up and a three-door soft top was made available to UK customers in 1998.
In many ways, the Rav4 was ahead of its time – not only in terms of design but in the engine department as well. The first generation was one of the first production cars to go on sale with an electric engine. Toyota leased and sold almost 1500 of the electric model, the California, to inhabitants of the state, basically jump-starting the environmental smugness movement. It came with a 100 000km warranty and a claimed driving range of around 160km, which was an astounding achievement considering that it almost matched the range of the current sweetheart of the green movement, the Nissan Leaf.
In 2000, Toyota launched an all-new Rav4. It was the difficult second album after the smash debut in 1994. Luckily the second generation model proved to be a hit with consumers as well. Toyota was wise enough to make it available from the beginning in three-door as well as five-door format. Honda had joined the segment in 1997, and offering the Rav4 only in three-door guise would have driven potential customers straight into Honda dealerships.
The second generation model was a handsome car as well – not as cute or likeable as the 1994 Rav4, but more grown-up and handsome. The younger generation that had bought into the concept of a compact SUV had grown up and needed something more sophisticated and elegant. Something with enough room for a nappy bag… The second generation model therefore had to be bigger. The three- and five-door vehicles were longer than their predecessor, but the overall design played its part in hiding the added length.
The Rav4 soldiered on with its 1,8-litre and 2,0-litre petrol engines until 2002 when the first diesel model was introduced. The only other notable engine upgrade came in 2004, when the 2,0-litre petrol engine was replaced by a 2,4-litre with 120kW on tap.
The only other notable thing about the second generation Rav4 is that it might have been the car responsible for SUVs being referred to as “mom’s taxis”. This particular Rav4 had the highest proportion of female drivers in the SUV category. The ladies in the US adored it, and this may have been the reason behind the drastic styling changes on the model that followed it.
Number three came along in 2005, but by then there was almost no demand for a three-door model, so Toyota dropped it.
The size of the third generation model depended on where you lived. Certain parts of the world received the standard model, while a model with a longer wheelbase was made available in other regions.
By now Toyota had nothing left to prove. They had started a segment in 1994 and were the undisputed leaders in the field by 2006. About 600 000 Rav4s had been sold and it held 25% of the SUV segment market share in the UK.
In SA, the Rav4 was introduced as a premium SUV, available only in VX guise. The customer’s only choice was between manual and automatic. A diesel option was added later in 2006, and the car was given a facelift in 2009.
While generation three was still in production, Toyota had another go at building an electric model in late 2011. This time round they entered into a partnership with Tesla and the end result was, well, electrifying.
Toyota claimed an expected driving range of 160km and a charging time of approximately six hours on a 240V/40A charger. More importantly, it claimed the Rav4 EV matched the performance, dynamic abilities and cargo capacity of the V6 model.
Its claimed performance (0-100km/h in 8.6 seconds) remains impressive to this day – so impressive, in fact, that the model is still on sale in the US. It’s fairly expensive at around R500 000, but it’s an impressive vehicle, nonetheless.
The biggest problem with generation three was the styling, or rather the lack of it. Yes, it was inoffensive, but it lacked the aesthetic appeal of the two previous models. The first and second generation models stood out in a crowd, but it was all too easy to lose number three in a parking lot filled with similarly styled medium-size SUVs.
You’ll note the use of the term “medium-size”. There’s a very good reason for this. Every time a new Rav4 came out, it grew by a few millimetres in every direction. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just how the motoring industry works.
Which brings us neatly to generation four. We’ve driven this car abroad and in SA, so we can tell you one or two things about it.
First, it isn’t that compact any more. It’s closer in size to the Fortuner than to the original Rav4, but that doesn’t make it a bad car. In fact, it’s one of the best medium-sized SUVs out there. It’s very comfortable, has a decent amount of standard kit and retails at a reasonable price.
More importantly, generation four has managed to recover some of the style lost by number three. Like it or not, you will definitely be able to find this one in a crowded parking lot. As a medium-sized SUV, it’s certainly an attractive proposition.
Still, we were left a bit saddened by the fact that the ideals behind the 1994 model have been lost along the way. We find ourselves yearning for a compact crossover with a Toyota badge on it.
Is there any hope of another compact crossover from the manufacturer that started it all? Will the ideals of the original Rav4 be revived in a competitor for the forthcoming compact crossovers from Honda, Chevrolet, Datsun and Renault?
Toyota SA politely declined to comment on whether the company was working on a car to take the fight to its rivals, but said it would make sense to compete in this seemingly soon-to-be-popular segment.
Let’s hope Toyota finish what they started 1994. The Rav4, it seems, was 20 years ahead of its time and it is only fitting that it receives a proper successor to carry on its feisty legacy.