Ahead of Its Time

Car-based crossovers are all the rage these days. But it was the original RAV4, introduced more than 20 years ago, that set this wheel into motion.
by Dan Miller
Jan/Feb 2020
Ahead of Its Time
Ugly Duckling?
Maybe. But the original RAV4 (pictured above) definitely went on to become a swan. The current iteration is now Toyota’s best-selling vehicle.
In 1994, the year Toyota unveiled the original RAV4, Mia Phillips was in the Boston Region just getting her feet wet in the automotive industry.
“I remember when it came out and thinking, ‘That sure is a funny-looking thing,’” says Phillips, who served as national manager of crossover vehicles for Toyota Marketing before recently being named senior manager of Lexus Advertising. “I was on the team charged with wholesaling that RAV4 to our dealers. If someone had told me back then that it would one day be our best-selling vehicle, I would have laughed at them. Hysterically.”
No one, especially not Toyota’s competitors, is laughing now.
In fact, the current RAV4 has surpassed the Camry as the brand’s most popular vehicle with sales of 448,071 units in 2019. That made it not only the best-selling Toyota, but the best-selling non-pickup truck across all makes and models — trailing only the Ford F-150 and Dodge Ram pickup overall.
In many ways, that first RAV4 — a bit of an ugly duckling known for its spare tire mounted on the back — initiated a trend that, today, has SUVs, crossover vehicles and trucks owning nearly 70 percent of the market. Back in 1994, sedans ruled the roost.

Variation on a Theme
Toyota followed the RAV4 with the family-friendly Highlander in 2000.

Rides Like a Car, Works Like a Truck
From the get-go, the RAV4 was meant to appeal to a very specific customer.
It offered decent power, increased passenger and cargo room, higher ground clearance and available all-wheel drive. It emphasized function over comfort, delivering more utility than adventurous buyers could get out of a car.
And its core trait clearly set it apart from the status quo: a car-like unibody platform. Before the RAV4 burst on the scene, virtually every SUV rode on a body-on-frame platform.
In other words, the RAV4 wasn’t really a truck. It was a car that offered certain truck-like attributes.
“From day one, the RAV4 rode and handled like a car,” says Phillips. “But it could do things a car couldn’t do. It was better in the snow and rain. You could take it camping. You weren’t going rock climbing in it, but you could do light off-roading. It really was ahead of its time.”

The Next Generation
At the Los Angeles Auto Show, Toyota unveiled the RAV4 Prime – the first plug-in hybrid in the model’s 25-year history.


Pressing Their Advantage
Of course, Toyota — in keeping with the spirit of continuous improvement — didn’t stop there. Over the years, it’s continued to riff on the crossover theme.
Take, for example, the original Highlander — a larger crossover meant for growing families — introduced at the New York International Auto Show in 2000. And when both the Highlander and RAV4 moved up in size and features with each succeeding iteration, Toyota added the compact C-HR in 2017 to appeal to young, urban, style-conscious customers looking to get into their first new vehicle.
At the Los Angeles Auto Show in November, Toyota introduced the RAV4 Prime, the first plug-in hybrid in the model’s 25-year history. The beat goes on … and on.
“It’s about seeing opportunities and taking advantage of them,” says Phillips. “When it comes to crossovers, Toyota really was ahead of its time.”
<< Back