Cape Town - Toyota brought decisive change to the motoring landscape 21 years ago with the launch of the original Rav4, an innovative new recreational vehicle that pioneered today’s hugely popular compact SUV market.
The first physical manifestation of the ground-breaking RAV4 arrived in 1989 when the RAV Four concept was displayed at the Tokyo Motor Show.
It was refined and remodelled for the 1993 show, providing a much closer indication of the production car to emerge the following year.
These concepts for the RAV4 (it stands for Recreational Active Vehicle with four-wheel drive, although front-wheel drive versions were offered virtually from inception) bridged what was at the time a gaping chasm between traditional off-roaders and regular passenger vehicles.
Its construction was similarly unique, maintaining the favoured height, ground clearance and chunky look of a traditional four-wheel drive vehicle but allied to a car-like monocoque body shell instead of a separate body and chassis.
A unique ‘recipe’
In creating the original RAV4, known as the XA10 series, Toyota made use of a number of tried and tested components from its extensive parts catalogue.
Specifically, the platform was donated by the Corolla, the engine and some driveline components came from the Camry/Carina, and the suspension and transmission was derived from the Celica GT-Four.
The net result, however, was a clever ‘recipe’ – later copied by virtually all other manufacturers to development their own car-based SUVs.
An instant hit
The first-generation RAV4 was launched in Japan in April 1994 as a two-door, four-seater model with a 2.0 litre 16-valve four-cylinder 3S-FE engine that endowed the vehicle with near hot-hatch levels of performance.
1st-generation Rav4 - Image: Newspress
As indicated by the name, it offered permanent four-wheel drive transmission, running through either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic gearbox. A locking centre differential was an option, though due to the car’s road bias a low-range gearbox was never offered.
The RAV4 reached South African shores a year later, in 1995, and was an instant hit, both critically and commercially, evoking headlines such as “RAVishing” and being described by local media as “Claudia Schiffer in hiking boots”.
Its commercial success led to forecasted production runs immediately being doubled and in South Africa it quickly established itself as the market leader in the boulevard sub-segment of the small SUV segment with a 53% share.
Its compact size, predictable car-like handling, surprising off-road abilities and generous equipment levels appeared to cover every motoring eventuality.
But rear passenger space and luggage carrying space were two areas some felt were inadequate, and to address this Toyota launched an additional four-door model in March 1995, increasing overall length by 400mm.
The RAV4’s introduction into the US coincided with a number of subtle revisions applied across the range and also saw the introduction of an entry-level model offering front-wheel drive only.
1997 was notable for the launch of an all-electric RAV4 EV model designed to comply with California’s mandate for zero emissions vehicles. Its sophisticated nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries gave the car a range of 160-200km after a five-hour charge.
A mid-life facelift for the 1998 model year introduced more equipment, improved safety, greater refinement and a touch more engine power, while crystal-style headlights and rear lenses gave the RAV4 a much fresher-looking face. A Japan only derivative sporting the 2.0 litre 3S-GE BEAMS engine with 132kW also made an appearance…
A clean sheet approach
By the time the all-new, second-generation model was launched in 2001 the RAV4 had been joined by a number of other car-based SUV rivals including the Honda CR-V, Subaru Forester, Suzuki Grand Vitara and Land Rover Freelander.
2nd-generation RAV4 - Image: Newspress
Evidently benchmarked against some of these soft-roader vehicles, the new RAV4 was longer, wider and roomier than before. Every dimension had increased by around 25mm, yet by improving the stamping and welding process the bodyshell was no heavier.
Now becoming an entity in its own right, this time the car contained far fewer shared components. Indeed, approximately 70% was now unique to the RAV4.
Two- and four-door variants were produced, both with the distinctive side-opening tailgate, while transmission options were once again either five-speed manual or four-speed automatic gearboxes.
This time the four-wheel drive setup with viscous-coupled centre differential was derived from the Lexus RX300, though an entry level 1.8 litre front-wheel drive model was also available in some markets.
The outgoing S-series engine was replaced with a new generation AZ-series 2.0 litre all-alloy power plant with variable valve timing and a useful 110kW. A 2.0 litre D-4D common rail turbo diesel engine option, identified by a bonnet scoop, was also added.
For the 2004 model year facelift in some markets the only notable change was a petrol engine upgrade to a torquier, 120kW 2.4 litre version of the AZ-series power plant, but this was not introduced locally.
All grown up
The third gen RAV4, released locally in March 2006 showed clear evidence of how the model matured.
3rd-generation RAV4 - Image: Newspress
A two-door version was short-lived and only sold in Japan, while the big-selling four-door was produced in either a short- or long wheelbase format (the latter to accommodate a third row of seats).
Overall size had once again increased, now 130mm longer than before, though that was also matched by appreciable increases in equipment. Its new monocoque shell was 76 percent stiffer than the outgoing version with improvements in safety, durability and NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) levels.
It also provided a stronger foundation for the new double wishbone independent rear suspension with diagonally-set dampers. Ground clearance was now 10mm higher at 200mm, while the steering was electrically assisted – a first for a Toyota 4x4.
Aside from losing the rear-mounted spare wheel, the biggest change from its predecessors was dispensing with the full-time all-wheel drivetrain in favour of a part-time system.
The engine range was now the widest ever, with up to eight different petrol or diesel engines available from 2.0-litre four-cylinder to a gutsy 3.5 litre V6 (not available in South Africa).
Similarly, transmission options grew, with five- or six-speed manuals and four-, five-, or six-speed (CVT) automatic gearboxes available.
Due to the comparative success of the first all-electric RAV4 EV in California, this model was adopted as the base for the second-generation RAV4 EV, engineered as a combined effort between Tesla Motors and the Toyota Technical Centre in Michigan, USA, and made available on lease in 2012.
Meanwhile on local soil subtle revisions in March 2009, the addition of the limited edition RAV4 ‘Fierce’, based on the 2.0 GX, and the introduction of a new GX-grade derivative with a four-speed automatic gearbox in 2010 kept the third-generation RAV4 looking fresh.
Go fourth and conquer…
The fourth-generation RAV4, displayed for the first time at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November 2012, went on sale here in March 2013.
4th-generation RAV4 - Image: Newspress
This version, 205mm longer (now without the spare wheel carrier on the tailgate and the side-hung tailgate been replaced by a top-hinged one) at 4 570mm overall, showcased an all-new silhouette.
In response to the continuing evolution of the compact SUV market and the demand for ever greater fuel and emissions efficiency, a wider engine line-up was tendered.
With its 30mm wider body and a significant 100mm increase in wheelbase length, an increase in load-space length to 1 025mm, and class-leading 547 litres of luggage capacity, coupled with competitive pricing, generation four immediately appealed to customers.
By year end 2013 it increased its market share from 3% to 7% in the small SUV class. In March last year its position was further strengthened with the introduction of a 2.2 litre D-4D VX model with six-speed auto transmission. In April this year the first RAV4 Hybrid AWD made its debut at the New York International Auto Show – representing the next dimension in Toyota’s application of full hybrid technology.
It also previewed the new exterior styling, improved cabin quality and further deployment of advanced technology and safety features in the latest upgraded model.
Watch: RAV4 Hybrid at the Frankfurt Motor Show