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Toyota RAV4: A pioneering original for 30 years

Ground-breaking compact SUV invented the segment and continues to anticipate the changing demands of modern life three decades later

The Toyota RAV4 celebrates three decades since it reshaped the automotive landscape, during which it has become an SUV icon, constantly evolving to embrace new technologies and anticipate customer expectations.

In March 1994, the Geneva Motor Show hosted the launch of a bold new type of vehicle: a compact all-wheel drive SUV based on a monocoque body. The Toyota RAV4 was truly an original, breaking new ground as an agile and versatile vehicle designed for the demands of modern life. The term SUV was uncommon at the time, but from the start of sales in May 1994, it received an overwhelmingly positive response from media and customers.

In developing the first RAV4, designers followed specific targets to stay true to the original vision, first expressed by the RAV-FOUR concept car at the 1989 Tokyo Motor Show. The new model should provide generous space within a compact, sporty and distinctive body design. This new vehicle type placed the driver in a raised seating position, bringing more of the road into view thereby generating a more confident, secure driving experience. Strong off-road capabilities should combine with performance and road comfort, whilst meeting the highest standards of safety and environmental performance. Based on those principles, the RAV4 has reinvented itself and the recreational SUV segment throughout five generations so far, constantly evolving to anticipate the changing tastes of customers.

Innovation has been at the heart of its development over the last three decades, emphasised by the early adoption of efficient drivetrain technologies. As early as 1997, the RAV4 expressed Toyota’s commitment to exploring new technologies to reduce environmental impact when a battery electric (BEV) version went on sale in selected markets.

Since then, the RAV4 saw the introduction of Toyota’s class-leading hybrid electric (HEV) technology into the SUV segment with the third generation in 2016, complimenting the existing line-up of efficient petrol and diesel engines. A Plug-in Hybrid (PHEV) entered the range in 2020, emphasising Toyota’s multipath approach to carbon neutrality, which commits to offering a range of powertrains appropriate for specific customer needs, market conditions and local infrastructure.

Those electrified options helped further enhance the RAV4 driving experience, adding the calm serenity of hybrid as well as the additional performance of increasingly powerful motors for even more responsive acceleration. Meanwhile, through the innovative use of new platforms, as well as updated suspension technology, Toyota has created a more confident, stable, and rewarding ride with each generation.

Progress over the last 30 years has gone beyond performance and efficiency to enhance practicality as well. Generous luggage capacity – when the rear seats are in use or folded down for extra space – makes the RAV4 a capable partner, while an increasingly roomy, welcoming interior, has been enhanced with each generation by the latest in onboard multimedia systems.

The RAV4 has always put the safety occupants and other road users as a priority. As part of Toyota’s commitment to democratise advanced safety equipment, over the years the latest Toyota Safety Sense systems have been available on RAV4 models, helping drivers avoid a wider range of common road accident risks.

By staying true to its bold original philosophy and anticipating to the changing needs of customers, over its 30 years so far, the RAV4 has become an automotive icon and a sales success story across the world. It was the best-selling SUV globally in 2018 and 2019, and it reached the milestone of 14 million by the end of 2023 globally, including more than 2,5 million in Europe. Hybrid electric or plug-in hybrid powertrains now account for a remarkable 91% of new RAV4 sales in Europe, where the biggest markets are France, Italy, Poland, Spain and the UK.

The beginning

The ideas behind the RAV4 (Recreational Active Vehicle with 4-wheel drive) were first expressed in the RAV-FOUR concept car at the 1989 Tokyo Motor Show, indicating Toyota’s interest in creating a compact all-wheel drive model. This was just a design study, with none of the detail required for an actual development model, but it gained an enthusiastic welcome from the public. In 1991, the project was given the green light and development work began.

First generation, 1994 – 2000

Toyota’s designers created a bold, fun new look for the original RAV4, breaking with convention by giving it eye-catching curves and unique lines. A rear mounted spare wheel hinted at the RAV4’s off-road capabilities but the fresh new style was well suited to both rural and urban settings. In its original form, the RAV4 was a compact two- or three-door model, measuring just 3.69 m long. Power came from a 129 DIN hp 2.0-litre petrol engine, mounted transversely, while the transmission provided permanent all-wheel drive. Innovations that were destined to become the norm included a lightweight monocoque body and independent rear suspension. The RAV4’s high driving position provided greater visibility while its compact size made it easy to manoeuvre. Its nimble handling and passenger comfort were more like a hatchback than an AWD vehicle. In 1996, the range was expanded to include a five-door version (measuring 4.1 m long) and the option of front two-wheel drive while a three-door soft-top followed. In 1997, a front-wheel-drive battery electric (BEV) version went on sale in selected markets. It was capable of a modest 45 kW (63 DIN hp), with nickel-metal hydride batteries installed under the floor, and had an estimated range of approximately 200 km.

Second generation, 2000 – 2006

A new millennium brought a second generation RAV4, developed with the benefit of experience gained from its ground-breaking introduction. A new platform, new suspension and full-time AWD created an energetic but comfortable ride both on road and off while interior comfort was enhanced by a more premium feel. New packaging, a longer seat sliding range and various rear seat configurations created a functional and comfortable cabin. A step towards sustainability came thanks to extensive use of easily-recycled Toyota Super Olefin Polymer (TSOP) and recycled sound-proofing products. Both three and five-door versions were slightly longer, 5.5 cm and 4 cm respectively. Two petrol engines were offered: 123 DIN hp 1.8 litre and 150 DIN hp 2.0 litre units. The full-time AWD adopted a centre limited-slip differential, while customers could specify a Torsen rear differential as a factory option. In 2001, diesel power was offered in the RAV4 for the first time via a 2.0 litre D-4D direct injection unit with 116 DIN hp.

Third generation, 2006 – 2012

For its third generation, the RAV4 grew and evolved, taking on a new, more sophisticated appearance. The new RAV4 became exclusively a five-door vehicle, reflecting changes in customer preferences and requirements. Based on an all-new platform for its third generation, the new model measured 19 cm longer overall, while a long-wheelbase version was also manufactured for sale in the United States and other markets. The model marked the debut of a new Toyota all-wheel drive system with an electronically controlled coupling that operated automatically, according to the vehicle’s speed, throttle operation, steering angle, and G-forces. The RAV4’s handling capabilities were further developed with the first application of Downhill Assist Control and Hill-start Assist Control. Engine choice was extended as well, with 2.0, 2.4, 2.5 and 3.5 litre petrol units, plus a new 2.2 litre diesel.

Fourth generation, 2013 – 2018

The fourth generation RAV4 saw a standard wheelbase for the vehicle globally and the vehicle’s length grew again, by 23.5 cm, which contributed to 47 per cent more luggage room compared to its predecessor. All-new suspension was designed to enhance ride comfort and driver engagement without sacrificing stability. More advanced AWD technology was introduced with the new intelligent Dynamic Torque Control system, and the addition of two new functions: cornering control and a sport driving mode. The powertrain choice originally consisted of 2.0 and 2.5-litre petrol and 2.0 and 2.2-litre diesel engines but in 2016, the RAV4 underwent its biggest change yet. A full hybrid electric version, Toyota’s first hybrid compact SUV, was introduced for the first time, offering total system power of 197 DIN hp with E-Four electronic all-wheel drive. As well as delivering the performance drivers would expect from Europe’s most powerful RAV4 to date, the hybrid powertrain achieved class-leading fuel consumption – aided by superior aerodynamics – and low CO2 emissions.

Fifth generation, 2018 to date

The fifth generation was launched in Europe at the start of 2019 and a year later helped the RAV4 reach a global cumulative sales milestone of 10 million units. Powerful styling expressed the robust and capable qualities that have come to define the world’s best-selling SUV, communicating a “go anywhere” sense of fun and adventure. It was the first SUV to be built on a Toyota New Global Architecture platform, which achieved a low centre of gravity, light weight and a strong chassis for exceptional handling and stability. As an all-hybrid range in Western Europe, it adopted Toyota’s fourth generation hybrid technology, together with a new 2.5 litre Dynamic Force hybrid engine, which brought significant gains in terms of power, response and efficiency. In 2020, the fifth generation embraced further technical innovation with the introduction of the first RAV4 Plug-in Hybrid, the most powerful and efficient RAV4 yet built, with 306 DIN hp, rapid acceleration plus exceptionally low CO2 emissions and fuel consumption.

GR SPORT (2023 to date)

The latest chapter in the RAV4 story is the new RAV4 GR SPORT, an addition to the range that comes with styling and equipment features that express sportiness and sophistication inspired by TOYOTA GAZOO Racing and its mission to create ever-better cars through motorsport. Sportier looks, 19-inch alloy wheels and exclusive design details are complemented by further improvements to the suspension. Retuned suspension, including new stiffer springs and shock absorber settings, enhance handling boost and offer a more engaging driving experience.

SOURCE: Toyota

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