Chronicling 25 Years of the Toyota RAV4

First Generation Toyota RAV4
The First-Generation Toyota RAV4.

The Toyota RAV4 may not have the panache of the Supra, but in the grand scheme of it all, its importance cannot be denied. Launched in the U.S. market in 1996, the RAV4 introduced a new segment of people mover and has gone on to become one of the best-selling models for Toyota.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of what can now be called an iconic model. Now in its fifth generation, the current RAV4 seems so different from the original. But that’s not a bad point as the model line has matured and the competition is fierce. In a recent conference call, Toyota looked back at the RAV4’s history, chronicling the changes, while hinting at what’s ahead.

As Toyota explained it, convincing the company’s leadership that a model such as the RAV4 has a place in the product portfolio required a solid case for it. That was in the early 1990s when cars dominated and traditional SUVs such as the 4Runner and Land Cruiser served a niche. But the writing was already on the wall for utility vehicle growth and somehow a compact model was developed, then approved by still skeptical management.

Second Generation Toyota RAV4
The Second-Generation Toyota RAV4.

In the Beginning

The “term” crossover was virtually unknown when the RAV4 arrived. Until that time, most SUVs were based on truck platforms and brought all manner of ruggedness with it. But ruggedness does not have widespread appeal, especially for those who do little to no off-roading.

What Toyota did with the RAV4 was to turn to its sedans, namely the Corolla, to create this model. Thus, the RAV4 was small and shared the handling and ride attributes of the brand’s most popular vehicle. It also added an important element missing from the Corolla: cargo utility. As such, the RAV4 arrived just as the market for what soon became widely known as crossover utility vehicles started to take off.

Toyota RAV4 Generations

The Toyota RAV4 spans five generations. The first generation was produced from 1996 to 2000. The second-generation model from 2000 to 2005. In 2006, the third-generation RAV4 arrived. This one lasted through 2012.

From 2013 to 2018, we have the fourth-generation RAV4. Beginning in 2019, the current model rolled out. For 2022, it is already in its fourth year.

Third Generation Toyota RAV4
The Third-Generation Toyota RAV4.

So, where did the name come from? That’s easy: RAV stands for Recreational Activity Vehicle. The “4” designates “four-wheel drive,” although it has always been available with standard front-wheel drive and optional all-wheel drive.

The first-generation model is the only one with three- and five-door body choices. The latter was so popular, that Toyota quit offering the three-door version in the U.S. beginning in 2000.

Toyota RAV4 Milestones

Compact People Mover

The original RAV4 sits on a 94.5-inch wheelbase and is 162 inches long. The 1996 RAV4 is two feet shorter than the Camry sedan and 8 inches shorter than the Corolla of that era. Even though it was considered a compact, calling it a subcompact wouldn’t be wrong.

A Familiar Engine

The first-generation model came with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. This one made 120 horsepower and worked with a four-speed automatic transmission to send power to the wheels. When fully optioned with four doors and all-wheel drive, the 1996 RAV4 earned a combined 23 mpg.

Growing the RAV4

Each subsequent RAV4 generation is larger than the previous one. Sitting on a 97-inch wheelbase, the 2000 RAV4 was just 6 inches longer overall. The big news that year was a new 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine earning 148 horsepower. Four years later that engine was replaced by a 2.4-liter engine earning 161 horsepower. That’s 33 percent more power than the original model.

Larger and More Sophisticated

By the time the third-generation RAV4 arrived, the segment began filling with competitors. Toyota responded by placing the RAV4 on a new platform with 10 more inches between the wheels and 14 inches longer overall. It was also the first RAV4 to offer an optional third row. The 2.4-liter and four-speed automatic transmission were standard, but a 3.5-liter V6 paired with a 5-speed automatic was optional. And with 268 horsepower on tap, the V6 was far more powerful than any engine seen in the RAV4 before or since.

Fourth Generation Toyota RAV4
The Fourth-Generation Toyota RAV4. This one launched a hybrid variant.

Further Refinement

When the 2013 RAV4 arrived, the market was saturated with small crossovers. The pivot away from sedans to crossovers was on, although it would be a few more years before the balance tipped. The fourth-generation model scrapped the previous engines in favor of a 2.5-liter inline-four paired with a 6-speed automatic transmission. That engine makes 176 horsepower, which is the sweet spot for the segment.

First RAV4 Hybrid

In the late 1990s, Toyota introduced hybrid technology with its Prius model. That model is synonymous with hybrids and remains the most popular hybrid in the world. The Prius has also benefitted from continuous updates. And by the time the RAV4 received its first hybrid variant in 2016, a more sophisticated Hybrid Synergy Drive system came with it. In the RAV4, the system utilizes two electric motors, including one in the back to turn the rear wheels. Importantly, the hybrid earns 32 mpg, although far more efficient models would follow.

Generation Now

How do you top success? Very carefully. In designing the fifth-generation model, Toyota could count on its loyal customers to return. At the same time, the compact crossover segment remained red hot. Standing still was not an option. Thus, Toyota shifted the RAV4’s design philosophy to align closer to its true SUVs, particularly the 4Runner.

The look of the current model is more rugged than before. And with 203 horsepower on tap, the performance numbers were up. Also, the hybrid gained 30 percent more efficiency and was joined by the RAV4’s first-ever plug-in variant, the Toyota RAV4 Prime.

Toyota RAV4 Amenities

We haven’t looked at the amenities offered, but it is worth pointing out that the RAV4 has become progressively better optioned through the years. The earliest models offered the prevailing features of that time, including full power accessories and air conditioning.

As time moved on, more sophisticated comfort features and technologies were incorporated. Indeed, Toyota was quick to add trim levels that reflected the features customers wanted. On the tech front, Bluetooth, USB ports, and an infotainment system were added. Later, as safety technology grew, so did the offerings in the RAV4. Today, Toyota offers a full-suite of driver-assist technology, including lane control, automatic emergency braking, and adaptive cruise control.

Concerning in-cabin tech, we’ve seen multi-information displays, satellite radio, HD Radio, and JBL audio systems roll out. In more recent years, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and Amazon Alexa were added. Navigation is still available, but the smartphone apps have largely taken over. Our survey of the segment reveals the RAV4 is at or near the top in all the important categories, including styling, comfort, tech, and safety equipment.

Fifth Generation Toyota RAV4
The Fifth-Generation Toyota RAV4.

Looking Ahead

We will probably see the sixth-generation RAV4 in a few years. Like clockwork, Toyota refreshes its most popular model, then replaces it with a new one. Gas, hybrid, and plug-in hybrid options seem likely. Toyota has tested an electric version previously. There is a chance we will see something in that space as well. In any case, the RAV4 continues to deliver everything that customers want in a small, five-passenger crossover utility vehicle.

Photo Attribution

Tennen-Gas, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Rudolf Stricker, Attribution, via Wikimedia Commons

IFCAR, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

IFCAR, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Rutger van der Maar, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Jiří Sedláček, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Matt Keegan
Author: Matthew Keegan
Matt Keegan is a journalist, media professional, and owner of this website. He has an extensive writing background and has covered the automotive sector continuously since 2004. When not driving and evaluating new vehicles, Matt enjoys spending his time outdoors.

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