RAV4 Revolution: How Toyota's Crossover SUV Took Over the World in the 21st Century
In our first piece on the history and evolution of the Toyota RAV4 we covered how the small SUV evolved from a niche JDM concept vehicle into a massive success story and the leader of a new segment in North America.
Now we follow the modern history of the RAV4 through the 2000s, the 2010s and now into the 2020s where it's become Toyota's best-selling vehicle in America.
Second Gen: A More Refined RAV
Following the success of the original RAV4. Toyota debuted a second generation model for the 2001 model year. Riding on an updated version of the original platform, it sported updated looks and was slightly larger both inside and outside.
With the coming of the second generation, the two-door RAV4 was no longer offered in America, but it was available in other international markets including Japan.
A naturally-aspirated four-cylinder engine continued to be the only engine option in North America, initially a 2.0L and later a 2.4L after a mid-cycle refresh for the '04 model year.
Third Gen: Bigger Size, V6 Option & More
The third generation RAV4 debuted for the '06 model year, significantly larger than the one that came before it. Toyota actually sold both short and long wheelbase versions of the third gen RAV4, but North America only got the long wheelbase version.
Japanese market RAV4s all used the short wheelbase, but Toyota also sold the long wheelbase version with a restyled front end as the Vanguard. How's that for your obscure JDM trivia?
Back in the US, the larger size paid dividends with an interior about 20% larger than the previous model—and, it could be had with an optional third row seat.
To back up the larger size, Toyota now offered the 3.5L 2GR-GE V6 as an option. The V6 RAV4 produced 269hp, making it impressively quick for what it was, and able to do 0-60 in the low six-second range.
Fourth Gen: Enter the Hybrid
By the time the fourth-generation RAV4 debuted for the 2013 model year, the compact crossover SUV segment was red hot, and Toyota emphasized fuel economy in a big way.
The V6 option was no more (a 2.5 liter four-cylinder was the only engine) and for the first time the RAV4 no longer had a spare tire mounted on the rear.
The public didn't mind, though, as the RAV4 was now overtaking Toyota's stalwarts like the Camry and Corolla in American sales rankings.
One very notable addition to fourth-gen RAV4 lineup was a new hybrid model which added a pair of electric motors to a 2.5 liter four-cylinder. One of these electric motors powered the rear wheels, making for an AWD hybrid SUV that not only delivered much-improved fuel economy, but also more horsepower than the non-hybrid version.
Fifth Gen: More Flavors Than Ever
Given how popular the RAV4 had become by 2018, one might have expected Toyota to play it safe with the redesign. Instead, the new fifth-gen RAV4 arrived with a radically restyled, aggressive profile inspired by larger Toyotas like the 4Runner and Tacoma.
It also rode on entirely new underpinnings—Toyota's TNGA-K platform to be exact. An updated version of the 2.5 liter gasoline four-cylinder was standard, and the RAV4 Hybrid used a slightly updated version of the AWD powertrain from the previous model.
Toyota aimed to deliver as many flavors of RAV4 as possible—from the sporty XSE models to the rugged RAV4 Adventure model, which uses an upgraded AWD system with torque vectoring and multiple terrain modes.
Things got more interesting with an even more rugged TRD Off-Road model for 2020 and a plug-in-hybrid RAV4 Prime model for 2021. The Prime version of the RAV4 not only sports an all-electric driving range of over 40 miles, it also happens to make an eye-opening 302 horsepower.
Back in 1989 it's unlikely Toyota knew its funky "RAV-FOUR" concept would evolve into one of its most popular vehicles of all time and a defining player of the crossover segment, but it's stories like this that make the auto industry so interesting.
More From Driving Line
- For more on the RAV4 Prime, here are some ownership impressions after 1,000 miles of use.
- Recreational Active Vehicle: How the Toyota RAV4 Evolved from Funky JDM Concept to Smash Hit