There’s this little SUV. You may have heard of it; it’s actually been one of Toyota’s top-selling vehicles for the past thirty-three years. It’s called the RAV4. Does that sound familiar? You may be surprised to learn that the Toyota RAV4 is still very much a big deal around the world, accounting for plenty of sales at your new and used Toyota dealer. It seems like we haven’t heard anything about the RAV4 in a while, while Toyota promotes other very exciting innovations, such as the 2023 Corolla Cross or their full range of electrified vehicles, including the Tundra i-Force MAX.
There are many big things happening in the automotive world right now, so it makes sense that the RAV4 is taking a moment to rest on its laurels. After three decades of providing dependable transportation for generations of drivers, the RAV4 is likely more than willing to share the spotlight with its newer stablemates. Still, those looking for an impressive crossover that hits all the right spots regarding budget, economy, and enjoyability need to look no further than the RAV4. It’s been hiding here in plain sight, being a best seller in its own right, all along.
Get Reacquainted With the RAV4
Just because the RAV4 doesn’t get top billing everywhere it drives doesn’t mean it’s not a worthy vehicle. After all, a brand doesn’t stick around for multiple decades if it’s not worth driving. The original RAV4 was a concept car at the 1989 Tokyo Motor Show. Rewinding to the era, SUVs were a very different type of vehicle in the 1980s. Families drove station wagons and minivans. SUVs were vehicles like the Bronco, Blazer, and Jeep, made for wild, mud-soaked adventures. But Toyota knew that the SUV boom was just around the corner, so they continued to tinker with this concept for several years before releasing the RAV4 in Japan and Europe in 1994 and the US in 1996.
The concept of the RAV4 was the same as its name, which is actually an acronym for “Recreational Active Vehicle with 4WD.” The idea was to marry the comfort and personality of a sedan with the capability of an SUV. This is more or less the standard manufacturing concept for today’s SUVs, but at the time, it was a novel idea. Luckily, the concept caught on very quickly. In the first three years of production, Toyota sold nearly 300,000 RAV4s to drivers around the globe. In 2019, Toyota sold 448,071 RAV4s in the United States alone. Total sales over all five generations of RAV4 total over 10 million. It seems that the RAV4 is doing just fine.
What’s in the RAV4’s Magic Recipe?
For most automotive manufacturers, the secret to success is making your vehicle relevant to as many drivers as possible. To its credit, Toyota is exceedingly good at this particular trait, with some very recognizable vehicles. The Camry, Corolla, Prius, and Tundra all have spectacular reputations and have for many years. The 2023 RAV4 has been engineered with “just right” levels of capability, comfort, safety, and fun. It’s not too big, following the brief second-generation scandal in which the RAV4 grew to Highlander-like proportions. It’s not too rugged, with standard front-wheel drive offered on nearly every model. Properly equipped versions can tow up to 3,500 lbs, though base models can haul 1,500 lbs without a problem.
Not only is the RAV4 offered in various trims, but drivers can select hybrid versions of many trims and a few hybrid-only specialties. Also on the table is the RAV4 Prime, which debuted in 2021. The Prime uses a parallel hybrid system, which automatically alternates between electric and gasoline-consuming power sources for up to 42 miles of all-electric driving. There’s even a TRD Off-Road trim for off-roaders, while the Adventure trim offers a few specialty options for less intense off-roaders. With standard Dynamic Torque Vectoring All-Wheel Drive, specially-tuned suspension, and 8.6 inches of ground clearance, the RAV4 TRD Off-Road, and Adventure trims also include Mud and Sand, Rock and Dirt, Snow, and Normal driving modes to help drivers conquer a variety of terrain. This array of options matches the pattern of many vehicles with mass appeal, making the RAV4 a valuable option for a huge audience of drivers.
An Array of Comfort and Safety Features
Another area in which the RAV4 is extremely successful is the standard offerings of comfort and safety features. Similar to the strategy that has brought the Camry great success over many decades, the RAV4 includes a generous helping of standard comfort and convenience features to placate drivers in every budget bracket. Every 2023 RAV4 is equipped with eight airbags and the Toyota Safety Sense 2.5 package of safety and driver assistance features, including a pre-collision system with pedestrian detection, dynamic radar cruise control, lane departure alert with steering assist and lane tracing assist, automatic high beams, and road sign assist. Additional technologies, such as blind spot monitoring and a 360-degree birds-eye view camera, are optional or offered as standard on higher trims.
An 8-inch touchscreen multimedia system is also standard, though several trims bump this up to a 10.5-inch version. Wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity are also standard across the lineup. There are also those little touches that mean a lot, like standard rear seat air vents, an adjustable steering wheel, and a 60/40 split-folding rear seat for accommodating up to 69.8 cu.ft. of cargo space (63.2 in the hybrid versions). While these might not seem super-special on the surface, there are many current crossover options that do not offer these features on base models, as strange as that may seem in 2023. Of course, there are more impressive features that can be accessed by selecting a higher trim, and the Hybrid and Prime alternatives have their own list of accessories to help drivers select the ideal version for their own budget, life, and drivestyle.
Presumably, there will be a time when the RAV4 is no longer in production. However, for the time being, Toyota’s 1989 concept remains a top seller in the new millennium. There’s no real secret to its success; like many vehicles that have gained popularity in the US, the RAV4 manages to make itself available and valuable to a large number of drivers. It can be budget-friendly, extremely economical, off-road ready, or deluxe, depending on which trim or options are selected.
Is the RAV4 the perfect vehicle for anyone who has ever had the privilege of driving? No, of course not. There are many purpose-built specialty vehicles that could not be replaced by the RAV4, such as trucks and three-row SUVs. Instead, the RAV4 has sold millions by being unfussy, unintimidating, uncomplicated, and an altogether pleasant SUV. And, in a day and age where stress levels are rising, these traits are even more valuable than ever before.
While there are certainly different markets for different vehicles, the long-term success of accessible and appealing vehicles like the Toyota RAV4 leaves experts and customers alike hopeful that there will never be an end to the budget-friendly small vehicle. Perhaps sedans will someday drive off the planet, but as long as there are small crossovers like the RAV4 around, we might just be ok.