I Counted Every Toyota RAV4 I Saw In A Day And It Broke My Brain

RAV4s waiting on a lot in 2011. We scooped up a mere 132,237 of them that year.
RAV4s waiting on a lot in 2011. We scooped up a mere 132,237 of them that year.
Photo: Getty Images (Getty Images)

Over the course of a 1,100-mile road trip, we could have counted anything. Vultures. Thunderclouds. Trees. Instead, we tallied Toyota RAV4s, and 436 midsize SUVs later my brain is wallpaper paste.


It was hard, actually. Harder than I thought. My eyes have been a little bloodshot these past few days, and I have a sneaking suspicion it’s from eyeballing oncoming traffic doing 75 trying to pick out if that’s just a CR-V or another one for the tally.

Honestly, it wasn’t the CR-Vs that were the hardest. Ford Escapes caught me and my girlfriend out the most, then Nissan Rogues in the daytime and maybe Jeep Cherokees at night. (The taillights match up with the newer RAV4s.)

Toyota sells RAV4s by the hundreds of thousands. Last year we Americans bought 448,068 of them, as tracked by GoodCarBadCar. We just keep buying more and more of them, too. Five years ago we were buying around 300,000 of them, and five years before that around 170,000.

It’s hard to get a sense of how that’s even possible until you start counting every single one that you can see on a road trip from New York to Raleigh, North Carolina and back. Our 436 figure ought to be even higher, actually, as we only realized we should start counting them an hour or two into our drive, wheeling down I-95.

It’s hard to find fault with a RAV4. I know SUVs and crossovers are contributing to ever-worsening climate change, but the RAV4 at least doesn’t get bad fuel economy relative even to a compact car. Compare the RAV4's mpg numbers to the Corolla’s and they’re close but in gallons per hundred miles they’re almost identical, both right around three gallons. A RAV4 is practical, too, not like some hulking land yacht that gobbles up the road. There’s room for a family and their stuff, even if it felt like everyone driving a RAV4 we saw was alone and on their phone.

The first hundred RAV4s were fun. A rising tally. We were training our eyes in what to look for. The bulbous and fun first-generation cars, including the absolutely microscopic two-doors. The squinting mid-period cars, with their little roof spoilers looking over the hatchback. The gaping glare of the current-generation RAV4, sucking in highway air like it was mad about it.


The second hundred was tough. We were filled with doubt. Is that one? No, another Rogue, another Escape.

The last two hundred came fast. We started our last day driving out of DC in the low twos and hit our final fours back in the city itself. These were the mind-numbing ones. The day before we had swung by my wonderful coworker Jason Torchinsky’s house and taken his Changli and Nissan Pao for a spin. Each one was thrilling and intriguing, rare but practical. Each RAV4 we saw was like an active denial of them. Maybe these RAV4 buyers didn’t know that they could get an interesting car instead. Maybe they wanted to buy a RAV4 so as to build up the herd, to smother and squash out the cars of interest that they chose not to risk buying.


I found myself starting to hate each one I saw by the end of it. At first, I wanted to goose my numbers as much as I could. I wanted to spot every last one in my lane, the next, in that bank parking lot and crossing that overpass. By the end of it, it felt like the RAV4s were coming after me. Chasing me down. Telling me that it was OK, that they were all the car I’d ever need and nothing more. To trust in the RAV4. Buy the RAV4. All these other Americans bought one. Why not you?



Maybe these RAV4 buyers didn’t know that they could get an interesting car instead.”

A statement like this is deliberately missing the forest for the trees. The reason Toyota sells half a million of these a year is because they ARE interesting to buyers. They offer a very compelling blend of space, comfort, reliability, economy and versatility. They aren’t quirky, they aren’t thrilling, but they are interesting. Just based on different metrics.

I think that’s one part of car culture that’s always bugged me a little, the part that intentionally subcategorizes the vast majority of car buyers as “fools” or “sheep” for not buying a car that suits an enthusiasts checklist. I’m not saying that buying a car at all makes you a car person, but instead of lumping the US’s vs the Them’s I find it much more interesting to try and figure out what buyers ARE passionate about in their car buying preference. i.e. a person that buys for vanity is just as interesting to me as a person who buys for brand loyalty. They both have their reasons and they both voted with their money and I want to know WHY they are passionate about cars in that way.

I don’t know if I’m making sense...maybe what I’m saying is that the best selling car in America is that for a reason and ascribing it to lack of imagination is rather...well...unimaginative. There’s a reason alright and I would LOVE to understand what Toyota did right to build the car the most people WANT to buy. Thats car culture too, just not typical car culture.