The other day I was walking around town handing out flyers trying to convince people that yes, the Earth is flat, but it’s wrapped around a spherical core, so it just seems round. There’s a difference. While I was out I saw something that stopped me in my tracks: a first-generation Toyota RAV4. I haven’t seen one just around in quite a while, and now that I have, I find my self smitten. And a bit sad, since I know what the RAV4 has become.
When was the last time you saw a Mk 1 RAV4? It’s sort of disarming how small they are, especially the two-door one like what I encountered. The wheelbase is short, overhangs are minimal, ride height is good—no wonder these were once capable off-roaders.
The design is quite ‘90s, but I think has aged pretty well. The gray, ribbed lower cladding actually works well, joining in with the basic gray bumpers to give the car a two-tone quality, along with covering the lower third of the car with hard-wearing materials that don’t need to be painted, a real plus if you wanted to actually use the car for fun stuff.
The undulating beltline works well, too, and I like the thick B-pillar and the very thin C-pillar combination. The whole package just looks fun. It’s not trying to convey any idea of status or pretention, it’s just there to help you have a good time.
It’s a funky-looking little vehicle, and in green, like this one, it reminds me of a cybernetic frog. In a good way.
When these were first out, what was comparable? A Geo Tracker? A Jeep Wrangler? In 1996, for example, you couldn’t even get a new Jeep Wrangler, but you could get a two-door 4WD RAV4, for about $16,000. The next year they even introduced a soft-top one, which was even more Wrangler-like.
A fun, relatively inexpensive, fairly capable off-roader that could get you to and from work with Toyota reliability? That’s amazing.
We actually ran a very detailed article about this first RAV4 from our pals at Oppositelock a few years back, and it’s absolutely worth reading if you haven’t.
The RAV4 story, though, I don’t think is a happy one. I mean, it’s great for Toyota, who makes plenty of cash from these, but the evolution of the RAV4 is pretty much the automotive equivalent of selling out.
The RAV4 grew up more dramatically than most cars I can think of, transforming from a charmingly quirky and capable fun car into just another one of the nearly invisible silver SUVs or CUVs or whatever you see choking any given Target parking lot.
The process started in the second generation, as the quirky styling of the original was smoothed out, and by the third the whole tone of the car had changed. It still managed to hang on to a tiny reminder of its past in the form of an externally-mounted spare tire, but that too was gone the next year, and the RAV4 had not officially gotten a haircut, quit the band, settled in to a good office job, and began to put on weight.
It’s not like Toyota didn’t have other cars to fill the I-have-kids-but-for-some-reason-don’t-wan’t-a-minivan market. I don’t know why they felt they had to take one of the few genuinely compact and fun and affordable utility vehicles and beat it into submission until it agreed to be a boring, forgettable errand-runner, but they did.
It’s hard to find a car like that Mk 1 RAV4 today; the Jeep Wrangler is almost too serious an off-roader, and nearly every other SUV or CUV out there is either too bulky or expensive or just too damn much, in every way.
Maybe the Jeep Renegade is close?