Rav4: The Small SUV that Grew Up with a Generation

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The 90s is best described as the golden age for sports cars. It was a time when almost every automaker took a shot at making a sports car. Acura had the Integra Type R and the NSX, Mazda had the RX-7 and Miata, and Dodge had the Viper. But beyond sports cars, a revolution was happening simultaneously in the family transportation segment. 

People started to veer away from the minivan, and were drawn to the stylish SUVs of General Motors and Ford. To ride this trend, Toyota took the elements of their best-selling sedan and built their own SUV. The result is the Toyota Rav4—a vehicle that will go on to shape generations of drivers.

What does Rav4 mean?

Toyota introduced the Rav4 in January of 1996. It was a vehicle that shared certain elements with the Corolla. It was the perfect vehicle to draw inspiration from because within a year, the Toyota Corolla would become the best-selling nameplate in automotive history, overtaking the Volkswagen Beetle. 

The Rav4 quickly took the market by storm, making it the first mainstream small SUV. The term “Rav4” stands for “Recreational Activity Vehicle: 4-wheel drive,” perfect for its unique compact size and rugged manner. It was a great vehicle for the weekend warrior who also needed an urban assault vehicle. 

Little did Toyota know that in two decades, the demand for small SUVs would overtake the popularity of the sedan, and the Rav4 nameplate would still be driving down the streets.

The term “Rav4” stands for “Recreational Activity Vehicle: 4-wheel drive.”

The Rav4 story

First generation

This generation was responsible for capturing the hearts of American drivers. Introduced two years after versions in Japan and Europe debuted, the US Rav4 came in two-door and four-door versions. In order to comply with California’s zero emissions requirements, the Rav4 was manufactured as an all-electric vehicle a year after its introduction. 

In 1998, Toyota offered a cabriolet Rav4 with a slightly more powerful engine. Early Rav4s were powered by a 2.0-liter gas engine mated to either a five-speed manual or an optional four-speed automatic. Around 300,000 units were sold in the United States in its first three years. The first generation Rav4 was manufactured from 1994-2003.

Second generation

Toyota’s follow up to the initial Rav4 was more powerful, with new styling and a sportier appeal. Due to the success of the first-generation Rav4, competing car makers also entered the small SUV segment. 

In 2001, the two-door variant was dropped from the US lineup, leaving the four-door variant equipped with a 2.0-liter 148-horsepower engine mated to either a four-speed automatic,  or the standard five-speed manual. A year before the second generation was wrapped up; the Rav4 was upgraded to a 2.4-liter 161-horsepower engine with the same gearbox options. The second generation Rav4 was manufactured from 2000-2005.

Introduced two years after versions in Japan and Europe debuted, the first-gen US Rav4 came in two-door and four-door versions.

Third generation

The 2006 Rav4 was all about being bigger and better. A 3.5-liter V6 engine from the Toyota Avalon gave the third-generation Rav4 a new variant with a significant power boost. Bulked up, the US Rav4 grew by 14-inches, making it similar to SUVs in a larger classification. 

Third row seating was debuted in this generation—a first for the US Rav4 model range. Toyota did away with the five-speed manuals and opted to sell this SUV with a five-speed (for V6 models) and four-speed automatic gearbox. The third generation was manufactured from 2005-2016.

Fourth generation

The fourth-generation Rav4 took a step back from the previous generation, bringing it back to its roots as a small SUV. They got rid of the V6 engine but retained the 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine. 

Instead of having a four-speed automatic transmission, the Rav4 was equipped with a new six-speed automatic gearbox. They also made the Rav4 two-inches smaller in length, and an inch shorter in height.  At this point in time, other brands like Honda and Ford overtook the Toyota Rav4 in terms of sales.  

In 2016, a hybrid version was released in the US market which shared the same powertrain as the Lexus NX 300h. A 2.5-liter four-cylinder working in collaboration with three electric motors power the Rav4 hybrid. The fourth generation was manufactured from 2012-2018.

The newest Rav4 is built on the front-wheel-drive Toyota New Global Architecture platform which it  shares with the Toyota Avalon and the Lexus ES sedan.

Fifth and current generation

Debuted in March 2018 at the New York International Auto Show, the newest Rav4 is built on the front-wheel-drive Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA-K) platform which it  shares with the Toyota Avalon and the Lexus ES sedan. The gearbox was changed from a six-speed to an eight-speed Direct Shift Automatic transmission. The current generation has more luxuries than anyone could have ever imagined with the first Rav4. 

After almost 30 years in the US market, the Toyota Rav4 has solidified itself as a mainstay in the small SUV segment. Today, the Rav4 is Toyota’s best-selling nameplate, even surpassing the Camry. Each generation has seen a growth in sales, all thanks to loyal buyers who have driven a Rav4 since their youth. From a great first car to a reliable family car, the Rav4 is a beloved vehicle that has truly come a long way.

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In the Garage with is an online blog dedicated to bringing DIYers and devoted car enthusiasts up to date with topical automotive news and lifestyle content. Our writers live and breathe automotive, taking the guess work out of car repairs with how-to content that helps owners get back on the road and keep driving.

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