It’s easy to forget in the burgeoning world of CUVs that Toyota’s original 1996 RAV4 effectively gave birth to the segment. It proved not only a huge sales success but also a massive inspiration to other manufacturers who scrambled to catch up.
Throughout its next two generations, the RAV4 eschewed the jacked-up, car-like, hatchback forms that many C-segment SUVs have taken on. It retained a softer, more leisure image and the distinctive spare wheel hung from the back door. It also sold well as a 3-door, to people who bought one instead of small coupes.
Generation four has just been unveiled here in LA and it’s all change for the RAV4’s personality. Gone is the distinctive style, the rear-door mounted spare wheel, the softer edged styling. In its place a generic amalgamation of SUV parts, that’s no more distinct than rival SUVs from Mazda, Hyundai and Mitsubishi to name but a few.
It’s easy to understand the company’s thinking. The RAV4 now aims at the sweet spot of the market and it’s got more of a formal, upmarket image. Presumably, the company hopes this will allow models higher in the range to compete with premium, German opposition.
Yet, despite the Germans being fairly weak in this segment and the fact Korean and other Japanese opposition show little in the way of innovation, the RAV4 is a luke-warm effort.
It’s well packaged with a thematically interesting interior, but the exterior form features surfacing and detail execution that’s sloppy at best. Perceived quality in the interior is poor enough to undermine the design theme thanks to hard plastics, sharp edges, cheap metal-look fillets that are oh-so-obviously plastic. And that’s before we get to one of the cheapest-feeling steering wheels we’ve ever held.
Sales of other products in the segment show that customers perhaps care less about this kind of stuff than we do. But for a nameplate that was so original and that has had so much personality in its back pocket, it’s a real shame to see Toyota going down the ‘me-too’ path with this car. In its static form, it brings nothing standout or original to a now very crowded class.
by Joe Simpson