Ahead of Its Time

Car-based crossovers are all the rage these days. But it was the original RAV4 and RX, introduced more than 20 years ago, that set this wheel into motion

December 03, 2019
Ugly Duckling? -- Maybe. But the original RAV4 (pictured above) definitely went on to become a swan. The current iteration is now Toyota's best-selling vehicle.

In 1994, the year Toyota unveiled the original RAV4, Mia Phillips was in the Boston Region just getting her feet wet in the automotive industry.

“I remember when it came out and thinking, ‘That sure is a funny looking thing,’” says Phillips, who served as national manager of crossover vehicles for Toyota Marketing before recently being named senior manager of Lexus Advertising. “I was on the team charged with wholesaling that RAV4 to our dealers. If someone had told me back then that it would one day be our best-selling vehicle, I would have laughed at them. Hysterically.”

No one, especially not Toyota’s competitors, is laughing now.

In fact, the current RAV4 has surpassed the Camry as the brand’s most popular vehicle with sales expected to top 430,000 by year’s end. That will make it not only the best-selling Toyota, but the best-selling non-pickup truck across all makes and models — trailing only the Ford F-150 and Dodge Ram pickup overall.

In many ways, that first RAV4 — a bit of an ugly duckling known for its spare tire mounted on the back — initiated a trend that, today, has SUVs, crossover vehicles and trucks owning nearly 70 percent of the market. Back in 1994, sedans ruled the roost.
The RAV4 also set the stage for another ground-breaking vehicle: the 1998 Lexus RX 300, the world’s first car-based luxury SUV. It quickly became Lexus’ best-selling vehicle.
“Now, every luxury make has a crossover in their line-up, even Porsche,” says Michael Moore, national manager of Product Marketing for Lexus. “But back then it was revolutionary.”
Luxury Disruptor -- The RX 300, introduced in 1998, was the market's first car-based luxury crossover.

Rides Like a Car, Works Like a Truck
From the get-go, the RAV4 and RX were meant to appeal to very different customers.
The RAV4, for example, offered decent power, increased passenger and cargo room, higher ground clearance and available all-wheel drive. It emphasized function over comfort, delivering more utility than adventurous buyers could get out of a car.
The RX, meanwhile, took those practical attributes as a starting point and added a healthy helping of luxury in the way it looked, felt and behaved.
Yet, for all their differences, both the RAV4 and RX shared a core trait that clearly set them apart from the status quo: a car-like unibody platform. Before they burst on the scene, virtually every SUV rode on a body-on-frame platform.
In other words, those other vehicles were really trucks. The RAV4 and RX were, at heart, cars that offered certain truck-like attributes.
“From day one, the RAV4 rode and handled like a car,” says Phillips. “But it could do things a car couldn’t do. It was better in the snow and rain. You could take it camping. You weren’t going rock climbing in it, but you could do light off-roading. It really was ahead of its time.”
“In 1998, SUVs were big, bulky, hard to maneuver, difficult to park, inefficient and not very comfortable,” says Moore. “The RX addressed all of those weaknesses, yet kept the truck-based SUVs’ strengths like extra cargo room and an elevated ride height, which gave the driver a better view of the road ahead. Lexus got its start as a market disruptor. So I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that it was the first to take the best of the car and truck worlds and put them together.”
Variation on a Theme -- Toyota followed the RAV4 with the family-friendly Highlander in 2000.

Pressing Their Advantage
Of course, Toyota and Lexus — in keeping with the spirit of continuous improvement —didn’t stop there. Over the years, both brands have continued to riff on the crossover theme.
Toyota, for example, introduced the original Highlander — a larger crossover meant for growing families — at the New York International Auto Show in 2000. And when both the Highlander and RAV4 moved up in size and features with each succeeding iteration, Toyota added the compact C-HR in 2017 to appeal to young, urban, style-conscious customers looking to get into their first new vehicle.
Another First -- Lexus stayed one step ahead of the competition in 2005 with the addition of the RX 400h, the market's first luxury hybrid crossover.

Lexus, meanwhile, broke more ground in 2005 with the launch of the RX 400h, the market’s first luxury hybrid crossover vehicle. And it’s since expanded its range of crossovers (NX and UX) and SUVs (GX and LX) in sync with growing demand.
Just last month at the Los Angeles Auto Show, Toyota introduced the RAV4 Prime, the first plug-in hybrid in the model’s 25-year history. And the RX, now in its fourth generation, is the best-selling luxury vehicle of any kind for 20 years running.
“That is truly amazing when you stop and think about it,” says Moore. “It shows you what’s possible when you start by listening to your customers.”
“It’s about seeing opportunities and taking advantage of them,” says Phillips. “When it comes to crossovers, Toyota really was ahead of its time.”
By Dan Miller

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