Cast your mind back, if you’re able, to the year 1994. May, to be precise. Manchester United have smashed Chelsea 4-0 in the FA Cup final, the Channel Tunnel has opened to great international fanfare and, of importance to car fans worldwide, Toyota has launched one of its boldest models in living memory: the RAV4.
A curvy, quirky 4x4 designed more with surfers than soldiers in mind? Sacrilege to fans of the straight-edged, utilitarian Jeep Wrangler, Land Rover Defender and even Toyota’s own Land Cruiser. But the RAV4 wasn’t designed for them; it was made for young people who liked surfing, hiking and climbing, and it laid the foundations for the modern crossover – a vehicle class that’s at once the most popular and most polarising on the market.
All of which goes some way to explaining why a blue short-wheelbase example, specified in lowly GS trim, currently takes pride of place in Toyota UK’s heritage fleet, when prices for even the most immaculate, top-rung RAV4s are some way south of the £6000 barrier. Fresh from a thorough and by all accounts arduous restoration, this example’s pristine exterior belies its 135,000-mile odometer reading.
The first time Autocar drove the RAV4 on UK soil was in a 1994 twin test alongside a Ford Escort RS2000 hot hatchback. A curious choice of contender, it seems, but here were two compact family runarounds, each with four-wheel drive and sporting aspirations. And where the Escort had the edge in outright power, the RAV4 pipped it in the lightweight stakes by around 65kg. And crucially, let’s not forget, when the RAV4 arrived, there was no Nissan Juke, Ford Puma or Skoda Karoq to benchmark it against.
Despite the odd pairing, this was a highly anticipated face-off; hot hatchbacks in the vein of the RS2000 had become almost impossible to insure for the average driver, while conventional off-roaders such as the Wrangler and Land Rover Discovery were simply too cumbersome and thirsty for everyday road usage.
A new niche had to be explored, and so came the RAV4, essentially sitting between the two segments, providing a happy medium between usability, fun and affordability. It wasn’t particularly quick, granted, but a proven 0-62mph time of 8.8sec in our test was enough to embarrass the rally-honed Escort, and allowing its driver to see over hedges and tackle the steepest of speed bumps without inviting costly bodywork repairs was a welcome bonus.
Get behind the wheel now and you soon find that this curvy little 4x4’s connotations of pace and poise are faint at best. Compared with today’s crop of genuinely sporty compact SUVs, powered as they are by buzzy turbo triples or torquey diesel lumps, the RAV4’s naturally aspirated 2.0-litre engine feels a bit gutless, and the thrumming noise it makes at idle is rather more reminiscent of barns than beaches.
Climb up through the gears, however, and it’s plain to see where the RAV4’s enduring appeal lies. Even on empty, flat and generally untroubling suburban streets, it inspires a confidence that’s often missing from today’s diminutive runarounds, which aren’t so disparate in terms of footprint.