Car of the Day #84: 1989 Toyota RAV-FOUR

1989 Toyota RAV-FOUR concept • via Toyota

I was browsing the internet a few days ago and came across a grainy photo of this 1989 Toyota RAV-FOUR concept at the Tokyo Motor Show—with the lower cladding painted silver (see below!)

I had forgotten what it was, until it clicked that I’d written about it back in 2015 in an earlier Car of the Day run. 😅

It took five years for Toyota to go from this spunky, quirky, highly characterful runabout concept to the first RAV4 hitting the market…and hoo-boy, there were changes.

You're looking at the raw essence of what the designers and engineers wanted to do: a small, light, fun, and sporty crossover (check out those seat bolsters!) 

1989 Toyota RAV-FOUR concept • via Toyota

Sized like the Suzuki Jimny, it points to years of fun spent bashing dunes and carrying dirt bikes around instead of passengers. It's also more proof for what I've personally noted over years of meeting car designers: they're enthusiasts through and through.

I think we can agree we'd all love to take this little RAV-FOUR to a gravel road and have at it.

1989 Toyota RAV-FOUR concept — note the inset watch face, crazy seat bolsters, and dashboard netting that seemingly every automaker has tried at least once on their SUV concepts • via Toyota

I also think we can also agree that if Toyota had made this little cute ute, the company would be missing a few trillion dollars from its bank account due to lost sales — the actual RAV4 at this point is a legendary profit maker. In an ancient 2014 press release, Toyota said:

“Toyota can rightfully claim to have created the compact SUV market with RAV4’s introduction in 1994. That year it sold 53,000 worldwide; the following year saw double that number reach the road, and by 1995 the total had tripled.
“Global sales have grown with each of the four generations of RAV, with more than five million now having been sold. As a testament to Toyota’s reputation for building hard-wearing, reliable vehicles, more than 90 per cent of the RAV4 ever sold are still on the road today.”

Can't argue with that, eh? Feel free to point out that the first-generation RAV4 carried the concept's corrugated sides and that it was pretty close in theme and execution to what you see here. (But totally lacks the RAV-FOUR's miniaturized FJ-55 face!)

That's true, but I feel as though the essence of what the design team was trying to accomplish with this concept was lost by the time it hit production—and if sales are anything to go by, that's probably a good thing. 

What do enthusiasts know, anyway? 

In the years since my first version of this piece went online in 2015, other sites like Motor1 and Motor Trend have more recently published their own stories on this old concept, proving its lasting appeal as a quirky SUV that got away.


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