The crossover segment sees incredible sales each year. This popular midway between a car and an SUV comes in a range of sizes. From the luxurious Bentley Bentayga to a budget crossover like the Mitsubishi Outlander, there is a crossover SUV––or CUV ––for nearly every buyer out there. However, this common car-meets-utility-vehicle design wasn’t always the norm. The Toyota RAV4 was the crossover that changed everything, soon followed by Subaru Forester and the Honda CR-V.

a white subaru forester crossover SUV at speed on a scenic road
Subaru Forester | Subaru

So how did the crossover SUV option become such a prominent figure in the auto industry? People wanted the ride comfort of a car. But they didn’t want to sacrifice size and utility.

Enter the crossover. By using a unibody frame with more aggressive SUV styling and higher ground clearance, a crossover is essentially the best of both worlds. Both SUV and car, the crossover SUV is a useful blend. A Toyota crossover debuted in the 1990s, soon followed by the Subaru’s first crossover and the CR-V––a popular Honda crossover.

A Subaru Forester crossover SUV driving down a dirt road
2014 Subaru Forester | Subaru

What was the first crossover?

Although there were some smaller Ford SUVs at the time, they were still built on a truck platform. These ladder frame SUV options were great for families, but there is no getting around that they are trucks. Toyota saw a hole in the market and took a risk on the Toyota RAV4.

A Toyota RAV4 parked in a dealership lot
Toyota RAV4 | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

According to How Stuff Works, the first crossover was the invented to fill a space in the market. There was a demand for a smaller, more “light-duty” SUV. Crossovers are also abbreviated to CUV. This stands for crossover utility vehicle.

The Toyota RAV4 crossover

The crossover SUV is typically styled more rugged than a wagon or car. They are often AWD, or it’s at least an available option. The greatest departure from a true SUV is––obviously––that a CUV is not built on a truck platform like its more utilitarian counterpart. This improves road manners, though you do lose a bit in the way of off-road capability. Today it’s one of the most popular global auto segments. But when was the first crossover introduced?

A white 2016 Toyota RAV4 off-road.
Toyota RAV4 | Toyota

In 1994 Japan saw the first Toyota RAV4. Just two years later, in 1996, the Toyota RAV4 crossover made its way to U.S. dealers. Though later models also offered 2WD, the first model of the Toyota RAV4 came available as an AWD vehicle only. In fact, RAV4 stands for recreational active vehicle with 4-wheel drive.

The Subaru Forester and the Honda CR-V

In the U.S. crossovers arrived in a market that loved the crossover. American families across the nation traded in their cars for crossovers. The Subaru Forester crossover came to compete with the Toyota RAV4 CUV. The 1998 Forester debuted in the U.S. in 1997. According to How Stuff Works, the Subaru Forester crossover used the slogan “SUV tough, car easy.”

Honda CR-V used crossover SUV from 2005 driving in the mountains
2005 Honda CR-V | Auto Evolution

The Honda CR-V also came onto the scene in 1997. Honda brought one more to the Japanese crossover competition. Just a few years later in 2001, the Ford Escape also came to the market as a crossover. Interestingly enough, models like the Honda CR-V are still wildly successful and incredibly popular family vehicles for today’s American family. You might have grown up riding in the back of a late 1990s RAV4 and now you drive your own family around in one too. The popularity and success of the crossover are undeniable.

A 2020 Honda CR-V on display at an auto show.
The 2020 Honda CR-V Hybrid | MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images

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Each year we watch the evolution of our favorites and see new examples released as well. It’s a segment that shows absolutely no sign of slowing down. However, once upon a Toyota crossover, the RAV4 came to the market and changed everything.