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On a walk in my neighborhood the other night I stumbled on a rare Toyota. It was a two-door, 1996-ish, RAV4 in blue. Sure, the paint had faded and it looked like it needed new tires, but it was clear that it’s still running and is probably someone’s reliable, if a bit funky, commuter SUV. This was the original “cute ute.” Even its name, Recreational Active Vehicle, was cute at the time, and it’s survived through five generations.  

Toyota invented the “Cute ute” in 1996

red 1996 RAV4
1996 Toyota RAV4 | Toyota

When Toyota launched that first RAV4 in 1996 created a whole new segment of SUV that, before that, had been dominated by sad GMC Jimmys and Bronco IIs, or the occasional GEO Tracker. Many people found they liked the idea of a small ute, and like that blue (mostly) two-door RAV4 in my neighborhood, the RAV4 was a hit and has gone on to sell in the millions.

Today’s RAV4 is a far cry form the original

1998 4-door RAV4
1998 RAV4 | Toyota

Today’s RAV4 is a far cry from the basic runabout that Toyota sold in 1996. Toyota used a sedan platform, jacked it up, added some rough-and-tumble aspects, and called it an SUV.  It had a simple 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with just 120 horsepower and a standard five-speed manual box. It came in two-door and four-door versions, and all came with power windows and power locks, though air conditioning was an option. In a world where 4Runners, Cherokees and Land Rover discoveries, it stood out as a simple, practical, alternative with a low base price of $15,000.

And, believe it or not, a convertible. In 1998 you could get a convertible version with, let’s say, eye-catching seat patterns. Also, Toyota launched a long-forgotten EV version, too, that was sold to feet customers.

The second generation was produced from 2001-2005

a silver second generation RAV4
A second generation Toyota RAV4 | Toyota

The first generation of RAV4 was such a hit that Toyota redesigned it for 2001. It grew up and lost its funky looks and instead traded them for a slightly more traditional SUV look on a longer wheelbase. It came with a simple four-cylinder that only made 148 horsepower, despite variable valve timing, but nobody was taking these to the drag strip. And, though it had an optional all-wheel drive package, it was more for inclement weather instead of tackling the Rubicon trail.

The third generation finally got a V6

a silver 2008 RAV4 parked
A third generation RAV4 | Toyota

The third generation was produced from 2006 to 2012. The big news, beyond a larger body with more mainstream styling, was that you could get a 269-horsepower V6. It wasn’t fast, but it wasn’t underpowered anymore. Buyers weren’t cross-shopping the RAV4 with a Land Cruiser SUV, but were instead swapping out their Camry wagons for something that had a higher seating position, optional all-wheel drive, and even leather and automatic climate control.

The fourth generation shed the “cute ute” looks

By the fourth generation, which was made from 2013 to 2018, the RAV4 finally shed its “cute ute” looks and grew up. It had to, with the Honda CR-V, Chevy Blazer and others stepping up the competition in the compact SUV world. The fourth generation of RAV4 counterpunched with an available hybrid engine, and a generally pleasant do-it-all demeanor. Overall, though this generation of RAV4 may be reliable, according to J.D. Power, it never threatened any excitement.

Consumer Reports compact SUVs owner satisfaction
2022 Toyota RAV4 XSE | Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc.

The New 2023 RAV4 Woodland Edition Adds a 14th Trim Level to the RAV4

The 2022 RAV4 is more than just Toyota’s best-selling SUV, it is the world’s best-selling SUV. We’re not surprised that Toyota doesn’t want to mess too much with that success for 2023. The last big update for the RAV4 came for the 2021 model year after a complete redesign in 2018. The 2022 Toyota RAV4 is a five-seat SUV that comes in gas, hybrid, and plug-in variants. It competes with SUVs like the Honda CR-V and Kia Sportage, and J.D. Power’s last rating of the RAV4 scored it average to above average.

The RAV4 today is the cornerstone of Toyota’s SUVs. It’s roomy, comfortable, reliable and even looks interesting, though no one would ever call it a “cute ute” today.  The current RAV4 is reliable, and full of utility. In RAV4 Prime, or as the plug-in hybrid version, it’s quick with more than 300 horsepower on tap.