When you think of rally racing, you probably picture modified Subaru STIs and Mitsubishi Evos drifting around impossibly tight corners in the middle of the woods. While rally racing has been dominated by small cars ever since since the original Mini was the hottest hatch in the world, Toyota is shaking things up by doing things a little differently. It’s bucking the trend of the purpose-built rally car and challenging the status quo by racing in a crossover.
But it’s not just any crossover. Well, actually … it kind of is. Toyota Racing Development’s official entry in the 2015 Rally America season is a “stock” front-wheel drive Rav4 LE. Other than some weight reduction, suspension upgrades, bigger tires, and a roll cage, it’s the same uni-bodied little SUV that dots suburban landscapes all over America, right down to its 176-horsepower inline four and meager 172 pounds of torque.
If Toyota’s choice of rally car is leaving you scratching your head, it does still have some tricks up its sleeve. The company is in the midst of proving how off-road-worthy its vehicles can truly be, and the Rav4 is the latest “stock” car the company has fielded for off-road racing.
Last year, it entered a “stock” Tundra TRD pickup in the famous Baja 1000 off-road race, which surprisingly won its class, finishing 47th overall. Toyota will carry over Ryan Millen, one of the Tundra’s drivers, to see if he can repeat his success in the Rav4, a vehicle that is seemingly much more comfortable on asphalt than it ever has been off road.
Even with Millen’s experience driving Toyotas, he’s in for some stiff competition. Drivers in Subaru Impreza WRX STIs have won nine of the first 10 seasons of the series, with a lone Mitsubishi Evo X breaking up the monotony in 2010. With the mighty Mitsubishi leaving production after 2015, the Subaru’s dominance could continue to go unchecked.
While the STI and EVO’s proven all-wheel-drive systems have made them legends on the rally circuit, the rally Rav4’s front-wheel-drive set-up (even though production models can be optioned with Toyota’s Torque-Control all-wheel-drive), weight, and ride height could all be issues on the circuit. Toyota is first to admit that “a RAV4 competing within a professional racing series is rare,” but if it can stay competitive, it may open the door for other crossovers to take on the dominant Subaru cars.
The Rav4 seems to be a strange choice for Toyota’s latest rally car. After all, the company has a history of success in international rally circuits dating back to the Celica GT-Fours of the 1980s and ’90s. Earlier this year, the company announced that it will campaign a subcompact Yaris in the 2017 World Rally Championship competition. With its small size and wheels stretched to the outer corners of the car, the Yaris has the perfect proportions for tight circuits, and could prove to be a very capable little rally car.
In the end, Toyota is the world’s largest automaker and has the means to take its front-wheel-drive Crossover rallying, so why not? Fielding a Rav4 is bold enough to make this year’s Rally America season that much more interesting, and, success or not, the move is sure to raise Toyota’s performance profile in America.