The Toyota RAV4 has been part of the automotive landscape for so long that you forget where it came from. Remember the really early ones, available in a funky two-door convertible format? That was the early 1990s, and automakers knew SUVs were hot and were throwing all sorts of ideas at the wall to see if they’d stick. The convertible RAV4 had a bunch of strange company in America, like the Isuzu Amigo, the Suzuki Sidekick, and even the obscure Daihatsu Rocky.
But while the original RAV4 had spunk, the concept car that inspired it was considerably cooler. Meet the 1989 Toyota RAV-FOUR Concept, which debuted at the Tokyo Motor Show next to the production Toyota Sera (gullwing doors!) and the 4500GT Concept (which went nowhere!). Toyota called the RAV-FOUR a “neo-urban 4WD car”—unusual verbiage for a crossover and SUV era that was about to begin.
Like most bonkers cars of its vintage, the real history of the RAV-FOUR begins with the Japanese economy, which was so flush with cash in the 1980s that companies didn’t know what to do with it all. They greenlit the wildest cars. Multi-activity vehicles were all the rage, and the Suzuki Samurai was doing gangbusters in America riding on a little truck chassis. Toyota already had years and millions of dollars of experience with car-based all-wheel-drive vehicles in the All-Trac line, including the rally-bred Celica All-Trac Turbo. So what it built was maybe sensible, given the context.
The RAV-FOUR concept was far more Samurai-like than the eventual production car—much more 1980s than 1990s. The idea, according to official Toyota history, dated back to 1986 when artists started sketching its wild shape. Aside from perhaps the rear side windows on two-door models, the deep strakes on the high side cladding were the most obvious styling characteristic to carry forward—albeit toned down—into production. The overall idea of a higher-riding but car-based vehicle built for fun and not hard-core off-roading survived and thrived in the market.
Lots of RAV-FOUR details we think are particularly cool in retrospect did not reach dealerships in the RAV4, which is a shame. The front end of the RAV-FOUR concept has a lot of Honda City Turbo II flavor, with an asymmetrical grille, cheerful round headlights, and fender flares. By contrast, the production car’s blobular headlights were arguably better suited to early 1990s tastes but much less charismatic. Within that asymmetrical grille was a winch under a cover labelled “Emergency Only”—a really neat detail but one that’d be wasted on the eventual production car, with its very limited off-road chops.
Other sweet details abounded. The skinny, knobby tires wrapped around steelie-look rims are pitch perfect, the freestanding fender-mounted side-marker lights had a whiff of Mercedes G-wagen about them, and the interior had netting on the dash to hold stuff down while you launched it off a giant sand dune on a desert rally—or at least, it might have, if the RAV-FOUR had been translated more directly to production. The RAV-FOUR, essentially, looks like something you’d want to drive, and hard. More three-quarters scale rally truck than a Corolla wagon on stilts. It’s not the RAV4 we ended up with, but it’s the RAV4 we still deserve.