Toyota RAV4: Unexpectedly Roadkill

Chances are, you probably don’t look at the Toyota RAV4 twice on a given day. After all, Toyota’s SUV has been in production for almost a quarter-century now and has really just been a good people mover. It’s admittedly not the kind of vehicle we’d usually think about here on Roadkill, but in the space of just a few weeks, we had the chance to test them out in three very different conditions: performance stage rally, rock-crawling, and a long-distance road rally.

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Rippin’ Off the Paved Roads with Elana

Roadkill editor Elana Scherr visited O’Neil Rally School for a ridealong with Ryan Millen in the rally-prepped Toyota RAV4. Yes, Millen and veteran co-driver Rhianon Gelsomino—an Australian who has right-seated for some of the best rally drivers in North America—campaign a front-wheel-drive crossover in several different rallies. They’ve won several two-wheel-drive rally titles and can squeeze out more from a stock-drivetrain RAV4 than most mortals could extract with a Subaru WRX.

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While at O’Neil, Elana got the chance to drive the rally school’s test track in RAV4s of three different trims: a base model, an SE, and an experimental non-stock one with stiffer suspension. Skid plates and 16-inch wheels with BFG KO2 tires kept all the RAV4s from the ever-present threat of Death By Journalist.

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They also afforded Elana the opportunity to dip her toe into the deep pool of rallying and rallycross. We suspect she’ll be doing more of that at the first possible opportunity. She might even be angling for a crack at the rallycrossing AMC Hornet from Episode 71 of Roadkill (on MotorTrendOnDemand now!).

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Elana later headed to the nearby New England Forest Rally, where Millen and Gelsomino knocked their own RAV4 around as part of the American Rally Association (AMA) championship. They finished a strong seventh place overall and won the Open 2WD class by more than five minutes.

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With their class win at the AMA’s final rally ( the Ojibwe Forest Rally in Minnesota), Ryan and Rhianon wrapped up a perfect season: six Open 2WD victories in six tries. That’s not too darn bad for a crossover with a six-speed automatic transmission.

Rock Crawling with Dirt Every Day

You’ve had crazy ideas like this, but the practical considerations always keep you from doing it. And probably rightly so. But leave it up to Dirt Every Day—executors of sound decisions like a 1,000 cubic-inch Cadillac Eldorado—to turn a front-wheel-drive first-generation RAV4 into a rock-crawling mite: the RAD4.

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At the very least, they nailed the name. This thing is super rad. And it was also a whole lotta work to make a semi-competent rock crawler.

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To make the drivetrain work, cohosts Fred Williams and David Chappelle needed to just drop the engine out, turn it sideways (longitudinally) from its normal mounting, cut out the floor, and then slide it where the passenger seat used to be. After that came the small matter of making the five-speed manual transaxle act like a transfer case to put power to blown-up old FJ80 axles that David had rebuilt.

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Yeah, it was considerable effort to fit this one Dirt Ever Day episode, but suffice to say Fred and David worked their butts off on this one. And when they were done, they had a totally functional (until they Roadkill’d it) little rock crawler. We’re extremely impressed by this one, but Fred said it best, “This is cool, but don’t do this.”

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Lemons Rally with Eric Rood

Toyota offered to let Roadkill and 24 Hours of Lemons contributor me (Eric Rood) borrow a 2017 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid to cover the 2017 Monterey Car Weeeeak Lemons Rally. Normally, we’d endorse the use of a hooptie for this kind of coverage, but since he was helping keep the rally running, a modern crossover seemed an acceptable substitute.

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If you’re unfamiliar with the Lemons Rally, it’s essentially a long-distance scavenger hunt for hooptie cars. With some days logging more than 500 miles, this was a grueling trip and while a RAV4 Hybrid isn’t setting any land-speed records, it offered Eric things that make road trips tolerable.

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Chief among these were the front-row seats, which were bar none the most comfortable I’ve ever sat in. The only thing that might have rivaled them were the plush seats in the rally-competing Chrysler Fifth Avenue. Comfy seats go a long way on a road trip and my co-driver, Autoweek contributor Bradley Brownell, snored through all of north-central Oregon after repeatedly insisting he had no ability to sleep in cars. Checkmate, Toyota.

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The hybrid drivetrain improved fuel economy while being generally non-intrusive. The 2.5-liter engine and hybrid motors generate 194 combined horsepower—again, not a world-beater in a crossover that weighs more than 3,500 pounds—but since it’s driven through a continuously variable transmission (CVT), you don’t really even notice it’s a hybrid except for the occasional spaceship noise of the hybrid system’s regenerative braking.

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The last big advantage is a glut of room. While Fred’s rear-mounted seat in the RAD4 afforded him little comfort, the RAV4 has grown into a mid-size CUV. This one comfortably housed all my road-trip gear, all of Bradley’s gear, and that of a third passenger we picked up in Weed, California, when the #CaddyOfLove’s transmission called it quits.

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Specific to covering a rally, the space in the front was a bit lacking, especially for the much-taller-than-me Bradley Brownell, who stands about 6’2”. However, the moonroof allowed me to get some great car-to-car shots on the rally’s sections through closed courses in Mexico (Seriously, don’t try this at home).

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On the downside, we didn’t take it off-roading because we didn’t feel it would ever make it over anything particularly challenging with just eight inches of ground clearance. It handles a bit like a bus with a lot of roll, which is acceptable since it absorbs highway bumps well. However, the brakes were not particularly enthused about a spirited drive over the northernmost 30 miles of Highway 1 in California. Overall, it did the job well and helped Eric gather the Lemons Rally stories that put together a picture of a darn good time on the road.

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Your Turn

Given that several million have been built and sold, we suspect Roadkill Nation members have owned a few RAV4s and put them through their paces. So what’s your best RAV4 story?

Roadkill Fall 2016 Cover