Every generation Toyota RAV4 ranked.
The Toyota RAV4 is the best-selling SUV in America. Overall, it's in fourth place, beaten only by the Ford F-150, Chevrolet Silverado, and Ram 1500. That's quite impressive, considering America's love affair with trucks. What's even more impressive is the gap between the RAV4 and its main rival, which happens to be in seventh place on the list of best sellers.
Last year, 238,155 Honda CR-V units were sold. Over the same timeframe, Toyota sold 399,941 RAV4s. And it's not because the RAV4 is the best in its segment. It may have been when the current fifth-generation was introduced in 2018, but it has since been thoroughly trounced by the new Honda CR-V, Hyundai Tucson, Kia Sportage, and our personal favorite, the Mazda CX-50. If serious off-roading is more your thing, we have a feature on the best years for the Toyota 4Runner, too.
Still, people tend to stick with a brand that keeps on churning out excellent, reliable, and affordable products. The CX-50 may have style, grace, and a luxurious interior, but the RAV4's legacy dates back to 1994.
With that in mind, we decided to take a look at every generation of RAV4 from the least best to the absolute best.
It's important to note that we're calling the third-gen the least best and not the worst. Across all five generations, the RAV4 has always been a reliable SUV that does exactly what you expect it to do.
The third-gen RAV4 introduced two new elements to the vehicle. For the first time, the RAV4 was built on a platform shared with other models. To save costs, Toyota introduced the then-new MC platform, which also underpinned the Avensis, Prius, and Corolla. This platform was built specifically for front-wheel-drive cars, but it could be adapted to four-wheel-drive. Crucially, Toyota retained a button that would override the system and keep the 4WD system locked in place at speeds below 25 mph. None of that 'ECU deciding where the power should go' BS.
It was also the first time Toyota gave owners the option of a six-cylinder engine. There were four naturally aspirated gas-powered engines, with the 2.4-liter being the big seller in the USA. The 2GR-FE 3.5-liter V6, also used in the Lexus RX350, Toyota Camry, and even the Lotus Evora, was also available. It was the first time the RAV4 got some serious juice, as the 270-horsepower V6 got the RAV4 to 60 mph in around six seconds. Oddly, it didn't sell well, and the V6 never made a return.
Our biggest gripe with the XA30 is its lack of style. Fans of the first and second-generation models were hoping for another cool SUV, but instead, they got another generic design with a Toyota badge pasted to the front.
Toyota never even bothered designing a two-door version, opting to sell the previous generation SWB model alongside the third-gen for two years after its launch.
This is where the RAV4 lost most of its personality, going from funky off-roader to just another entry in the compact SUV segment.
The fourth-gen RAV4 was the first to settle on a standard wheelbase. While the XA30 wasn't available as a two-door, Toyota sold a SWB model in Eastern countries. This was the first RAV4 that was built for a massive global audience and the first to adopt green-ish technology.
Thankfully, Toyota put some effort into the design. We wouldn't call the pre-facelift model handsome, but at least the design wasn't phoned in like the third-generation. Once again, it was available with a range of gas and diesel engines, but for the USA, Toyota opted for the 2.5-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder that produced 176 hp and 172 lb-ft of torque. It was also the last RAV4 equipped with a six-speed automatic transmission.
As our used review shows, Toyota left this combination untouched because it was extremely reliable.
A facelifted model was introduced in 2015 for the 2016 model year. It was a fun redesign, with the front being an obvious throwback to the first-generation model but updated for the modern world.
Along with the facelift, Toyota also introduced the first hybrid RAV4, which has now become a staple of the range. In fact, the majority of buyers now opt for the electrified model. The first RAV4 wasn't all that special, however. It used a 2.5-liter Atkinson cycle NA gas engine mated to a CVT transmission housing a single electric motor.
The addition of an electric motor boosted the power to 194 hp, but the CVT transmission wasn't nearly as refined as it is these days. It sucked the joy out of driving, but at least it sipped fuel at a rate of 32 mpg.
The fourth-generation is a great used buy for a family on a budget. It doesn't have Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, but from 2017 onward, it gained Toyota Safety Sense P as standard, adding automatic high beams, automatic emergency braking, dynamic cruise control, and lane-departure warning.
Designed by Calty, the second-gen RAV4 took the cute design of the in a more butch direction. It was still a funky car, however. The only reason it doesn't rank higher is because Toyota never sold the two-door in the USA. The five-door is fine, but the shorty just has that something extra.
Originally offered with a paltry 2.0-liter NA four-cylinder, the pre-facelift model only had 150 horses on tap. You could have it with a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic. Four-speed automatics don't belong in cars made after 1985, so the stick is the one to have.
The power might have been low, but so was the curb weight. It weighed only 2,535 pounds, which is 835 lbs less than the lightest 2024 RAV4.
The XA20 was facelifted for the 2004 model year. Toyota made the obligatory boring design upgrades to the exterior, but the big news was a new 2.4-liter NA four-cylinder for the USA. This engine produced 160 hp and 162 lb-ft of torque, which made no difference whatsoever.
Still, it was a lovely thing to drive. Being naturally aspirated, you had to work the engine to get the most out of it, which was especially fun on a dirt road. Unlike modern RAV4s, equipped with a reactive all-wheel-drive system, the first and second-gen had an ace up their sleeves.
But more on that later.
One could argue that the best RAV4 is the most recent one, and we agree, to an extent. Shortly after it was introduced in 2018, this writer lived with one for a year. Apart from a 2.5-liter naturally aspirated inline-four that felt a bit asthmatic at altitude, it didn't put a foot wrong. The eight-speed automatic transmission does its best to compensate for the lack of a turbocharger.
The jump up from the previous-generation all-wheel-drive system was massive. The Dynamic Torque Vectoring AWD with Driveline Disconnect is standard on models built explicitly for off-roading, like the TRD Off-Road, Adventure, and Limited. It can disengage the rear axle for optimal fuel efficiency but also has clutch packs in the rear differential for torque vectoring purposes. It works so much better than these wannabe brake-based traction control systems.
Toyota also bolstered its hybrid offerings. The standard hybrid uses the same 2.5-liter engine but adds two electric motors to produce 219 hp. It's a good car, but the RAV4 Prime is even better. While every RAV4 generation has been quite good off-road, we all know they spent most of their time in the 'burbs.
The Prime is a plug-in hybrid with an 18.1 kWh battery, good for 42 miles of all-electric range. If your daily commute is less than that and you have a home charger, you can go months without visiting a gas station. Yes, it's initially expensive but totally worth it.
The current RAV4 is also quite upmarket. Having spent a lot of time behind the wheel of the fourth-gen, we were stunned by how much of an upgrade the fifth-gen was, especially from a noise, vibration, and harshness perspective.
We're talking specifically about the two-door version, as the five-door looked awkward with the added wheelbase in the middle. Nobody quite knew what to make of the RAV4 when it was launched, as it was the first modern compact SUV. Little did we know how big the segment would get 30 years after the first gen's introduction.
There are many things we love about the first RAV4. The design remains brilliant, even after 30 years. It's so simple and both cute and robust at the same time. In fact, robust was actually part of the acronym that made up its name. Depending on which country it was sold, RAV4 either stood for "Recreational Active Vehicle with 4-wheel drive" or "Robust Accurate Vehicle with 4-wheel drive."
It was only available with a 2.0-liter inline-four, which, at the most, produced 127 hp. Like the second-gen, you could choose between a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic.
Now, about that ace in the hole we mentioned earlier. The first two generations of RAV4 were either equipped with front-wheel-drive or a permanent four-wheel-drive system - none of that reactive AWD nonsense. There was always some percentage of power going to both axles. The automatic version handled the split automatically, but the manual models came with a 4WD lock mode. This would lock the power distribution in a 50:50 split. Oh, and a rear LSD was available.
This made the first-gen RAV4 huge fun to drive. Handling a slide in the shorty took some skill, but it was extremely rewarding.
But we need to get anecdotal to fully explain just how good the XA10 was. Years ago, we were on a safari in a very wet South Africa. We were driving the V8 versions of the recently updated Land Cruiser 70, and we simply couldn't get them up a muddy slope to where lunch was served. While trying to show off our off-roading knowledge, the farmer's wife, in a basic RAV4, simply bounced right over the wet mud and grass, making the Land Cruiser look stupid.
The XA10 was ahead of its time, which is reflected in how much you'll pay for one in America these days. A mint 1998 drop-top shorty sold on Cars & Bids for $14,500 recently. That's roughly what you'd pay for a third-gen 3.5 with less than 60,000 miles on the clock.
Toyota is often criticized for being late to the EV party, but did you know the Japanese giant made an all-electric version of the first-generation RAV4? It was only sold in California and was equipped with a 27 kWh Nickel-metal hydride battery, good for 120 miles. It was around that time Toyota started filing patents for solid-state batteries, and now it owns more than any other manufacturer in the business.
Toyota built another RAV4 EV on the bones of the third-gen, working together with Tesla. Once again, it was only sold in California and was equipped with components that would later be used in the Model S.
The ranges were pathetic, which is likely why Toyota waited another decade before going fully electric, and all of those solid-state battery patents are paying off because upcoming Toyota EVs are going to be groundbreaking.