Toyota RAV4 - 2006 First Drive: Welcome to the age of Toyota.
Hyperbole, perhaps. Or maybe a salutation that’s a bit late, depending on your perspective. The reality, however, is that the gulf between the largest automaker in the world, General Motors, and the real number one automaker in the United States, Toyota, has never been greater and is brutally symbolized by the 2006 Toyota RAV4. While GM cuts jobs and closes plants, while GM frets over the bankruptcy of its main supplier, Delphi, Toyota unveils a compact SUV that is anything but small, a vehicle that effectively straddles two classes of SUVs, simultaneously hitting the sweet spot of a market that demands the comfort of a car, the utility of a truck, and the performance of each. Most of the time, an automaker spends millions – maybe billions – to develop a vehicle that gently nudges ahead of the competition. This is the automotive circle of life, and it dictates that car makers play an endless game of “can you top this?” giving buyers a wide array of choices, depending on their tastes, and spurring competition.
The 2006 Toyota RAV4 blows that circle to smithereens. It effectively becomes the nicest riding, most powerful and technologically advanced compact SUV on the market. It also becomes a serious consideration for those looking for a vehicle that’s bigger, coming close to matching large SUVs such as the Nissan Pathfinder and even Toyota’s own Highlander for size (V6 engine) and power – and doing so for thousands of dollars less. Add to that the impact of rising fuel prices on SUV sales, evidenced by row after row of large vehicles gathering dust on dealer lots, and the RAV4 becomes a cornerstone of Toyota’s future success – and serious bad news for the competition.
It wasn’t always that way. Originally brought to North America in 1996, the RAV4 was one of the first car-based SUVs, the kind of car that combines the ride of a sedan with the usefulness of a utility vehicle, namely an up-high seating position and plenty of cargo space. It sold very well, but was hampered by exterior styling some viewed as cartoonish and effeminate. Toyota went about changing that with this new version, moving the 2006 RAV4 to a new, larger platform and giving it a class-leading 269-horsepower V6 engine. The result is an SUV that may be considered a little bland to some, but iss wider and longer, looks tougher, offers streams of power, and gives a resounding advantage to Toyota in one of the most profitable car markets in the world.
Welcome to the age of Toyota, indeed.