When Japan stopped working half Saturdays, the Toyota RAV4 became No.1. Here’s why
Hans · May 1, 2020 03:08 PM
The Toyota RAV4 is the world’s most popular SUV, holding a strong lead over the Honda CR-V and Nissan X-Trail. The RAV4 is also the fourth best-selling car model worldwide, after the Ford F-Series, Toyota Corolla, and Honda Civic.
Earlier this year, the Toyota RAV4 crossed its 10 millionth unit sales milestone, after 26 years on the market (since 1994).
All these might come as a surprise to many Malaysians because the Toyota RAV4 has never been a strong contender in here. Few RAV4s were sold here and most were grey imports.
Fun fact: UMW Toyota Motor briefly sold the RAV4 in the ‘90s before dropping it in the 2000s but the model is set to return to Malaysia soon, more on that later.
To understand why the Toyota RAV4 is such a hit worldwide, we have to go back to its origin, travelling back in time to ‘80s era Japan.
The year was 1989. The Sony Walkman was king, Nintendo Game Boy was a global hit. Like many other countries, Japan’s car market was dominated by sedans and small hatchbacks.
Nobody has ever heard of the term Sports Utility Vehicle. Not even in the US. What we now know as SUVs were then known simply as 4x4s. They were big, guzzled fuel, slow, noisy and uncomfortable.
It’s all part of the character – so the manufacturers say. There were only two types of people who bought a 4x4 – those who needed the go-anywhere capability for their work, and those who loved role playing Indiana Jones (another ‘80s classic) or fantasize about joining the Camel Trophy (tobacco brands could do cool stuff then).
Outside this small minority, few saw the point of driving around in a 4x4. Nobody will even think of cross shopping between a Toyota Corolla and a Land Cruiser.
Many Japanese of that era worked 5.5 days per week. Saturdays were half working days. The situation was not any different in Malaysia.
But by the late ‘80s, many companies have switched to a Western style 5-day work week.
The logic was simple: Productivity of a half working day was low anyway. Governments were encouraging companies to adopt a two-day weekend because it increased consumer spending. The increase in economic activities was more than enough to compensate for the slight drop in productivity.
Toyota’s product planners are curious people who didn’t just study about cars. They spend a great deal of their time observing consumer behaviour.
A change in work culture might seem unrelated to cars but if you think about it, it’s obvious that a change in the split between work and leisure will lead to a change in the way people lead their life and therefore change the way they use their cars.
This was the impetus for the RAV4. Toyota’s product planners also noted that more and more people are driving out of the city to enjoy their two-day weekend.
The use of the word ‘weekend getaway’ was becoming increasingly common. They also noted that there was an increase in interest in light outdoor activities like camping while American style surfing and beach water sport activities were catching on.
Accommodating such a lifestyle wasn’t what the Toyota Corolla – the default ‘salaryman’s car’ - was designed for.
Still, it will be quite a stretch to convince Mr. and Mrs. Okuda living in a small terrace house in Tokyo’s Shinagawa ward to trade-in their Corolla for a Land Cruiser just because they love camping in Lake Yamanaka.
The number of female drivers in Japan also crossed the 10 million milestone, and meeting the demands of female buyers was becoming increasingly important.
That 25-year old lady who loves driving out of the city with her friends wants a car that reflects her youthful personality and won’t consider a sedan because it looks like her father’s Corolla.
Toyota wasn’t the only ones who saw this changing trend. Mitsubishi had already started to introduce variants of the Pajero with quieter petrol engines and user-friendly automatic transmission.
Meanwhile, Suzuki introduced the compact Vitara while Daihatsu introduced Rocky (no relation to the current Rocky). Both were pretty cool outdoor lifestyle 4x4 vehicles.
However all were still running on 4x4 style ladder-frame chassis, which makes the ride uncomfortable. The heavy duty 4x4 drivetrain used was an overkill for urban users and had terrible fuel consumption and turning radius.
What Suzuki and Daihatsu had done was just making a scaled down 4x4. There was no radical shift in the product concept.
Enter the Toyota RAV Four Concept (RAV4 name would come later), presented at the 1989 Tokyo Motor Show. It was the first time the RAV name was used, short for Recreational Activity Vehicle.
Toyota describes the RAV Four Concept as a “neo-urban 4WD car aimed at young city dwellers who lead an active lifestyle.
Unlike the Suzuki Vitara or Daihatsu Rocky, the RAV Four was built on a passenger car platform, which means that it drives just like a taller Corolla. It will be easy to handle and park, comfortable and fuel efficient. Just like a Corolla. Why would Mr. & Mrs. Okuda, and the young and single Ms. Tanaka living next door say no?
Interest was strong but Executive Chief Engineer Masakatsu Nonaka found little support within the company.
Remember that this was the old, pre-Akio Toyoda era Toyota. It was a risk-averse, cost conscious manufacturer. There was nothing like the RAV Four and the financial controllers were apprehensive of the risk.
However Nonaka found support among Toyota’s Japanese and European dealer network, who gathered together and convinced Toyota that the demand was there. When dealers say they are confident with the product concept, then it must be worth the risk.
By 1992, the five-day work week became mandatory in Japan and in that same year, the RAV Four project was approved.
To keep cost low, the RAV Four was put together using a Corolla’s platform, but modified to accommodate running gear from the rally-winning four-wheel drive Celica.
The Celica’s full-time 4WD was designed for on-road use and was therefore lighter and more suitable than the Land Cruiser’s heavy duty unit.
The production car was launched on 10-May 1994 with a slight change in name, from RAV Four to RAV4.
It was the first of the modern SUV/crossover. Success of the RAV4 prompted Honda to follow up with the CR-V.
Later, Toyota would follow up on the RAV4’s success with the Toyota Harrier/Lexus RX – the first luxury SUV/crossover, because the Range Rover just was too unwieldy for California’s organic food chewing, yoga practicing ‘bourgeois bohemians,’ but that’s another story.
The RAV4 was initially launched only as a 3-door model, powered by the Celica’s 2.0-litre 3S-FE engine, paired to either a 5-speed manual or a 4-speed automatic.
The optional twin sunroofs had removable aluminium panels, which was a big hit in the summer driving season. Later, there was a convertible version too, which looks really cool until today.
A five-door model joined the range one year later. Subsequently, front-wheel drive variants were also offered.
Another reason why the RAV4 was such a big hit was because Toyota offered a multitude of colour combinations for its two-tone exterior and interior, at least in Japan.
Known as the "Toyota Personal Selection," customers can choose from 18 possible colour combinations. Toyota even opened a Toyota Personal Selection Studio at its AMLUX Toyota Auto Salon brand experience stores – the predecessor to today’s Toyota Megaweb in Odaiba, Tokyo.
The colour options and its short skirt friendly low ride height and tight 5-metre turning radius made the RAV4 a hit among female buyers.
Early generation RAV4s were marketed either as a RAV4 J or RAV4 L. The ‘J’ designation here is not related to an entry Toyota Vios 1.5J.
Instead, the J meant Joyful while L was for Liberty. The designations were used to differentiate the RAV4 models sold by different Toyota dealer networks.
Unlike other countries, Toyota practiced a rather complex multi-dealer network in Japan, with different dealer networks selling different models.
The RAV4 J was sold by the Toyota Auto network while the RAV4 L was sold via the Corolla network. Note that the Toyota Corolla name originated from the dealer network that was created to sell it.
It’s also why many reconditioned RAV4 units have the J or L badge at the rear, but the ones imported officially by UMW Toyota Motor don’t carry it.
Yes, the first three generations of the RAV4 were sold by UMW Toyota Motor, but as it was imported from Japan, the company didn’t pay a lot of attention to it and the available units were quite low.
The first generation RAV4 was sold in the ‘90s for about RM 135,000 but overtime, changes to the excise duty structure saw an increase in taxes for SUVs and by the mid-2000s, prices have crossed the RM 200,000 barrier and the company discontinued it.
The locally-assembled Honda CR-V was priced lower and Honda Malaysia (and before that, Kah Motor) paid more attention to grow the SUV segment. Thus explains the CR-V’s dominance here and why the RAV4 remained as a mere footnote.
However, the Toyota RAV4 is poised to make a return to Malaysia soon. We expect the fifth generation Toyota RAV4 to be launched sometime between end-2020 and early-2021.
Don’t expect it to be cheap though. Sourcing is still unconfirmed, but it will certainly be imported, either from Thailand or Japan.
The Toyota RAV4 was last sold in Malaysia at RM 203,400, in year 2006.
The success of the RAV4 makes for an interesting case study not because it’s the first of its kind or the world’s most successful SUV. The RAV4 is not just a car, but a product of its time.