The Toyota RAV4 occupies a prominent position in American automotive history.
OK, so it's not as lofty a spot as, say, the Ford Model T, which used Henry Ford's brilliant innovation, the moving assembly line, to make automobiles affordable for ordinary people like you and me. (And, by the way, let's not abandon that legacy to carbon cops who would make driving unaffordable for average people.)
But the RAV4 is undeniably as important as such creative new vehicle types as the modern minivan, which most people date to the late-1983 appearance of the Dodge Caravan. The early Caravan was a front-wheel-drive box with enough cabin space to substitute for big, old-style, rear-drive station wagons, which were going away because of U.S. government fuel-use mandates.
The Toyota RAV4 arrived in America in 1996 as the first compact crossover SUV. Bill Clinton was president then, and enormous SUVs were the fashionable vehicle class, led by extravagant models like the Hummer H2 and the Cadillac Escalade.
But the RAV4 was a humble car, an easy-riding passenger vehicle, at the time built on the same platform that underlaid the Toyota Corolla. To that car platform, the RAV4 added the elements of SUVs that people liked most: a high body with a wagon back for cargo, and all-wheel drive. Thus was born the crossover, a passenger vehicle that combined the comfort and easy maneuverability of an automobile with the usefulness of an SUV.
Everybody followed the example of the Toyota RAV4. Today, crossovers are abundant, sold in heaps by auto brands from racy Porsche and stately Mercedes-Benz down to the more common car makes like Chevrolet and Ford. Crossovers have far, far outdistanced traditional SUVs in popularity and have displaced minivans as the must-have vehicle for families.