Kicking Up Dirt and Conquering Corners in a Rally-Ready Toyota RAV4
There's a good chance if you go out on the street right now, you'll see a Toyota RAV4. It's a very unassuming SUV, and the best selling in its class—meaning the things are literally everywhere. But did you know that the same RAV4 on the corner of your street can hang with the best of them on a rally stage? You do now.
Toyota invited me out to Southern California to sample some of the best in wine and rally cars (not at the same time). Specifically one rally car: the RAV4. On the pro stage, the RAV4 is piloted by driver Ryan Millen (brother of Rhys Millen, son of Rod Millen). It's one the of the most potent vehicles in Rally America and sits tied for first place per this writing. And did I mention it's front-wheel drive? That's right, a front-wheel drive rally car.
Even more amazing is the way this thing is set up. I'd argue to say that probably around 70 percent of the car is stock. Even Ryan himself admits that he and his team try not to mess with it too much because it's already so damn good from the factory. Think about that next time you pull up to one at a stoplight. A stock engine, a stock gearbox, stock sway bars up front, stock brakes—stock a lot of things, aside from the wheels, tires, and stripped out suspension. Though we weren't able to drive Ryan's race-ready RAV4 (sad face), Toyota did have a little surprise in store for us. We were driving "lightly-modified" rally RAV4s. Like Ryan's rally car, Toyota kept most everything stock, the only new features being some knobby all-terrain tires, new wheels, mud flaps, LED fog lights (just in case) and a helmet. That's it.
Our goal for the day was to take these rough little CUVs around a mini-rally stage built into horse ranch in Southern Cal, and really get a feel for how this 'stock' RAV4 could tackle the tough stuff. I have to say, immediately I was blown away by how a few simple modifications transformed this unassuming SUV into something spectacularly cool. Toyota wants more young people excited about the RAV4; offering this as an option to consumers is exactly how to do that. But I digress. We hit the stage in our little rally RAVs and it was pretty obvious that this thing knows how to take a corner. It slides, it jumps, and with the all-wheel-drive one I was piloting, it always seemed to do its best to get you where you wanted to go—and relatively quickly. It felt more like a lifted hatchback than a true SUV, which was a good thing.
A full day of semi-rallying had me already pretty convinced that the RAV4 was much more than I thought it was going in; tough, rugged, and actually kind of cool. And then Ryan told us we were taking hot laps in his race-prepped RAV. Oh boy... I strapped into a six-point harness and silently prayed I would make it back in one piece. I'm not sure what I was so worried about, I was sitting next to, literally, the best driver in Rally America at the moment. And it showed. His rally RAV burbled its way down the course entry, sounding like an overly-aggressive WRX. It's front wheels dug into the mud and dirt, pining for grip constantly. The first corner came, Ryan pulled the e-brake, and the RAV slid masterfully around it. It was like watching an ice ballet, except the ice was dirt, and the performer was a sub-$30,000 small SUV.
My anxious fear quickly turned into nostalgic excitement. It was like I was a kid again, watching videos of rally cars in absolute awe, sliding my way around the digital world of SEGA Rally in my living room. For Toyota, that's exactly the goal the team had in mind when it set out. The new Toyota lives and dies by the three—three terms, that is: innovative, inspiring, and exciting. If a car doesn't exhibit at least two of those qualities, then it isn't something Toyota feels is worth offering to consumers. That rings even more true in the world of racing. Sitting in the passenger seat, at least one of those feelings was immediately present: excitement. One of the most exciting things I've ever done in my short career; taking corners with a pro driver, kicking up dirt and mud in the process. Contemplating a bit deeper, and the other two started to come to life.
Innovate: that a small SUV like the Rav4 was engineered well enough that it can take on a rally stage mostly stock. And inspiring: for anyone watching this small SUV conquer corners and kick up dirt, remembering the completely stock version they might have seen a few hours earlier. Maybe so inspiring, in fact, that you'll go out and buy one. So if you were thinking to yourself, 'why a RAV4? Why rally?' the only answer to that question lies behind the driver's seat.
Photo Credit: Jeff Perez for BoldRide / Toyota