Toyota is one of the most sophisticated car makers on the planet, with a vast global product range and a typical annual output of 10.725 million vehicles (in 2019). As its press office points out, that’s a car every three seconds. Quite a few of those cars are RAV4s, the company’s long-running ‘mid-size’ SUV. When this model first debuted back in 1994 it was a genuine breath of fresh air, a compact, high-riding ‘Recreational Activity Vehicle’ that scratched a hitherto unknown consumer itch for a robustly styled car that evoked the go-anywhere qualities of an off-roader without complexity or weight.

There was an even an early electric version (albeit sold only in California at the turn of the century). As it matured, the RAV4 grew in scale and the simple design of the original gave way to Toyota’s off-kilter assemblage of scoops, curves and vents. The new model, the fifth generation, continues the company’s wayward aesthetic, endearing only because the function and technology are so refined. To our eyes at least, the Toyota aesthetic seems to be coalescing into something a bit more interesting than ugly, although the high, boxy proportions of this SUV are still somewhat challenging.

There are good reasons why the majority of plug-in hybrids and pure electric cars maintain the trend for SUVs. For a start, bigger cars have space for complex hybrid systems or the battery volume needed to quell range anxiety. But SUVs also make good profits, all the more essential in an industry that operates with wafer thin margins. However, as recent reports have attested, the benefits of low to zero-emission technology are being offset by the trend towards bigger cars. Hence the RAV4 unwittingly sits at the intersection of all these conflicting demands and desires. It’s a great car, built on Toyota’s New Global Architecture (TNGA) platform. This modular system gives the company the massive flexibility it needs to produce everything from Daihatsu Kei cars through to luxury saloons, pure electric cars and big SUVs.

This is engineering driven by raw economics, and it’s testament to Toyota’s engineering acumen that the RAV4 glides and rides with impressive grace. It has a peerless hybrid system, honed over decades of experience. It is comfortable, practical, and easy to drive, if not quite so easy on the eye, although the newly announced ‘Hybrid Black Edition’, finished in a fashionably dark colour wave inside and out, giving its unconventional angles a fresh foil. The auto industry is walking an increasingly fine line between utility and desire. Big might be profitable for now, but at some point, we’re all going to have to downsize. §