Once upon a time, Toyota built some seriously cool performance machines. 2000GT, Celica, and do I even need to mention Supra? And then, well, things get a bit thin.
What does any of this have to do with a Toyota RAV4 SUV? Toyota’s been running a front-wheel drive RAV4 in the 2016 Rally America Championship, competing in the 2WD category with driver Ryan Millen and co-driver Christina Fate. Actually, Toyota hasn’t just been competing - the team was tied for the lead headed into the final round of the eight-race championship, and they invited me along to find out how they got there with a - wait for it - mostly stock RAV4.
Yes, the RAV4 is gutted and sports a roll cage for safety. The standard RAV4 suspension is replaced with race-ready gear to handle bumps and jumps, because there isn’t a factory-stock suspension setup in the world that can withstand the rigors of stage rally. There are skid plates underneath, and aggressive gravel tyres, and the stock RAV4 differential is welded so its front-wheel drive layout gets better grip out of corners.
That’s not stock you say, and you’re right. That’s why I said mostly stock, because arguably the parts you’d expect to be race spec - the engine, brakes and transmission - are in fact 100 percent factory original RAV4. Open the bonnet and you’ll see a familiar 2.5-litre Toyota mill making 180bhp.
Peer behind the black spoke rims and sure enough, there are stock Toyota callipers mounted to stock rotors. And for those who didn’t think you could get a RAV4 with a manual transmission, well, you’re right. This rally car takes care of business with a stock Toyota six-speed automatic. The only tweak is a second trans cooler to help keep the fluid nice and cold.
I can hear the naysayers now. No way is that for real. A freakin’ automatic, front-wheel drive SUV? Folks, I felt the same way. So prior to the start of the Lake Superior Performance Rally in Houghton, Michigan, the Toyota crew gave me a helmet, strapped me into the Rally RAV’s co-driver seat, and told their man Ryan to do his worst. And it was the best.
Ryan put me and the RAV through its paces, nearly catching air several times while hammering sideways though corners at ludicrous speed. Being front-wheel drive, the launch wasn’t borderline lethal like you get in an open-class WRX. But the RAV still bit surprisingly well, and once we were up to speed it gripped insanely well in corners, offering plenty of oversteer to help Ryan rotate it without constantly grabbing the handbrake. Entering and exiting corners, you wouldn’t think it was front-wheel drive.
Yes, the rally tyres and suspension help, but there still has to be some measure of DNA in the RAV to be competitive in the Rally America Championship. With that in mind I took a closer look at the street-going 2016 RAV 4 SE Toyota brought along to ferry us media types between the stages. It was wearing aggressive all-terrain tyres, and though the SE already had beefed up underpinnings, team representatives told me there were some additional tweaks that made it “20 per cent stiffer.”
Without getting too dramatic, this could be an outstanding TRD-edition RAV4. It was surprisingly well balanced and flickable in the dirt; just enough to be fun but still soft enough to hammer on backroads without busting spines. This is usually the domain of Subaru, but after a weekend of RAV4 rallying, I can easily see Toyota encroaching on this market. The DNA is already there, because a stock SE is reasonably fun. Some TRD support would take it to the next level.
In the meantime, Toyota wants you to know that the current RAV4 is strong enough to not just compete in stage rally, but be a reliable performer at the top of the pyramid. Ryan and Christina took the Rally RAV into the final round still running the same engine and automatic transmission they’d used all year, with an estimated 5000 race miles on them. I don’t care who you are or where your motoring allegiances lie - putting over 5000 hard miles on a powertrain with an automatic transmission in rally conditions is impressive as hell.
In the end, Toyota didn’t win the 2WD championship. Their main competitor all year was Cameron Steely, an accomplished rally driver in his own right piloting a 2015 Fiesta ST. Going into the Friday night stages Ryan and Christina were 15 seconds behind Cameron when they missed a corner. Ryan owned up to the mishap, saying he simply had too much right foot and not enough left. But when your competition is turbocharged with a six-speed manual and 500kg less mass, you gotta push it.
Nobody was hurt but the Rally RAV was mortally wounded, knocking them out of the race. They finished the season in second position, but Ryan still went home with Rookie Of The Year honors.
Then again, placing that far up the ladder was never part of the original plan. Toyota reps told me they went into this venture to showcase the reliability and potential of the RAV4 to be an exciting off-road vehicle. Instead, they took an SUV with numerous disadvantages over the rest of the field, raced it with the stock engine and automatic transmission, and damn near won the whole thing.
I’m a huge rally fan, having attended events since 2000. I learned to drive on back roads where I was taught handbrake turns and proper car control. I’ve dabbled a bit in SCCA autocross and rallycross events. In all that time I never gave much thought to Toyota. But after spending the weekend with Ryan, Christina, their Rally RAV race team and seeing everything they accomplished with that crazy RAV4, I learned two things:
I’m not nearly as good a driver in the dirt as I think I am. And I need to seriously take another look at Toyota for my next motoring adventure.