Driving the secret cars of Toyota's heritage collection

A new niche had to be explored, and so came the RAV4, essentially sitting between the two segments, providing a happy medium between usability, fun and affordability. It wasn’t particularly quick, granted, but a proven 0-62mph time of 8.8sec in our test was enough to embarrass the rally-honed Escort, and allowing its driver to see over hedges and tackle the steepest of speed bumps without inviting costly bodywork repairs was a welcome bonus.

Get behind the wheel now and you soon find that this curvy little 4×4’s connotations of pace and poise are faint at best. Compared with today’s crop of genuinely sporty compact SUVs, powered as they are by buzzy turbo triples or torquey diesel lumps, the RAV4’s naturally aspirated 2.0-litre engine feels a bit gutless, and the thrumming noise it makes at idle is rather more reminiscent of barns than beaches.

Climb up through the gears, however, and it’s plain to see where the RAV4’s enduring appeal lies. Even on empty, flat and generally untroubling suburban streets, it inspires a confidence that’s often missing from today’s diminutive runarounds, which aren’t so disparate in terms of footprint.

Potholes, kerbs and cobbles are hardly a challenging test for any 4×4, but the sense of solidity in the RAV4 is pervasive and hints at the all-terrain ability that set this car aside from its contemporary competitors and arguably even its spiritual descendants. No wonder around 90% of all RAV4s ever built are still roadworthy.

The cabin isn’t exactly inspiring by today’s standards, dominated as it is by grey plastic, black vinyl and hefty manual controls, but there’s a certain charm to be found in its honesty and, without sliding into nostalgic cliché, it’s far more intuitively laid out than the majority of newer examples.

That lack of pretention, coupled with the RAV4’s enduring popularity, means that, despite the novelty of driving what is essentially a museum exhibit on public roads, no one stops and stares, bombards us with questions when we stop or rushes to snap a picture for Instagram. This is the ideal quasi-classic car for introverts: simple, affordable and subtle.

Back in the flattering light of Toyota’s workshop and with its fresh paint polished to within an inch of its life, it’s clear just how much time and effort has been devoted to saving N897 VHN. Once the previous owner’s self-applied plastic wheel arch trims were removed to uncover near-fatal amounts of corrosion, it became obvious this was to be more than a spit-and-polish clean-up job.

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