Car Shows are not really necessary, not in this day and age. The automotive press has shrunken in size. Manufacturers could simply stage events, like Apple or Samsung, and car fans will turn up to see it on the Internet, blogs, news sites, and all kinds of social media.
But car shows are fun. Exotic or hand built cars bring in a lot of ticket paying visitors, while dealers, parts suppliers, and the press all catch up with the latest selling points and automotive technology and marketing. That last bit is key. Going to an automobile show to see the press events is a window to how the vehicles are marketed.
Car design is almost always driven by marketing. Even manufacturers that make cars that put an emphasis on performance, are driven by marketing. BMW's reputation as a performance vehicle, as well as Mazda's reputation as being fun to drive, are shaped by marketing. It's almost all marketing, so as a regular attendee to these shows, I have learned not to get too excited by any car. Most cars aren't collected. They are utilitarian and help compliment an owner's lifestyle or personality. As passionate as I am about cars, I try to block out the highly seductive advertising and promises that come with them.
A few weeks ago, before the New York show, I saw Jalopnik's first impression of the 2013 RAV4. Travis Okulski called it a “sleeping pill.” Zac Estrada simply called it "boring" when it rolled out in LA last fall. Based on Toyota's track record since the Celica and MR-2 were discontinued, I was inclined to agree. Toyota sells a lot of cars by being mechanically reliable, and by playing it very safe (mostly). In many respects, Toyota has become one of the most conservative car makers in the world. They make cars you want to drive for five years and then get a new one without skipping a beat. That's the twentieth century American car marketing and manufacturing model, right?
I never liked the RAV4 very much. The first two generations won accolades for being small and fuel efficient. Motor Trend even called the first generation the best SUV of 1997. It accomplished what the Suzuki Samurai and Daihatsu Rocky couldn't, which was to bring better reliability and comfort to micro SUVs, thereby firmly establishing the segment in the USA. And yes, the RAV4 is credited with being the breakthrough hit that allowed the compact SUV market to flourish in the USA. The Samurai and Rocky were very popular in Africa, Sotheast Asia, and the Caribbean, but it was the RAV4 that made it into big American cities. When you see a Honda CR-V, Ford Escape, Hyundai Tucson, Chevy Captiva, or Kia Sportage, you are seeing a vehicle that is following a path that the RAV4 began.
Quick bad analogy, but here goes. Citizen Kane is boring for most people, but it is historically significant. That's the RAV4. Sort of.
But a funny thing happened when I checked out the RAV4 at the New York show this past month. I liked it. I like it better than any previous generation of the product. I like it's Scion-like quirks, such as the asymmetrical placement of the cup holders, or the faux carbon fiber in the center stack. I like the faux leather on the dashboard (which Toyota calls SofTex). I like the six speed automatic transmission and part time AWD.
Sure, I know, we have the right to like anything. The young writers at Jalopnik have the right to call it boring. But I was looking at the new RAV4 as a vehicle that has a little something for everyone. It is a family vehicle, for sure, with a lot more interior room than the Camry just three years ago. And it has classic Toyota touches that I haven't seen in a Toyota for a while, like a row of switches and buttons low on the center stack (that reminded me of every generation of the Land Cruiser since the 80s).
It has a little bit of quirkiness. The wedge front end took me back to the 80s a bit (anyone remember the Corolla FX-16 or the third generation Celica with the headlamps sloped back? This wedge is way bigger, but it made me think of those). And the standard, running board / side skirt on the premium models seems functional, like kids will use it to help them stem into the vehicle. So it's both a ground effect and a practical part of the car. That's 80s, too, I think. It made me wonder if any of the Toyota designers made intentional design winks to the cars that Toyota's customers grew up in. I'd like to think so.
But obviously Marketing drives the RAV4. Who is it for? Young families that need more space than the Camry or Corolla, and want the higher ride height. But it can't be priced higher than the Prius wagon or Highlander. So it's the one Toyota that offers a ton of interior room for the money. That's notable. And that's why I think this latest RAV4 will be remembered fondly out of all the others that succeeded that small, plastic coated SUV 16 years ago. This is the bang for the buck choice in the Toyota lineup.