Saturday afternoon. A layby in Bedfordshire. It’s hailing, and I’m sat in the car browsing eBay on my phone, desperately trying to find something that’s reliable yet quirky, cheap but also cheerful.
I’d been to see a K-series Rover 400 (the second-generation model that preceded the 45). I was convinced it was the one – it was in good condition, well cared for by its elderly owner. But then I revved it, and clouds of white smoke appeared. Condensation, perhaps, but the seller seemed very keen to get rid of it. So I walked away – something that I’d already done with several other Rovers on this car hunt.
So back to eBay. Amongst the sea of dull Mondeos and dodgy BMWs was this bright green RAV4. It was a private sale – a good thing, I hate buying cars from dealers at this price level. I dropped them a note and had a quick response, with a viewing arranged for later that day.
It was one of those sickly ‘love at first sight’ moments, I’m afraid. I loved the colour (I hate that our roads are clogged with dull black, grey and silver cars). I loved that it was so of its time – the first crossover SUV, you could argue – and I loved that it was a Toyota so showed very few signs that it had covered 160,000 miles.
I acted cool. I offered £500. The seller said no, and I walked away. Of course, I broke first, phoning the second I got home to up my offer to £600 and arrange collection for the following day.
The drive home
The drive home in a newly-bought car is always a weird mixture of excitement and nerves. That was escalated in this case as I hadn’t even test driven the car and had convinced myself overnight that the clutch must be on its way out – an expensive job, apparently. And, to top it all off, the fuel light was on – and my route home turned out not to pass a single petrol station.
Despite all this, it went brilliantly. Powered by a 2.0-litre petrol engine producing 129hp, the RAV4 isn’t as horrendously slow as you’d expect. In the 90s, that’s the sort of power hot hatches such as the Golf GTi and Proton Satria GTi (phwoar…) were producing, although the RAV’s 4×4 system does somewhat hamper its 0-60mph sprint (officially 11.6 seconds, although Autocar road testers at the time managed it in 8.8 seconds).
— Andrew Brady (@MR_AndrewBrady) March 8, 2016
I get a great deal of fun out of making progress in cars that aren’t typically your enthusiastic drivers’ car. The Suzuki Celerio we had on test recently is the perfect example of this, as was the Nova we borrowed from Vauxhall’s heritage fleet, and my own 1983 Austin Metro. Still, in 1994, the RAV4 was described by Autocar’s Gavin Conway as ‘the best-handling off-roader I’ve ever driven’. And even by today’s standards, it’s not a bad handler. The steering is light, however, and it rolls in a way that even the most jelly-like of new cars don’t.
I think what I like most about the original RAV4 is that it’s a happy car. It doesn’t take itself too seriously. Sure, it might have been a fashion-statement in its day, but it’s very definitely out of fashion now. And that appeals to me.
The only thing that’s stopping the first-generation RAV4 becoming a classic, in my opinion? Like the original MX-5: its popularity, and unwillingness to die.