Home » Toyota Once Sold A RAV4 With Three Doors, A Soft Top, And A Manual Transmission: Holy Grails

Toyota Once Sold A RAV4 With Three Doors, A Soft Top, And A Manual Transmission: Holy Grails

Holy Grail Rav4 Ts

If you were to peek at a list of best-selling cars, the Toyota RAV4 will place high. Last year, Toyota’s beloved crossover reportedly sold over a million units, beating the Corolla and the Tesla Model Y. The RAV4 didn’t always dominate the market. Almost three decades ago, the Toyota RAV4 was a quirky early crossover. Many of them were front-wheel-drive and with five doors. However, for just the couple of final years of original RAV4 production, you could have your little crossover with four-wheel-drive, a manual transmission, and a soft top, making for the kind of compact convertible AWD we don’t really see anymore.

Recently, we put out a call on our Discord server for Grail-worthy vehicles deserving of a retrospective. Multiple readers delivered excellent suggestions. Today’s Grail was recommended by one reader and upvoted by four more people. As it turns out, quite a few of you love rad 1990s 4x4s!

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Vidframe Min Bottom

The 1990s were a wild period of development for both SUVs and crossovers. Americans were increasingly choosing the SUV over other classes of vehicles. Sure, the SUV was hardly a new concept, but the SUV had grown from the vehicle for rough tough off-roaders and rough ranchers to the chariot for families and even the wealthy. In the years prior, the Range Rover took the SUV a little more up-market while the Jeep Wagoneer brought some serious class to the table.

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Ford captured and elevated the SUV market with its 1991 Explorer. The competition couldn’t keep up with the runaway success of the Explorer. Reportedly, the Ford Explorer sold more units than every import SUV combined and not even American competition like the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Chevrolet S-10 Blazer could keep up. Ford would deepen its knife into its rivals in 1995 with the second-generation Explorer, which went on to become America’s best-selling vehicle that wasn’t a pickup truck.

At the same time, some automakers wanted to blend a car’s driving dynamics with the SUV’s rugged abilities, all with the thrills of a convertible. The 1990s was home to a bunch of compact SUVs with roofs that peeled off to let the sun and fun in. Highlights of the era include the surprisingly capable Geo Tracker, the funky Suzuki X-90, the friendly Isuzu Amigo, and the oddball Land Rover Freelander.


Don’t forget that Kia was even in on the action. The first-generation Kia Sportage was a body-on-frame design with four-wheel-drive, a manual transmission, and was available as a three-door with a soft top. The last time I saw a Kia Sportage in this configuration was maybe five years ago, and it wasn’t in good nick. Perhaps it is worth its own story one day.

Images Toyota Rav4 1998 2

For many, the king of the weird convertible SUV hill is the Toyota RAV4, and for good reason.

A Neo-Urban 4WD Car

1989 Toyota Rav Four Concept

As the Toyota UK Magazine writes, the idea of combining the traits of a car with the characteristics of an SUV was on the minds of Toyota engineers as far back as 1986 during Japan’s infamous bubble economy. That year, discussions began about producing a radical vehicle and designers penned the first sketches for the RAV4.


Those thoughts and discussions were eventually unveiled as the Toyota RAV-FOUR concept at the 1989 Tokyo Motor Show. It shared display space with two other Toyota stars, the glass gullwing-doored Sera coupe and the futuristic 4500GT concept. The RAV-FOUR concept was dubbed as “a neo-urban 4WD car designed to cater to the active lifestyles of young city dwellers by integrating the functions of an off-road 4WD vehicle.”


Toyota saw the small SUV as a sort of activity vehicle. Perhaps you wouldn’t use it for hardcore off-roading, but you’d use the RAV-FOUR and its permanent four-wheel-drive off-road on the path to other activities. Promotional images of the concept vehicle even showed a dirt bike stuffed into the open-air interior. Door nets held things down and the concept also bore aggressive off-road tires, a high ground clearance, and even a hidden winch.

As Toyota UK Magazine writes, Chief Engineer Masakatsu Nonaka had a challenge on his hands. He had to convince Toyota brass that there was a market for a type of vehicle that wasn’t known to exist yet. Sure, there were large 4x4s out there, but as the magazine writes, many at Toyota found the idea of a small 4×4 to be hard to understand. At one point, Toyota axed the project, only for its sales channels in Japan and Europe to convince Toyota that the RAV-FOUR was a project worth developing.



Sadly, Japan’s bubble popped and the good times came to an end, but Toyota continued development on the RAV-FOUR. A new concept was presented in 1993. This one was toned down and resembled what Toyota would launch a year later. In 1994, the Recreational Active Vehicle With 4-Wheel Drive, or RAV4, was born, and it joined a list of vehicles we’d call crossovers today.

The Recreational Active Vehicle With 4-Wheel Drive


When the RAV4 reached production in 1994, it lost a lot of what made the concept so captivating. Yet, it still kept rather cool features. The first RAV4s utilized a unibody chassis containing a mix of Japanese-market Carina and U.S.-market Corolla origin. The engine and steering rack came from the Japanese Camry while the rest of the drivetrain varied based on transmission choice. A RAV4 with an automatic transmission got its remaining drivetrain from the Corolla All-Trac while manual models got theirs from the Celica All-Trac. Reportedly, 40 percent of the original RAV4 came from other vehicles in the Toyota lineup. In other words, the original RAV4 would be worthy of one of our Parts Bin Puzzles.

Toyota Rav4 1994 Wallpapers 3

Toyota Rav4 1994 Wallpapers 1


Back in 1994, Toyota expected to sell 4,500 RAV4s. The automaker grossly miscalculated the public reception to a vehicle like this because 8,000 orders were placed in just the first month of production. Here in the United States, Toyota expected to sell 36,000 units.

Europe and Japan got the RAV4 in 1994 for the 1995 model year. The United States would get the RAV4 in 1996 in both three-door and five-door form. Regardless of your choice of body, you got a 2.0-liter 3S-FE four rated for 121 HP. Later models saw output bumped up to 127 HP. If you want a little more spice, you’ll have to import a RAV4 from Japan with the 2.0-liter 3S-GE BEAMS four, which put out a healthy 177 HP.

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Otherwise, you’ll have to live with the fact that your RAV4 will reach 60 mph in about 12 seconds with an automatic or 10 seconds with a manual. That’s slow but still offers enough oomph for a comfortable drive.

Five-door models measured 162 inches long, or 13.5 feet. This was two feet shorter than the era’s Camry! Opting for the bigger RAV4, which turned out to be the more popular option, got you better luggage space and the rear seating area grew large enough to carry three. Sadly, the funky roof didn’t carry over and the design was somewhat muted as a five-door as well.


The Grail

Toyota Rav4 Convertible Front Si

Many enthusiasts would point to the three-door as the better of the two choices. You didn’t get space to store a dirt bike, but the first generation RAV4 three-door did get seating for four, two removable roof panels, and full-time four-wheel-drive. When equipped with a manual transmission, that four-wheel-drive system also gained a manually-locking viscous coupling center differential.

By 1999, the hardtop three-door model was discontinued. You’d think, then, that we’d nominate that to be the Grail. Or, maybe we might nominate the short-lived California-only RAV4 EV. J5/Jay recommended the three-door RAV4 on our Discord:

I just realized I’ve owned what might qualify as a grail car: a 1996 3-door, AWD RAV4. Yeah, the RAV4 these days is a boring mommy-mobile, but the 1996 version (the first to be imported into the US) was very new and different. The car could be had in FWD and AWD versions; the AWD version had a lockable center diff but no low range. It could also be had in manual and automatic transmission versions – but the 3-door AWD was only available with a manual. I don’t know how many were imported into the US, but the hardtop 3-door was only available for 2 (some say 3) years starting in 1996, and was quite scarce compared to the 5-door that took the country by storm. This one’s mine, and one of the few cars I regret getting rid of. I haven’t gone looking myself, but I understand that this version is quite sought-after.

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Cars & Bids Seller

However, there is an even cooler version of the RAV4 out there, and it’s that same three-door, but with a soft-top convertible. Sure, you could already remove the panels of the hardtop, but the convertible takes it all the way. Here in America, we saw the convertible from 1998 to its discontinuation in 2000. Honestly, you couldn’t go wrong with either RAV4 variant.

The three-door RAV4 is a short 12.1 feet long with a wheelbase measuring just 86.6 inches. To put that into perspective, that wheelbase is just 13 inches longer than a Smart Fortwo’s. Couple that with a 7.5-inch ground clearance plus short overhangs, and the RAV4 was primed for some decent wheeling capabilities. While these weren’t built for hardcore off-roading, I have seen these go deep off-road with little more than a tire upgrade.


Photos Toyota Rav4 1998 5


A first-generation RAV4 also looks pretty sick with rally-style lighting. According to Car and Driver, a Torsen rear differential was optional as well. Add the McPherson strut suspension up front and a double wishbone suspension with a trailing arm in the rear, and you have an independent suspension on all corners with a car-like ride.

Another sweet feature is the fact that the seats in a first-generation fold flat, allowing for extra cargo space. You could also fold every seat flat and sleep in it if you wanted to. MotorWeek‘s John Davis got to take one of the convertibles for a spin:


Car and Driver also gave the RAV4 some high marks:

Because of the RAV4’s unique size and high ground clearance, it can be driven like a truck—go ahead and jump the curb of that Burger King drive-thru that’s gridlocked because someone’s complaining of unsolicited pickles on his Whopper. Exercise that freedom in a Camaro and you’ll get hung up on its cat­alytic converter.

So trucks have distinct advantages—and the RAV4 resolutely shines in its climbing ability. The suspension has car-like struts in front and a sophisticated independent trailing-arm setup in the rear that apes the consistent geometry of unequal-length control arms. You can take your hands off the steering wheel when you drive rapidly over bumps, and there’s no bump steer induced by a rotating live axle. The Jeep Grand Cherokee, the Nissan Pathfinder, and the Toyota 4Runner all dance over the bumps.

With a full load of passengers, the RAV4’s body roll approaches the wallowing of a minivan on curving pavement, but with just one person aboard you’d be hard pressed to tell it wasn’t cornering at higher, Camry-like levels. On the skidpad, our RAV4 managed a confident 0.75 g, which is closer to a sport sedan’s perfor­mance than a sport-utility’s. It’s perhaps the best-handling vehicle we’ve tested with the name “Dueler” imprinted on its tires.


So, how rare are these? Well, Toyota sold 300,101 RAV4s from 1996 through 2000. The RAV4 Soft Top came out halfway through the 1998 model year. From 1998 through 2000, Toyota sold 175,905 RAV4s. I have not seen this number drilled down between three-door and five-door, or by transmission choice. However, Toyota fans consider the RAV4 Soft Top to be rare.

Toyota’s own UK magazine says the convertible model was unpopular due to its complicated manual operation. Apparently, Toyota killed the convertible off before the first-generation RAV4 even ended. I’ve found zero RAV4 Soft Tops currently for sale. Likewise, just one sold on Cars & Bids for $14,500. In 1999, a RAV4 three-door stickered for $17,508 while the five-door was $18,198.

If you do happen to find one of these for sale, cherish it. If you don’t, one day you might be like our reader here and wish you didn’t sell it. Toyota sold hundreds of thousands of these RAV4s, yet, it seems like so few of them survive today. That’s sad because these look and sound like rockin’ little rides.


Do you know of or own a car, bus, motorcycle, or something else worthy of being called a ‘holy grail’? Send me an email at mercedes@theautopian.com or drop it down in the comments!

(Images: Toyota, unless otherwise noted.)


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4 months ago

Reminds me of my early 90s Geo Tracker 5 speed 4×4 ragtop. Just a backup vehicle, super rusty, but I get more comments on that thing than any other. Like “man I had one of those, it would go anywhere, wish I never got rid of it”. True it will go just about anywhere, just not quickly. So small it goes through narrow trails through the woods. So light it floats over sand and mud pits where heavier vehicles will sink.

Is Travis
Is Travis
4 months ago

If only they had some locking hubs, well look at this MikeInTheWoods comment the Amigo did. The locking center diff, I would bet that thing didn’t take to well to some offroad abuse, but I don’t know so can’t say.
I’ve always thought these looked damned fun, would hoon if I found one.

4 months ago

I just sold a 99 Amigo. Which is a V6 version of this grail. 4×4 with locking hubs and a transfer case, 5spd, 2dr, soft top and matching hard top. It had 2 sunroofs that you could remove the glass from. One was on the hard top. Thing was great and I regret selling it. With it’s mild exhaust leak it sounded like a GT-R when you fed it the onions. It could also do cyclone donuts in the snow.

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