The original Toyota RAV4 was better than you remember [Video]

In fact, it might be the best small SUV of all time.

The small SUV is absolutely exploding in popularity. And, as a result, you can find one in pretty much every automaker's lineup. In some cases, you'll even find two or three. But even though we live in the golden age of the compact utility vehicle, I think one of the best-ever was actually the first-ever -- the original Toyota RAV4.

It's rare to get something right on your first try, but that's just what Toyota did with the first-generation RAV4. In fact, Toyota got it so right with the first RAV4 that automakers are still using its blueprint to this day, over 20 years after it originally launched.

Before the RAV4 hit the scene in 1996, the vast majority of SUVs were truck-based and designed for off-road capability rather than on-road comfort. They were also thirsty, with their six- and eight-cylinder engines swilling gasoline at a rate that would make a Lamborghini Diablo blush.

But then Toyota launched the RAV4 and changed everything. Instead of having a separate frame, the RAV4 was a unibody, like a modern car. It also had four-wheel independent suspension instead of the kind of solid axles you'd find on a farm vehicle, so it rode and handled well. And it used a four-cylinder engine, so it was economical to run. Really, the fact that it was small was only a footnote on the RAV4's list of innovations.

The RAV4 also simplified the SUV experience. At the time of the RAV4's introduction, a lot of SUVs required you to push a button or pull a lever at just the right time to engage their four-wheel drive systems. The RAV4's all-wheel drive system, however, was a full-time unit, so the driver didn't have to do anything to engage it.

Although it was one of the first "cute 'utes,” the RAV4 still had some baked-in capabilities. Models equipped with four-wheel drive came with a locking center differential that could split power equally between the front and rear wheels. That center locker was automatic on cars equipped with an automatic transmission, but if you opted for the five-speed manual, you actually got a button on the dash to manually lock the center diff at speeds below 25mph. You could also order the original RAV4 with a limited slip rear differential, which greatly improved its off-road chops.

It may be subjective, but I'm also a big fan of the RAV4's styling. To my eyes, the design of the original RAV4 looks contemporary, even though its was penned over 20 years ago.

Toyota also wasn't afraid to experiment with its new design concept. In addition to making a four-door version of the RAV4, Toyota also made a two-door hardtop model that had removable roof panels, and then the company followed that up with a two-door convertible RAV4. Let me repeat that last part -- Toyota made a two-door convertible RAV4.

Vehicles like the AMC Eagle and Jeep Cherokee had elements of the modern small SUV before the Toyota RAV4 ever hit showrooms, but the RAV4 was the first vehicle to put all of those elements together in one tidy package. And I'm not sure there has been a better package since.

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