Rally Racing the new Toyota RAV4 Hybrid 2017 with Ryan Millen

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Aaron Miller / Thrillist

I’m in the dusty wine country of Southern California doing 50mph on a deceptively difficult dirt course. I have a great time learning how completely different and yet totally similar driving on the track and on a rally course is. I ultimately do my footwork well and slide around a few bends so that, in my head at least, it looks like a classic rally shot you’d see in a short film. What sort of beast am I driving? Well … a Toyota RAV4. Hybrid. A stock mainly, at that. Not exactly the image you had in your head, is it?

It is a common misconception that in order to have fun on the pavement you need to have a fast car, and for fun on dirt you need a serious off-road monster of a truck or car. an SUV. For the lucky few who have already driven seriously, you know how completely and utterly full of shit it is. You can have an absolute blast in any vehicle, even one you might not have otherwise considered. So when Toyota asked me if I would like to go play in the dirt with a lightly prepared RAV4, the answer was pretty obvious. Any car can make you have fun if you know how to find it.

Toyota RAV4 Rally
Aaron Miller / Thrillist

Even the most basic vehicles can be perfect off-road …

… with a little preparation. It doesn’t matter if you have the most apocalypse-ready SUV on the planet if it’s not properly prepared for a bit of off-road playtime, and similarly, even the most mundane vehicles can drive through. a hell of a lot more than you might think, even though they have nothing more than a good set of tires to help with traction.

Sitting here on this brilliantly ridiculous property with an approximately two mile track literally carved into it, there is a fleet of very lightly prepared RAV4s at my disposal. This is how Toyota proves the RAV4 to be a surprisingly competent vehicle (and on that side, it’s a job well done). But really, there isn’t much of a difference between these RAV4s and the ones you’ll find at the dealership. To protect vital engine components from large stones and driver stupidity, there is a metal skid plate underneath; to make sure you can really see at night, he added a pair of modest light bars; also, mudguards to prevent all kinds of bodily injury caused by rock thrown.

By far the most important functional change, however, is the wheels and tires.

Smaller wheels and off-road tires are great on the RAV4
Aaron Miller / Thrillist

For dirt, smaller wheels are better

As with any car, a larger wheel is generally not a performance improvement. For anything remote like rally driving, a smaller wheel not only saves weight, but also allows for a higher sidewall on the tire. Put simply, it’s a more durable combination that can take repeated abuse, as driving a two-ton vehicle at high speed over all kinds of bumps tends to have all the subtlety and smoothness of Gallagher in a patch of watermelon. .

Driving a RAV4 Hybrid over Dirt
Courtesy of Toyota

It’s not the car that matters, it’s the way you drive it

So here I am in my first real attempt at fast driving on clay, and something I’ve said a million times about cars on a track comes to mind: until you hit a level of driving expertise that only comes with years of sustained commitment, the “speed” of your vehicle remains secondary to the “speed” you are as a driver. Within reason I wouldn’t have been faster on this track if I had been in your favorite traditional car ready for the rally. Seriously, you could sit me in a Subaru WRX – a car with the words “World Rally” embedded in its name – and I couldn’t have been faster.

Ryan Millen's RAV4 Rally
Courtesy of Toyota

This is why a RAV4 is currently humiliating people in legitimate rally competitions this year.

Ryan Millen comes from a line of guys who made a name for themselves doing things like climbing Pikes Peak faster than anyone before them. Its RAV4 is a little better prepared than the copies I drive, but not that much. There’s a full roll cage and a few adjustments to the pedals and steering wheel, and of course the suspension is a bit more robust, but that’s it. The engine and transmission are exactly as they were when the RAV left the factory. To hear him say it, the guys in all-wheel-drive WRXs are more than a little pissed off when they realize a guy in a mostly stock front-wheel drive * crossing their buttocks. Bruised egos tend to hurt.

* Millen’s RAV4 is a non-hybrid front-wheel drive version. The ones we were driving are AWD hybrids – that meant ours had more power and more forward traction.

Rally RAV4
Aaron Miller / Thrillist

So how is it going ?

With all traction controls turned off, it’s up to you to circle the course quickly – and because it’s dirt, this course is drastically different with every turn. There is no memorization by rote like on a race track; you can’t just brake, turn, and accelerate in roughly the same place every time. Instead, you have to actually rely on your driving skill set. And that’s why these lightly prepared RAV4s work so well for it. They forgive.

Anyway, it’s pretty ridiculous, in the best possible way.

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Aaron Miller is the Cars editor for Thrillist, and may be found on twitter and Facebook. His desire to get into rallying was strong before that. It’s downright undeniable now.



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