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Should Toyota be considering a Yaris-derived, sub-RAV4 crossover SUV?

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Back in the mid-to-late 1990s, Toyota almost singlehandedly created 2 vehicle segments which would go on to become of pivotal importance in the automotive universe and spawn a plethora of imitators and competitors. The first of these is the compact crossover SUV, by definition a mix of sport utility vehicle (tall, station wagon or hatchback body with high ground clearance and all-wheel-drive at least optional) and car (unibody construction and car-like handling and fuel economy) attributes in a roughly C-segment size (4250mm-4600mm/167″-181″ overall length), pioneered by the Toyota RAV4 that made its debut in Japan and Europe in 1994, and began sales in North America in 1996. The following year, Toyota’s upmarket brand Lexus took the concept almost to the next-up D-segment size, added the marque’s typical luxury touches and meticulous construction and created the RX.

Successful as these models were, its creators in a sense rested on their laurels and, as the RAV4 and RX grew ever-larger with each successive generation, their many rivals saw opportunity in going smaller. After many years of hopes and rumors, Lexus finally saw the light and green-lighted the upcoming sub-RX, RAV4-derived NX 200t and NX 300h models to tackle the Acura RDX, Audi Q3, BMW X1 and upcoming Mercedes-Benz BLK. The Toyota brand itself, on the other hand, is seemingly oblivious to the fact that the RAV4’s upsizing march (the original 4-door, at 4150 mm/163.4″ overall length, was at the upper end of the mini/subcompact crossover segment, while the just-introduced 4th-generation version, at 4570mm/179.9″, is almost mid-sized and barely smaller than the Highlander) has opened the door for many of its competitors to plan the upcoming release of mini/subcompact crossovers derived from B-segment (think Toyota Yaris) models.

Among those leading the charge, curiously enough, is General Motors, with the Korean and Chinese-built Buick Encore due out next month, this being essentially a rebodied Chevrolet Sonic/Aveo for North America and China. Lest you think the Buick badge is too upmarket, Europe will see this as the Opel or Vauxhall Mokka, and its least expensive variant, the Chevrolet Trax will be sold in Mexico and Canada, but, notably, not in the United States. Ford has sold the “baby Escape” EcoSport in Latin America since 2003, and with the just-launched 2nd-generation version, the EcoSport joins the “One Ford” global initiative and branches out beyond Latin America and into India, for starters. Chrysler, meanwhile, is rumored to be planning a Fiat Panda-derived, Italian-built Jeep for the mini/subcompact SUV segment, perhaps replacing the Fiat Sedici (itself a rebadged Suzuki SX4) overseas.

Japan, too, has seen its share of rumblings and rumors. Honda has confirmed the appearance of a compact “Urban SUV Concept” vehicle at the 2013 Detroit Auto Show. Given Honda’s penchant for so-called “concept vehicles” that are just thinly-disguised upcoming production models, this is widely predicted to be a peek at an upcoming sub-CR-V, Fit-derived mini crossover to be built in Mexico for the 2014 model year. Per Auto Express, Mazda is rumored to be working on a Mazda2-derived CX-3. And Nissan? Many pundits (including Wikipedia) figure it’s already there with the unexpectedly successful oddball mini SUV/rally car/hot hatch mashup Juke.

From Europe, the most prominent entry in this segment is, arguably, the MINI Countryman. Too much of a stretch from the original MINI ethos? This author certainly thinks so, yet it at least shows more effort than what often passes for a B-segment crossover SUV in Europe and Brazil: take a regular hatchback, raise the ride height, add black bodyside cladding and fender flares, throw in some faux skid plates front and rear, and you have Volkswagen’s current entry in this segment: the CrossPolo. Yet, VW seems to realize that it will eventually need a dedicated crossover SUV in this segment, as attested by the Taigun concept that debuted at Brazil’s São Paulo Motor Show.

And Toyota? Does it currently have anything to offer in this segment? Yes and no. At the March 2006 Geneva Auto Show, Toyota introduced a reportedly Yaris-based Urban Cruiser concept (shown at the top of this story). Once this admittedly clever model name (a play on the seminal Land Cruiser) saw production 2 years later, however, it was applied to a 2nd-generation Toyota ist (Scion xD in North America) with raised ride height and a bare minimum of pseudo-SUV styling cues. Granted, an all-wheel-drive diesel option gives it some added “SUV cred”, but its sales in Europe have been less than stellar, and a number of markets there (such as Spain and Great Britain) have declined to offer the Urban Cruiser altogether.

Oddly enough, Wikipedia considers the shorter 2-door versions of honest-to-God, truck-based, body-on-frame SUVs such as the Jeep Wrangler and Toyota Land Cruiser 150 Series/Prado to be mini-SUVs, but this author doesn’t altogether agree, citing their heavier and beefier construction, and larger engines which makes them a class or two removed from lighter-duty, more economical car-based crossovers such as those we’ve mentioned earlier. Going even smaller, Toyota affiliate Daihatsu offers the Terios (or Be‣go) rear-wheel-drive-centric SUVs, with rebadged Toyota Rush versions available in a handful of countries. Again, these run counter to current preferences for front-wheel-drive-centric crossover SUV platforms, but we love the fact that their RWD underpinnings have led to fun Tokyo Auto Salon projects like the Gazoo Racing/MN FR Hot hatch and the TES Concept T-Sports.

By serendipitous coincidence, as this author was well along writing this piece, and planning to end with a plea to Toyota to “wake up and smell the coffee” and not continue to ignore this growing segment, came word, through an Automotive News via Autoweek article that the company was planning to do just that. It cites Toyota Division Group Vice President and General Manager William D. Fay as saying that

Toyota has no plans to add a crossover below the RAV4.

“The RAV is as small as we want to get,” he said. “I am confident with where Toyota is with that. It meets all or most of our customer needs in that segment. We’re fine.”

We’re not so sure, but perhaps Toyota figures the mini/subcompact crossover segment is still in its infancy in North America, and that it’s wiser to sit back and see how things go for its rivals first. Quite a change from 15-20 years ago, when Toyota and Lexus were unafraid to lead and create new vehicle categories.

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