I'm in Southern California's dusty wine country, doing 50mph on a deceptively difficult dirt course. I'm having a great time, learning how completely different and yet totally similar driving on a racetrack and a rally course really are. I finally get my footwork right and slide through a few corners in such a way that, at least in my head, feels like a classic rally shot you'd see in a short film. What manner of beast am I driving? Well... a Toyota RAV4. Hybrid. A mostly stock one, at that. Not exactly the image you had in your head, is it?
It's a common misconception that, to have fun on pavement, you've gotta have a fast car, and to have fun on dirt, you need a serious off-roading monster of a truck or SUV. For the fortunate few who have ever done any serious driving, you know how completely and utterly full of crap that is. You can have an absolute blast in any vehicle, even one you might not have otherwise considered. So when Toyota asked if I'd like to head out to play in the dirt with a lightly prepped RAV4, the answer was pretty obvious. Any car can lead you to fun if you know how to find it.
Even the most basic vehicles can be great off-road...
... with a little prep. It doesn't matter if you have the most baller, apocalypse-ready SUV on the planet if it's not properly prepared for a bit of off-road playtime, and by that same token, even the most mundane vehicles can get through a hell of a lot more than you think, even if they've got nothing more than a good set of tires to help with traction.
Sitting here on this brilliantly ridiculous property with a roughly two-mile track literally carved into it, there's a fleet of very lightly prepped RAV4s at my disposal. This is Toyota's way of proving that the RAV4 is a surprisingly competent vehicle (and on that front, it's a job well done). But really, there's not a big difference between these RAV4s and the ones you'd find at the dealership. To protect vital engine components from large rocks and driver stupidity, there's a metal skid plate underneath; to make sure you can really see at night, it's added a pair of modest light bars; also, mud flaps to prevent all manner of body damage from flying rocks.
By far the most important functional change, though, is the wheels and tires.
For dirt, smaller wheels are better
Just as with any car, a larger wheel isn't generally a performance improvement. For anything remotely like rally driving, a smaller wheel not only saves weight, but allows for a taller sidewall on the tire. Put simply, it's a more durable combination that can take the repeated abuse, since driving a two-ton vehicle at speed over all manner of bumps tends to have all the subtlety and gentleness of Gallagher in a watermelon patch.
It's not the car that counts, it's how you drive it
So here I am, in my first proper attempt at driving fast on dirt, and something I've said a million times about cars on a racetrack rings in my head again: until you've reached a level of driving expertise that only comes with years of sustained commitment, how "fast" your vehicle is remains secondary to how "fast" you are as a driver. Within reason, I wouldn't have been any faster around this track had I been in your favorite traditional rally-ready car. Seriously, you could sit me in a Subaru WRX -- a car with the words "World Rally" built into its name -- and I wouldn't have been any faster.
That's why a RAV4 is currently humiliating people in legit rally competitions this year
Ryan Millen comes from a line of guys who have made their names by doing things like driving up Pikes Peak faster than anyone before them. His RAV4 is a little more prepared than the examples I'm driving, but not by all that much. There's a full roll cage and some tweaks to the pedals and steering wheel, and of course the suspension is quite a bit more robust, but that's mostly it. The engine and transmission are exactly as they were when the RAV left the factory. To hear him say it, guys in all-wheel-drive WRXs are more than a little pissed when they realize a guy in a mostly stock, front-wheel-drive* crossover is kicking their butt. Bruised egos tend to hurt.
*Millen's RAV4 is a FWD non-hybrid version. The ones we were driving are AWD hybrids -- that meant ours had more power and more forward traction.
So what's it like, then?
With all the traction controls turned off, it's down to your own inputs to go around the course quickly -- and because it's dirt, that course is dramatically different literally every single lap. There's no rote memorization like there is on a racetrack; you can't simply brake, turn, and accelerate at roughly the same place every time. Instead, you need to actually rely on your driving skill set. And that's why these lightly prepped RAV4s work so well for this. They're forgiving.
In short, it's pretty ridiculous, in the best possible way.
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