We still have yet to receive it officially (only once, back in 2006), but the Toyota RAV4 is an important car for Japan’s largest carmaker, and in February it celebrated a significant milestone – over 10 million units of the SUV have been sold worldwide since it was introduced back in 1994.

Five generations have passed, but the RAV4 continues to be popular. It was not only the world’s bestselling SUV last year, but also the fourth bestselling passenger car overall. Not bad for a car that originally kickstarted the SUV craze some 26 years ago.

Picture the RAV4 (short for Recreational Activity Vehicle with 4-wheel Drive) in your head and you’d probably still think of the funky first-generation model, particularly in three-door form. Previewed by a rather Jeep Wrangler-like concept in 1989, it received a strong enough reception that it was given the green light in 1991.

Even so, the Sports Activity Vehicle category was practically unheard of at the time, and chief engineer Masakatsu Nonaka was having a hard time persuading others in the company to build the car, Toyota said. The project actually stalled at one point due to internal resistance, but sales divisions in Japan and Europe, convinced that the time was right for such a car, put development back into motion.

With such fractious beginnings, Toyota’s sales projections were modest, with a target of 4,500 units a month. As it turned out, it couldn’t build them fast enough – the RAV4 racked up 8,000 orders in the first month alone, forcing the company to double its production capacity. It took the market by storm, effectively birthing the compact SUV market together with its main rival, the Honda CR-V, which debuted in 1996.

Despite its name, the RAV4 was eventually offered with a two-wheel drive option during its first generation. Toyota continued to evolve the car over the years, discontinuing the three-door model for the third-gen model and instead offering it with different wheelbases depending on the market. It also ditched the tailgate-mounted spare wheel, relocating it under the boot floor.

The fourth generation received a standardised wheelbase length across all markets and gained a new hybrid model for better fuel economy, while the latest fifth-gen model got a more rugged and angular look. It will also get a new plug-in hybrid model that promises to be the most powerful RAV4 variant ever, with a total of 302 hp on tap and a zero-to-100 km/h sprint time of just 6.2 seconds – all while being capable of an all-electric range of 60 km and carbon dioxide emissions of under 30 grams per kilometre.