The soccer mom sleeper car that’s turning heads

Alejandro Perusina's Toyota Rav4 is one of the fastest cars in US rallying, belying its bulky appearance


If you’re a diehard US rally fan, you might already know that the Toyota Rav4 has an impressive rally pedigree. But if you’re outside of that camp, you’re probably surprised by what you’re hearing.

My dad had a 2001 Rav4 for much of my childhood and while it was fun in a semi-quirky, pseudo-sporty, soft-roader kind of way, it certainly had no rally pedigree.

My grandfather’s third-generation model was even less so, losing any quirkiness, sportiness, or vague excitement left as the new model looked to take over the growing crossover market in the US.

With this in mind, it’s no surprise that the most common question I’ve gotten this year as DirtFish’s ARA correspondent is: “What’s the deal with that Rav4?”


Nor is it shocking that anytime it shows up in social posts it draws plenty of comments from confused and surprised onlookers.

While we touched on the car quite a bit after the Oregon Trail Rally, when Perusina took the Regional win, we still get many requests to go into the tech of the car, the history of it, and of course the classic question: “Why?”

Well, since “why not?” isn’t quite an appropriate answer, DirtFish caught up with Alejandro Perusina after his Regional victory on the Ojibwe Forests Rally to get the answers.

When Toyota decided to upgrade again to the fourth generation, it was accompanied by a Super Bowl commercial. Kaley Cuoco was “The Rav4 Genie,” granting wishes to a Rav4 owner’s family. In reality, the only wish that the Rav4 granted was a slightly sleeker and sportier façade for the potential buyer, in spite of its position as the face of the family crossover.

An attempt by Toyota to convince the public it had stayed true to the “Recreational Active Vehicle” moniker it holds did grant one more wish though. This time in the form of a factory rally car to be driven by Ryan Millen in the Rally America Championship, The California Rally Series, and anywhere else they wanted to take it in North America.

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This car was a far cry from the O4WD Rav4 of Perusina. Toyota had provided a couple of cars to Millen to build, and they kept a basically stock approach. The cars were stripped, caged, and brought to safety standards, but the drivetrain remained stock, as it was entered in the G2 class at the time.

Despite the lack of substanial performance mods, the Rav4 was fast in Millen’s hands. Ryan Millen, son of five-time US Rally champion Rod, was a natural behind the wheel, and he picked up a championship in the CRS O class, and the Southwest Rally Cup in the car’s first year in 2015.

Over the next two years as the shift to the ARA came about in US rally, Millen continued to campaign the car, and continued to get class wins, top fives, top 10s, and even a few event wins all in the Rav4. After 2017, it was time for an upgrade.

This is where Perusina comes in.

“So this car was built in New Zealand and it was originally built for Ryan Millen,” Perusina explains, “who was driving with factory Toyota, and he was moving up to the open class and he had this car built and it was all built in New Zealand and then shipped over.

“The car, it’s called an AP4, which is an Asia-Pacific class, it’s an open all-wheel drive car.


“Now, this was a fresh build and then they didn’t quite finish it; then he dropped out of rally. The funding from Toyota wasn’t quite there to continue.

“The car was sitting for a while; we were friends and he mentioned that he was looking to get rid of it because he couldn’t race it, so I picked it up and we’re here today.”

“He did shakedowns in it and did some testing I think over [in New Zealand] before the car got shipped over. To my knowledge, it was like 90-95% complete, but he brought it back to his place in Huntington and did some more things to it.

“I think they did a little testing out in Vegas and then it kind of just sat for some years.

“The engine’s a 2AZ, that I was told came out of like a 2000’s Camry, but the engine’s a platform that they use [in New Zealand], I guess for more like for drift and whatever their version of rallycross is. So it’s built to handle a lot of power.”

The 2AZ is about the only thing Toyota left on the Rav4 other than the shell, and even then it’s not the motor the RAv4 came with. While the motor is too big to fit within the AP4 regulations, the ARA Open class allows more displacement, so when Millen originally had the car built, he kept this in mind.

Everything else comes from the AP4 parts bin. The suspension and subframe are pulled directly from the AP4 rulebook.

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Asia Pacific’s AP4 ruleset was developed as an alternative to the FIA’s Rally2 formula but built to a lower cost, with longer servicing and replacement intervals for parts. That meant sacrificing some of the speed, precision and torque that Rally2 cars possess, though depending on the event an AP4 could still be the faster car.

With ARA moving towards a Rally2 level of speed themselves next year, an AP4 with a bigger motor might just be something worth watching. Indeed, Perusina and Bautista are targeting the top of the timesheets in future.

They’ve been entering under the regional rallies, as they don’t have a tune for the spec fuel used in National O4WD. Despite their Regional status they’ve been the fourth or fifth fastest car on some stages when the National and Regional times are combined – and Perusina doesn’t even think he’s learned how to drive the car properly yet.

“I mean, we’re still learning a lot,” he said at parc fermé after Ojibwe. “We’re still learning how to drive it. We’re learning the weak points on it. We’ve now finished two full rallies, this weekend was our second full rally that we finished. The first rally we entered, we had some parts come loose and DNF’d.

“And then the third rally at Southern Ohio, we lost a drive axle and we didn’t have spares.

“So the car seems like it’s built pretty strong, but like anything you need spares and we’re still trying to build the spare package.

“The car likes to be driven really hard and I haven’t really got comfortable with it yet. We’re still learning at every event and the roads are different. So we’re trying to adapt.”

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If this is what the team looks like while still uncomfortable in the car, it’s exciting to think what they can pull off once they know both the car and stages better. In the meantime, the Rav4 will continue to capture the hearts of rally fans as they marvel at its speed, belying its bulky bodyshell.

“We get a lot of love. All the events that we’ve done, we have a lot of fans come up to us at the end and they’re like, ‘man, you were flying in the Rav4!’

“Everyone wants to know about it for sure, and then I’ve got to break the news to them that it’s not quite a RAV4. But it’s the sleeper mom car for sure.

“You get more people’s interest so that’s always good. And yeah, all the fans are great. So it’s been fun so far.”