The Toyota: based on the Big Trak?

This Toyota owes its existence to a 1970s children's toy

Price on the road £18,995-£26,995
Maximum speed 115mph, 0-62mph in 10.6 seconds (as tested)
Combined fuel economy 32.8mpg
Further information 0845 275 5555

The SUV craze of the last decade shows no sign of abating. Car companies continue to queue like 747s over Stansted to land their poshed-up Jeeps on our driveways. To judge from their advertising, they seem to have got it into their heads that we all own Labradors and go surfing with Calvin Klein models. In fact, the massive demand for SUVs has nothing to do with Cornwall, or wet dogs. I blame Big Trak.

Ask yourself this question: who is buying this kind of car? People in their thirties, that's who. And what was the most desirable toy when they were kids, in the late 1970s? That's right, Big Trak.

Back in the days when Leo Sayer ruled the charts and Terry Wogan had the country's number-one radio show (so much for progress), Big Trak cost roughly the same as a real car. Any child lucky enough to have rich and indulgent parents to buy him one would find himself the toast of the playground after the Christmas break, showered with more Texan bars and Spangles than he could ever eat. Meanwhile, the reality for most of us was a childhood of unfulfilled dreams, and Buckaroo.

Of course, this is just a theory (and I hereby invite further research from our leading universities), but I suspect the Big Trak Effect has played an important role in the design and the success of the SUV, both here and in the US. Consider the oversized wheels; the pseudo-military detailing; the heavy, angular looks. Consider how Big Trak would struggle with even moderately challenging terrain, such as bathroom shagpile. See what I mean? Jump into a new RAV4, for instance, and you are confronted with a dashboard straight from the Big Trak school of design: it's vaguely robotic-looking, and a bit sci-fi, like a computer bank out of the movie WarGames.

Outside, following a comprehensive redesign, things are more humdrum. The old RAV4 was tarty, admittedly, but at least it was easily identifiable. The new one looks like a scaled-down Touareg, but without the VW's charisma (such as it is). It is really very dull. Clearly, RAV4 owners are growing up and earning more money and Toyota felt that too many of them might be tempted by the BMW X3 (another car from the Big Trak school). So, as well as having a more conservatively styled exterior, the new RAV4 is longer, taller and wider than the old car. It's costlier too, with a top price of £27,000 and no cheaper three-door available.

You can understand Toyota's thinking on this. Though it is the world's best-selling compact SUV, there's a host of good-looking, decent-quality options (Honda CR-V, Nissan X-Trail, Suzuki Grand Vitara, Kia Sorento) snapping at the RAV4's heels. The compact SUV market is a crowded beach. The trouble is, the RAV4 will find itself punching beyond its weight against larger models, like the sexy Nissan Murano and the gargantuan Pathfinder. This will be a tough sell, I reckon.

I have a deep admiration for Toyota, but this new RAV4 doesn't match its usually exemplary levels of quality. The doors shut with a slap, not a thunk; the plastics feel brittle and cheap; and the engine, though easily capable of pulling a trolley laden with apples, is very rough. There's a lightweight feel to the thing that suggests bits will soon start snapping off or wearing out. In other words, just like Big Trak.

It's a classic: Big Trak

"Well done, Big Trak!" cried the slightly too presentable young boy as his space-age tank delivered an apple to Dad from its trolley. And a generation yearned. Of course, to the PlayStation-obsessed pre-teen of 2006, MB Electronics' Big Trak will seem risibly basic, but it was one of the first programmable toys, and to all of us who grew up in the 1970s, its computer-chip technology was evidence that the space programme had been worth the expense after all.

You see, Big Trak didn't just deliver apples. As the brochure explained, it could "lurk silently before continuing on its course, and can fire either a single shot or a volley from its 'photon' cannon" (note the inverted commas around "photon", just in case we thought it came with a genuine laser) - a boon to small boys with slightly jumpy elder sisters.

There was a catch, of course: the batteries. There were four of them, and they lasted about as long as the strawberry Quality Street on Christmas morning. No wonder Spirographs were popular.

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