Tuner Legend Stephan Papadakis Is Thrashing a First-Gen RAV4 Around the Desert These Days

Oh, and he also just won another Formula Drift Championship.

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Tuner Legend Stephan Papadakis Is Thrashing a First-Gen RAV4 Around the Desert These Days ©Tuner Legend Stephan Papadakis Is Thrashing a First-Gen RAV4 Around the Desert These Days

One of motoring’s greatest joys is the ability to go anywhere. Paved roads only get you so far and that’s where off-roading gets even closer to that pure expression of freedom. Many of us think we need lifted trail rigs like Toyota 4Runners or Jeep Wranglers to explore the world. I disagree, and so does legendary tuner Stephan Papadakis with his 1996 two-door RAV4.

Papadakis is well known for his long career tuning the most powerful and successful cars of any series he competed in and being a staple of early SoCal import tuner culture. If you’ve ever been to the Petersen Museum in Los Angeles and taken a vault tour, you may have seen a bright yellow Civic-bodied drag car. Papadakis and his friend Shaun Carlson built that car in the 1990s to compete in the red-hot import front-wheel drive drag racing scene. It was the first front-drive car to run a nine-second quarter mile time, then the first to run an eight-second quarter-mile.

The Drive‘s Kristen Lee wrote a great backgrounder on him for Jalopnik years ago if you want to learn more about his origin story.

As that scene died down, Papadakis made the switch to drifting in 2004 as the next emerging motorsport. Ever since then, success has followed Papadakis with several Formula Drift championships over 17 years of competition. He is a wizard of all trades, building and re-engineering engines from the ground up to make dyno-breaking horsepower and putting together successful teams from the very beginning.

Anyways, I felt duty-bound to give the guy a proper introduction. He is a tuner legend so someone like myself finds inspiration in that. Apparently, we also agree that off-roading is less about equipment and more about the force of will. He recently purchased a manual all-wheel-drive 1996 Toyota RAV4 with the intent to go wheeling with some friends in more serious trucks. It looks positively adorable.

It started with some huge wheels and small tires and Papadakis installed lifted suspension and off-road-ready wheels and tires to bring the little Rav4 up to speed. The idea of this small SUV taking on serious off-road trails may seem ridiculous to some, but it makes perfect sense to me. After all, I am a former Subaru Outback owner. Lightness and smallness are serious virtues on a rough trail.

The most important thing about wheeling a small SUV without any differential lockers or serious suspension is knowing the value of momentum and strategy. Large trail rigs need to be able to take obstacles head-on because of their size. The puny Rav4 can use undulations and dips to its advantage. Observe here as Papadakis strategically using the trail to set up traction instead of fighting for it. It makes total sense.

Knowing Papadakis’ legacy, there is a chance he’ll go crazy with the build of this RAV4. I am ready to witness the greatness of this strange little SUV.

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