There may be an electric vehicle in your future, maybe in the very near future. The technology is moving very quickly, as auto manufacturers rush to meet the strictures of the California Environmental Protection Agency Air Resources Board's (CARB) zero-emissions vehicle program. Toyota checks in with its latest electric vehicle, and it's an SUV: The 2013 Toyota RAV4 EV. I got a chance to drive a few preproduction examples of the RAV4 EV, 2,600 of which will arrive on select California dealer's lots with a list price of $49,800 -- after government incentives and tax breaks, an effective $40,000. Let's drive.
The RAV4 EV is the result of a partnership between Toyota and electric car maker Tesla. Actually, it's the result of a relationship between Toyota Motor Corporation's President Akio Toyoda and Tesla's Chairman, Product Architect and CEO, Elon Musk. The two men met in May of 2010 and decided that their two companies should develop an electric vehicle together, then tossed their engineering and product development staffs into the pool. The first thing the engineers came up with was a new acronym, E-FAST, which stands for "Early Field and Suitability Testing" -- that's what engineers do, create acronyms. In order to fast track the collaboration, they decided to use the existing RAV4 platform, rather than developing a new vehicle from scratch. Toyota engineers took the lead. The end result is an all-electric SUV with a motor based on the system in the Tesla Model S sedan. If that sounds simple, don't be fooled -- it is an amazing feat of engineering and collaboration, especially in such a short period of time.
The RAV4 EV looks very much like a gasoline-powered RAV4, with some cool revisions. The EV gets a new front grille; some new badging; revised, more aerodynamic mirrors; a deeper roof spoiler; LED lowbeam headlights and daytime running lamps (DRL); LED taillamps and a sleek, aerodynamic underbody, among other exterior changes. Each change is designed to improve air flow or reduce power consumption, and the subtle sum total is a RAV4 that looks much more contemporary and sleek. I wonder if any of these mods will migrate to the gas RAV4?
The RAV4 EV will be available in a limited color palette of four bland exterior colors: White, Pearl White, Steel Blue and Grey. No Electric Banana Yellow RAV4 EVs to be had -- yet.
In the Driver's Seat
RAV4 EV gets a new eco-friendly cloth interior, with a very modern-looking pattern that looks like something you'd find in a Mazda vehicle (that's a compliment). Both front seats are electrically heated, which seems like a luxury feature, but is actually another eco feature, according to Toyota. It takes a lot of energy to warm the air in the RAV4's cabin, and it takes a while, too. You get a much quicker sense of warmth and comfort from heated seats, and for a fraction of the energy cost. The RAV4's HVAC system is smart enough to read the cabin temperature and automatically turn on the seat heaters with the heater motor. There's no corresponding action for cooling, but there are two energy-saving modes for the air conditioning system. Unless you're in a desert climate, the ECO modes will probably serve to keep you comfortable, while conserving energy.
The driver interface, instrument panel, gear selector and information screens on the EV have been changed from the gas version. The IP is a thin-film transistor (TFT) screen, and it delivers a lot of information to the driver in easy to digest chunks. A big 8" color display dominates the top of the center stack, carrying navigation, audio, communications and vehicle settings information. Many of the traditional control knobs and buttons, especially for audio, have been eliminated, with their functions nested within the touch screen display. I'd have to live with this for a while before I became totally comfortable with its operation -- sometimes it's nice to have a knob on the dash that's dedicated to turning down the radio volume or searching for a station. The center stack controls that remain have been rewired to touch controls. The whole effect is clean, crisp and relatively high tech.
On the Road
RAV4 EV's gear selector will be very familiar to Prius drivers. An unconventional joystick, the selector is located in the traditional center console position. A pushbutton electronic parking brake sits just aft of the joystick. The electric motor is capable of delivering 154 hp and 218 lb-ft in Normal mode, which is good for a top speed of 85 mph. A button in the center stack allows the driver to engage and disengage Sport mode, which gives access to the motor's full range of torque, up to 273 lb-ft, and a top speed of 100 mph. The EV defaults back to Normal mode each time it is turned off. Engaging Sport mode changes the background color of the TFT display to red from the Normal mode's relaxing blue background. It goes without saying (but I'll say it anyway) that driving around in Sport mode and accessing maximum torque at every opportunity will significantly diminish battery charge.
Electric vehicles can be a lot of fun to drive, with their instant torque and eerily silent operation. RAV4 EV is super fun, especially when compared to the gasoline version. The EV has a lower center of gravity because of where the batteries are mounted, and it leaps off the line with enough power to spin the rubber on its front wheels until the nanny from the traction control computer kicks in.
The good news about the RAV4 EV is that it is a very good SUV that just happens to be powered by electricity. There's no sacrifice in terms of utility or ease of use. You don't need to do anything special to drive the EV effectively -- just drive. And that's a good thing.
While you can drive a RAV4 EV just like a gas-only RAV4, you can't refuel with the same ease. It takes at least 5 hours to fully charge the RAV4 EV, and that's when hooked up to a 40 amp/240 volt power source. Connected to common, 12 amp/120 volt household current, it can take 44 hours or longer to charge. Toyota hopes that RAV4 EV buyers will spring for a dedicated charging station, which will be available at an installed price of around $1,500 from Leviton.
Then there's the issue of range. Toyota hinted at a driving range of 100 miles or more from a standard charge. For many drivers, that might be plenty. With diligent charging and power management, 100 miles is a great range for an around-town commuter car. Toyota is unleashing a barrage of power management tools with the EV, including smartphone apps and onboard charging schedule reminders. Still, an electric SUV might not be right for everybody. My wife, for instance, has difficulty keeping her cellphone charged. I don't know how she'd manage an SUV.
Price is another challenge. Toyota has chosen to sell RAV4 EVs, as opposed to leasing, which is Honda's strategy with the Fit EV. Even with the incentives and tax breaks, a $49,800 RAV4 EV will take a long time to pay back its investment, especially when a gas-only 2012 RAV4 starts at $22,650.
The 2013 Toyota RAV4 EV is a remarkable feat of engineering and collaboration between companies. It ups the ante for the early adopters, trumping the Prius crowd in the eco competition. I hope that all 2,600 RAV4 EVs sell quickly so that we can get to the next round of development -- a truly affordable and practical battery-powered SUV. The RAV4 EV is an important step in the right direction.