2013 Toyota RAV4 EV, and the cost of forbidden fruit: Motoramic Drives
When Toyota entered into partnership with Tesla Motors in May of 2010, it was an odd marriage of corporate visions. But they were determined to shake up the electric vehicle market with their joint venture. Tesla already had plans to corner the sporty luxury car category with their Roadster and the Model S, and the "eccentric sedan" lane was already growing crowded, with the Nissan Leaf, the Chevy Volt, and Toyota's own Prius plug-in hybrid. Instead, Toyota and Tesla would try something radical: They'd take the ultimate symbol of gas-guzzling automotive waste and they'd flip the environmental script by creating a new electric SUV. It came to pass quicker than anyone could have hoped.
The other night, I ate dessert with Greg Bernas, the chief engineer of Toyota's all-new all-electric version of the RAV4. "I told them I needed more than two years to complete the project," he said. "They said, 'do it in less.' This needed to hit the market quickly. I didn't know if I was being punished or what."
It took a while for the partnership to heat up, Bernas said. Tesla, the brash Silicon Valley startup, was reluctant to share its rapidly-evolving electric drivetrain technology, and Toyota didn't want to give up its corporate design and safety protocols, developed over decades of research. They struck a deal. Toyota would send Tesla a playbook of required specs, which Tesla could use in designing its own vehicles. In return, Toyota got access to Tesla's EV battery technology. Of such marriages are potential revolutions born.
At a press conference the next morning, Bernas said, "I wanted to break the myth of EVs being boring. I wanted no sacrifices in terms of performance, innovation, or being fun to drive." That's a big order for a car that, in its non-electric life, is a purely middlebrow SUV. We were about to find out if he'd done his job.
Since this isn't a mystery novel, let's not keep the suspense going: Though, in appearance, it looks like an only slightly-improved version of a pretty ordinary family car, the new RAV4 EV is a full-on excellent upgrade. It's comfortable, nimble, almost deathly quiet, and fun to drive. The brakes are hearty and the turning radius outstanding. Over several hours in and around Newport Beach, Calif., my drive partner and I continually hooted with excitement as we peeled away from stop signs, flipped U-turns with impunity, and breezily guided the car through crowded Orange County traffic . At one point, we roared out of a stoplight, leaving the Mercedes C-Class driver in the lane next to us with his mouth agape. The next light came and we did it again. The other driver wasn't used to getting dusted by a mommy-mobile.
Even though it's big enough to hold a family of five, with plenty of trunk space for a Costco run or a few bikes, this isn't the soccer mom next door's RAV4. Despite only having 154 maximum horsepower, it accelerates as well as a car twice as strong. In ordinary drive mode, the LED light display inside glows blue. But push the "Sport" button on the lower dash, and suddenly the display color changes to red, with a circle around the MPH display glowing like the Eye Of Sauron.