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.
But no factor is more important, when it comes to EVs, than driving range. Nothing scares potential EV buyers like the possibility of running out of power. In our morning press conference, Toyota swore that the new RAV4 EV would get at least 100 miles to the charge under any circumstance. If you were judicious with the air-conditioning and heating system, and didn't hit the accelerator too hard, you could get up to 150.
We put it through its paces all afternoon. When we started the car up, the display on the left side of the dashboard claimed we had a range of 158 miles. After zeroing out the odometer, we hit the streets. The weather outside was gorgeous, so we opened the windows instead of using the air. After 16 miles, we still had a range of 135 miles left. Five miles later, true to form, we had 130. We put it into "ECO LO" air mode. Immediately, the car jacked down to an 89-mile range. The battery drained a lot quicker with the air on, but that's still a lot more mileage than most drivers need in an average day. The dreaded "range anxiety" that plagues EV drivers wasn't really present here.
After a while, we turned the air off, and the range immediately soared back to 102 miles remaining. We'd driven 36. By day's end, we'd done 55.3 miles, a good third of that while flooring the car to maximum capacity. I got the RAV4 up to 95 on the Interstate without even blinking. Even given that aggressive stance, there were still 69 miles of range left, meaning that the car had nearly 130 miles of potential energy between charges. We'd accomplished something significant without even trying. This felt like a major step forward in electric-vehicle technology.
That said, there are some things to criticize about the RAV4. First, the charging situation, while we didn't get to test it, seems to have some limitations. The car can fully charge in five to six hours, but only using a special unit that costs almost $1,500 to install, and that's only if your house can handle a 40 amp, 240-volt charging apparatus. Lower-amp stations are available, but don't charge quite as quickly. If you use the standalone cable that Toyota provides with the car, it takes 44 hours to charge the RAV4 in full.
Also, the RAV4 suffers from a problem endemic to many contemporary cars. It overreaches on the interconnectivity. While I suppose it's a good thing that I can make voice-activated OpenTable reservations while driving, I don't like the idea of having to operate a complicated shipboard computer in order to make this happen. This was the case with a lot of the RAV4's entertainment functions. Though I could do it easily from the steering wheel, we couldn't figure out a way for the passenger to change channels on the radio, and had to sit through a ten-minute explanation by Toyota drive specialists until we finally found the right touch screen. The RAV4 could do with a couple fewer trendy app doo-dads, and a couple of extra knobs.
Of course, that's a quibble. Toyota, with Tesla's help, has built a fun, functional SUV that features guilt-free driving with excellent range. It's an evolutionary car, if not a revolutionary one. But if the RAV4 EV really needed to hit the market quickly, then why aren't they trying harder to sell it?
In an almost desultory marketing presentation this week, Toyota said that they're only making 2,600 RAV4 EVs (and only selling them in California), over the next three years. Even though the car officially goes on sale this month, they haven't yet taken a single hard order, and have priced it at an expensive $49,800. Considering how quickly they made this car, and the amount of energy and resources they put behind making it good, Toyota's targets seem strangely limited. Then again, Toyota is one of six automakers required by California environmental authorities to build a certain number of electric vehicles starting this year. As with the Honda Fit EV, keeping sales curtailed seems as much about meeting a rule as it does building cars.
Greg Bernas and his team worked very hard to make a viable electric car that's appealing to the average consumer. I certainly enjoyed driving it. But three years from now, Tesla will have released its own electric SUV. Electric BMWs and Infinitis are on the way as well. Quickly, the market could pass this vehicle. The RAV4 EV is a potentially important car. All it needs now is a little ambition.