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2012 Toyota RAV4 EV First Drive

What It Is
Tesla Model S technology shoved into a re-engineered RAV4 crossover for Leo DiCaprio & Co.
Best Thing
Likely quicker than Toyota cares to mention, more practical than any other electric car, and Lexus-like quietness.
Worst Thing
Its interior isn't befitting a $50,000 (yes, really) compact crossover.
Snap Judgment
California doesn't deserve this one all to itself.


A Few Photos of this Vehicle

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There's very little about the 2012 Toyota RAV4 EV that makes sense on the surface. It's a collaboration between perhaps the strangest of bedfellows since Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley. Toyota has been in the electric and hybrid car game since 1997, when it brought out the first RAV4 EV and began talking about an impractical little car in Japan called the Prius. But when it came time for the RAV4 EV's follow-up, it didn't use its know-how to develop its powertrain.

Instead, Toyota contracted Silicon Valley startup Tesla Motors for that, leaving its team to re-engineer its RAV4 to work with electronics that were unlike anything Toyota has ever used. And it's based on a crossover that's graced U.S. shores since 2006, soon to be replaced by an all-new RAV4 for 2013. The RAV4 EV will continue to share its design with the outgoing model on which it's based for the next three years. For a company with a Type A personality like Toyota, you wonder how it's coping with the technology outsourcing.

But this project wasn't about doing things the "Toyota Way." In fact, CEO Akio Toyoda planned for it to go against anything the company had ever done. Following the quality low point Toyota faced in 2009, the company needed a refresher on why it was in the car business. And out of that wakeup call spawned projects like the Scion FR-S, the upcoming reinvigorated Toyota Avalon, and this, the 2012 Toyota RAV4 EV. It's one of the few vehicle projects Toyota has ever made that was conceived completely by its U.S. operations. Akio wanted that. And it's one of the few vehicles Toyota has ever made to push the envelope of technological progress ahead of plans for profitability, much as it did the $375,000 Lexus LFA.

Toyota is planning to make just 2,600 RAV4 EVs over the next three years, selling them exclusively in California to battle the state's zero-emissions vehicle mandate. But Toyota says it's hardly a "compliance car," simply designed to meet a rule to avoid a fine. Each of the identically equipped RAV4 EVs will cost the same $50,610, about $20,000 more than a loaded gas-powered model. Only the RAV4 EV's exterior color will differ. On the surface, it's hard to rationalize why Toyota would be going to such time, effort, and expense to produce such a small-market vehicle. But, then, this project was never about rationality; it was about opening the door to future technology, making a first step towards making a real, credible alternative to fossil fuel-powered vehicles and doing so with the help of a partner not bound by the corporate bureaucracy that had long attached itself to one of the world's largest automakers.

Could it possibly succeed?

Walkaround

After seeing thousands of the current-generation for the last seven years, the basic shape of the Toyota RAV4 is ubiquitous. Readying it for electrification, Toyota didn't try to reinvent its popular crossover; it just freshened it enough for the sake of functionality and a little visual differentiation.

Up front, Toyota has reworked its grille and front bumper, making air inlets smaller and more aerodynamic. A "RAV4 EV" badge replaces the interlinked ovals that traditionally adorn Toyotas as well as "Electric" badges running down both front door and another badge out back. Completing the look are revised projector-beam LED headlights with Toyota's first LED low-beams, LED tail lights, more aerodynamic mirrors with integrated turn signal indicators, a larger rear spoiler that better manages wind resistance, and the most important part: no exhaust pipe. It borrows its tailgate from the Toyota RAV4 Sport, eschewing an outboard spare tire in favor of runflat tires. And the 2012 Toyota RAV4 EV sits a little lower, making do with a revised suspension to cope with an extra 845-pound battery pack sandwiched underneath the passenger floor. Otherwise, it's not radically changed from any other RAV4 you've ever seen, which may come as a disappointment to those who need to draw attention to the fact that they're saving the world one car at a time.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

Sitting Down

At more than $50,000, Toyota has established the electric car as we know it is still a premium product. But considering its price, the RAV4 EV's interior comes off as a bit disappointing. It's mostly carryover from the standard-model RAV4, awash in hard, gray plastics. The seats are covered in a combination of environmentally-friendly cloth and vinyl on the bolsters and headrests that simulates leather. Because real leather doesn't make sense when it comes to giving Mother Nature some peace of mind. But carryover has its merits in places, as the RAV4 EV's batteries sit under it, sacrificing no cargo space in the process.

Not everything is old, though. Toyota includes brand new Premium IntelliTouch Navigation and Entune, an eight-inch touchscreen surrounded by pressure-sensitive flush buttons exclusively in the RAV4 EV. It controls radio, navigation, and smartphone apps among other tasks. When paired with the RAV4's smartphone apps, it allows customers to set charging schedules for using power at off-peak hours in addition to using the grid to preheat or precool the interior, lessening dependency on the climate control while driving. Still, with larger seat heaters that run more efficiently than the HVAC system, Toyota expects passengers to have less dependency on the climate control, squeezing out a little more range from each watt of energy.

Driving

You hear the darndest things from the engineers when you talk to them about the cars they've seen through development from the beginning. Case-in-point: chief engineer Sheldon Brown's explanation of the RAV4's driving range. "We drove the hell out of them," he says of the RAV4 EV's first 300 miles on the odometer before we got to drive it.

The RAV4 EV records an algorithm throughout the lifetime of the vehicle that adjusts to how it's driven. With Brown's team of engineers behind the wheel, each RAV4 showed 120 miles of realistic range at full charge. Brown showed us charts of real-world data his team collected, showing some RAV4s able to go beyond 145 miles without a problem. If you stay light on the throttle, that's very doable. Rated at 76 mpge, the RAV4 EV has a range of 92 miles when charged to a battery-conserving 80 percent and 113 miles when filling its 41.8-kilowatt-hour battery to capacity. That feat takes six hours with a standard Level 2 charger -- the same as a Nissan Leaf. But that can take as many as 50 with a standard Level 1 charger -- about twice as long as the Leaf with a wall plug.

Contrasting the RAV4 EV with the 2012 Nissan Leaf, the EV world's staple, a heavy foot for five minutes in Nissan Leaf would result in a good 10 miles of range shedding itself without hesitation. That's far less comforting when you only have an EPA-estimated 73 miles of range to begin with. The RAV4 EV doesn't do that. Our experience showed that driving the RAV4 EV like a normal car -- using the left lane on the highway included -- we had no problems with range falling off too quickly.

But Toyota also engineered the RAV4 EV to be fun to drive, and it succeeded. In sport mode, the RAV4 has 154 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque -- twisting force -- right from idle. And believe us, the Toyota RAV4 EV pulls, sounding more like a muted commercial airliner than a car as it takes off, and smoothly accelerating like one, too. Toyota estimates it'll hit 60 mph from standstill in 7.0 seconds when pushed. It doesn't take much effort at all to coax the tires into laying down long strip of rubber in a parking lot with minimal torque steer. Give the RAV4 EV a set of grippier tires than its Yokohama Geolanders, and we think it could start picking off sports cars. Alas, let the enthusiast publications research that topic with more depth. It was explained to us several times that the electric motor is more or less a detuned version of what's coming in the Tesla Model S. It shows.

By collaborating with Tesla, Toyota likely saved the startup tens of millions of dollars in durability research. The result: We kept coming back to the RAV4 after each drive on our loop through Newport Beach and Irvine area, grinning -- dare I say laughing -- with delight. It was hard to get tired of driving the RAV4 EV.

Toyota let more of that sporty DNA into its RAV4 EV beyond just its Tesla-built electric motor system. Toyota tightened its electric power steering from the standard RAV4, giving it an almost Germanic quality. At parking lot speeds, it's manageable with one hand but quickly tightens up at speed. Coupled with a stiff suspension, Toyota has given its all to remind its drivers that electric cars don't have to be dull cars. Our only complaint with its on-road prowess came by way of its mushy brake pedal feel. It works much better than regenerative brakes in hybrids and electric cars of yore -- and most found in the market today. But there's still some ways to go in perfecting it.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

Summary

The Toyota RAV4 EV is as radical a vehicle as you're going to get from Toyota -- perhaps a greater departure than even the Lexus LFA supercar. With the LFA, Toyota will use the expertise it learned to lower the cost of lightweight materials, like carbon fiber, for mainstream applications. With the RAV4, it's not yet known what will come from its development outside of the fact that U.S. engineers will assuredly gain more autonomy from the mother ship in Japan.

Borrowing liberally from Tesla to cut down development times, and learning how to think more like a Silicon Valley startup instead of a potentially myopic monolith of automotive devices, the RAV4 EV uses vastly different technology than Toyota's hybrids. It ditches AC motors for DC; nickel-metal hydride batteries go in favor of multi-cell lithium-ion. And the results are astounding: It's sportier than the V-6 RAV4. It feels quicker, and it assuredly handles better with most of its weight now in the middle instead of up front. But it's also a green vehicle; it's impossible to feel bad about driving it.

Outside of our small list of gripes -- including the $50,610 price tag -- we can't help but think the Toyota RAV4 might just be the vehicle the electric car movement needs to really take off. It makes no compromises.

Except for one thing.

Toyota is planning to make just 2,600 RAV4 EVs in its Woodstock, Ontario, plant over the next three years, or roughly the same number of Camrys the automaker sells in about half a week. It's only going to be sold in California, too, despite the fact that the automaker tested it to withstand much greater climate variances than what the Golden State has to offer. And it's losing money on every one it sells. But Toyota knew it would when it got back into the EV game.

With the first RAV4 EV that the automaker developed completely in-house, the automaker originally consigned it on a three-year lease program, but lessees protested having to give up their cars. Toyota then rethought its position, allowing more than 450 still on the road to go into private hands for good. Now, Toyota's not messing around with leasing, instead letting ravenous and affluent greenies buy the new RAV4 EV outright. But like the last one, it's still relegated to a niche audience.

After the first batch is built, we hope Toyota reconsiders that. This one's good enough that the rest of the U.S. deserves a shot at it, too.

Basic Specs

DC-induction electric motor, 1-speed automatic transmission, front-wheel drive, 154-hp, 41.8 kWh lithium-ion battery, $50,610, including $810 destination and handling (excluding state and federal tax rebates), 76 MPGe (Estimated).

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