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Toyota RAV4 EV First Drive

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author photo by Autotrader May 2011

It used to be that letting anyone – let alone a cadre of automotive journalists –drive a prototype vehicle before it was “consumer ready” was unheard of. Times are obviously changing.

Auto giant Toyota, working with small electric car startup, Tesla, plans on bringing an all-electric version of its RAV4 compact crossover SUV to market in 2012. The vehicle has been in development for about six months, but both companies felt confident enough in their progress to let a few dozen journalists test drive a dozen RAV4 EV prototypes during Toyota’s annual Sustainable Mobility Seminar in San Diego, California, last week.

Although the automotive world is currently gaga for electric cars, they aren’t a new concept. In fact, the RAV4 EV itself isn’t even a new concept for Toyota, with the company having built more than a thousand of them back in the nineties and early two-thousands to meet the now-defunct California zero emissions mandates of the time.

If you talk with any die-hard electric vehicle supporter, it’s a guarantee they will fondly speak of that original RAV4 EV. Unlike other icons of the era – like the GM EV1 and Honda EV Plus – there are still about a thousand RAV4 EVs driving around the US, some with 200,000 miles on their odometers. The excitement in that community surrounding the new RAV4 EV is palpable, but what does a vehicle like this mean for the modern era of electric cars?

It’s certainly hard to draw completely solid conclusions from a prototype vehicle that has only been in development for six months – especially since the only thing guaranteed to remain the same on the production vehicle is the styling – but even so, the prototype RAV4 EV AutoTrader drove was solid and provided some good hints at what consumers can expect out of the production vehicle.

Toyota says the RAV4 EV will have a top speed of 100 mph and a 0-60 mph time of around nine seconds. Although our test-drive route was carefully chosen to avoid speeds higher than 50 mph, like most electric cars the RAV4 EV is incredibly peppy off the starting line and made for exhilarating overtaking maneuvers in traffic. This is mostly due to the whopping 295 ft-lbs of torque that its 150 horsepower electric motor puts out.

In prototype form, the RAV4 EV weighs 3,942 pounds, but 1,000 of those pounds are courtesy of the gigantic 37 kWh battery pack that sits underneath the vehicle. That extra weight turns out to be completely necessary, because even with the huge energy capacity, Toyota says it has been averaging only about 96 miles of range on one charge, with variations from 80 to 120 miles depending on driving style and road conditions.

Due to the lower center of gravity and extra weight of the batteries, Toyota had to play with the springs and tuning of the suspension to get it to feel right. Tesla engineers its battery packs to act as a structural feature of the car, so even though the batteries add extra weight, they also add rigidity – which is good for handling. In the short time we had in the vehicle, that tuned handling and extra rigidity was noticeable in a quick steering response and resistance to rolling when cornering.

As a prototype, the RAV4 EV certainly had a few rough edges. The vacuum pump that makes the brakes work was noticeably loud and came on at every stop. There was a slight hesitation between pressing on the accelerator and the vehicle starting to move forward. Regenerative braking – which allows the vehicle to recapture energy that would normally be wasted as heat during braking – was harsh and probably tuned more towards what an EV enthusiast might want than what an average consumer might expect.

None of those qualms was a showstopper, but clearly the Toyota/Tesla team has some issues to work out before the car reaches consumers’ hands.

One thing the RAV4 EV promises to bring to the burgeoning electric car market that others have yet to offer is cargo space. With 73 cubic feet available when the rear seats are folded down, the RAV4 EV has the same amount of cargo space as the conventional gas-powered RAV4.

Toyota plans on updating the body styling of the RAV4 in the next year or so, but the RAV4 EV will continue to have the current styling, setting Toyota up for a bit of challenging situation in which its factory in Canada will likely be building both the old body style and the new body style on the same line. After the RAV4 EV shells are assembled in Canada, they will be shipped off to an as yet undecided location for final assembly – perhaps the new Tesla Factory in Fremont, California (which was formerly jointly owned by Toyota and GM) – where drivetrains and batteries from Tesla will be mated to the mostly finished product.

Toyota was tight-lipped on what the RAV4 EV might cost when it hits the market, but did say they hope it will start reaching consumer’s hands in the first half of 2012.

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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Toyota RAV4 EV First Drive - Autotrader