2012 Toyota RAV4 EV review: Toyota's electric retrofit of SUV feels half-baked

To maximize range while remaining comfortable, Toyota includes two air-conditioning modes, Eco Lo and Eco Hi, the latter using the least amount of electricity. Cruising around on a day of about 80 degrees dry heat, Eco Hi proved more than enough to keep me comfortable, but there are other parts of the country where drivers will need Eco Lo or maximum air conditioning.

Turning the air conditioning off completely only gained me one out of 50 miles range, so the cost was minimal.

2012 Toyota RAV4 EV
This shifter comes from the Prius parts bin, and operates in the same manner. James Martin/CNET

Getting up to freeway speeds, merging with traffic, was not a problem. The only thing keeping me from the fast lane was my eye on the all-important range meter.

The 800-pound battery pack, built low into the car, causes the ride quality to suffer. It feels like Toyota tuned the suspension to handle the weight, but what I assume are heavy-duty shock absorbers gave the RAV4 EV a trucklike ride quality. It rolled over bumps like it was going to flatten them rather than with the easy damping I would expect from a modern car.

Taking turns at a little more than the recommended speed, that low-slung weight made the RAV4 EV feel like a sled. It never felt tippy, instead making it seem like I was riding a slab of lead, the rear wheels of this front-wheel-drive SUV threatening to slide out sideways.

Sports car drivers often crave this type of cornering, but it felt odd in the RAV4 EV.

After a nice freeway cruise, with speeds not optimal for minimizing electricity usage, I was pleased to find that, although I had put 34 miles on the odometer, I had only peeled 28 miles from the car's stated range. However, as I figured I only had a 3-mile range buffer to get back home, I was still intent on finding a charging station.

I first centered on the Stanford Shopping Center parking garage, and learned from the PlugShare app which entrance its two chargers stood near. I found the charging station quickly, but two Nissan Leafs were already plugged in. PlugShare listed another parking garage nearby, telling me it had two chargers on the second level. The RAV4 EV's navigation map confirmed that location with an icon, making it easy to find my way there. Once again, Nissan Leafs had both available plugs.

As my range anxiety mounted, I drove toward another charging station icon on the map, leading me to an underground lot with, lo and behold, an open port on the ChargePoint network of EV chargers. Better yet, this charging station was free, so I plugged in and walked off to get some lunch.

Because the car was parked underground, I couldn't see its charging status with the Entune app, but when I returned it had gained 12 miles during my hour-long lunch break. With a bigger range buffer, I felt free to run the air conditioning and pass other cars on the freeway.

2012 Toyota RAV4 EV
The RAV4 EV features a standard J1772 charging port, but no fast-charge option. James Martin/CNET

Lengthy charge times are the RAV4 EV's biggest problem, a direct result of its large battery pack. From a typical 110-volt source, it takes 44 hours to charge. The public station I hooked up to was likely a 240-volt/30-amp source, which can charge up the battery in 6.5 hours, according to Toyota. From a 240-volt/16-amp charging station, it would take 12 hours.

Obviously, if you are going go buy a RAV4 EV, you will want a 240-volt charging station in your garage, preferably running at 30 amps.

And forget about using quick-charge stations for longer trips, as the RAV4 EV does not support any of the fast-charging standards. Unlike the Nissan Leaf, it can't use ChadeMo or DC Fast Charge stations, nor can it use Tesla's own Supercharger network. The RAV4 EV is strictly a home-based car.

Electric red mist
While driving the RAV4 EV when range wasn't a concern, I gave its Sport mode a try. When I pushed the Sport button near the shifter, the LCD instrument cluster went from its default calming blue outline to a red mist. The accelerator became more sensitive, and, according to Toyota, the top speed went from the default 85 mph to 100 mph. It also boosts zero-to-60 mph acceleration from 8.6 seconds to 7 seconds.

Sport mode was more satisfying to my enthusiast nature, but respect for the local highway patrol kept me from running it up to top speed. I also found that the RAV4 EV's normal drive mode was more than adequate to handle everyday driving needs.

2012 Toyota RAV4 EV
The rear hatch swings out to the side, rather than hinging up. James Martin/CNET

Through the Entune app, the RAV4 EV got Pandora and iHeartRadio Internet music streaming. Complementing those sources were Bluetooth audio streaming, HD Radio, and a USB port for thumbdrives or an iOS device. With my iPhone plugged into the car, I liked how the music library interface let me browse long artist or album lists by letter. Better yet, voice command let me request music by artist or album name.

The car's six-speaker audio system struck more of a sour note for music playback. It was not necessarily bad, just average for the automotive market, so did little to help me enjoy the tracks I played. As is typical with this type of speaker format, bass was understated, while mids and highs tended to be muddy, making it difficult to distinguish individual instruments.

Among other cabin tech in the RAV4 EV was Toyota's Bluetooth phone system, which also worked with voice command, plus weather, sports, and stock information delivered to the car's LCD through its satellite radio connection.

More time in the oven
In many ways, the Toyota RAV4 EV does not feel fully baked. It has the Tesla-derived driveline with a large battery pack, yet no fast-charging option. It shows charging-station icons on its navigation maps, but does not include a list of stations in its POI database.

The deficiencies in cabin electronics come from building an electric vehicle onto an existing platform, which meant features were shoehorned in where they would fit.

That's not to say that the RAV4 EV isn't successful. The electric-vehicle tools added to Entune work well, giving the information and charging control needed to keep track of the RAV4 EV's running status. The interior quality may fall short of luxury, but it drives easy. I found it particularly interesting that it consistently beat its own range estimations.

At $50,000, the RAV4 EV is going to seem very pricey. Even adding Federal and state tax incentives, the price still comes in at close to $40,000, a little hard to take when many of the electric vehicles on the market come in in the mid- to low 20s after incentives. The SUV format probably won't make a lot of difference when compared with the roomy midsize electric hatchbacks and sedans on the market, but the RAV4 EV may find its tipping point, for some buyers, from its range advantage over the competition.

Tech specs
Model 2012 Toyota RAV4 EV
Power train 41.8kWh lithium ion battery pack, 154-hp electric motor, single-speed reduction gearbox
EPA fuel economy 78 mpge city/74 mpge highway
Navigation Standard with real-time traffic
Bluetooth phone support Standard
Digital audio sources Internet-based streams, Bluetooth streaming, iOS integration, USB drive, HD Radio, satellite radio, auxiliary input
Audio system 6-speaker system
Driver aids Rearview camera
Base price $49,800
Price as tested $50,645

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    2012 Toyota RAV4 EV

    Part Number: 2012RAV4EV
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    • Body style SUV
    • Available Engine Electric
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