Electric Cars

RAV4 EV sounds unlikely as Toyota doubles down on Hybrid

Market conditions aren't ripe for the return of a battery-electric model, a Toyota exec suggests, but the hybrid's future looks bright.

Toyota

Car fans are still eagerly checking out the 2019 Toyota RAV4 on the floor of the New York Auto Show after its debut last week. While the new generation presents a broader portfolio of flavors, including more distinct Hybrid and Adventure trims, one version that had been sold previously isn't on spinning on the dais under the bright lights: an EV.

That's not surprising -- Toyota hasn't offered a RAV4 EV since 2014 (a model it developed with Tesla) and likely would never reveal a derivative like a battery-electric model at the same time as its mainstream gas and hybrid counterparts.

But it doesn't sound like such a model is forthcoming at all. At a media roundtable last week, Jack Hollis, group vice president and general manager of Toyota North America, gave reason to doubt that a new electric version of the hugely popular SUV is in the works. Despite a sizable number of new EV models headed for the market, Hollis remains concerned that interest among mainstream consumers isn't sufficient to support such a model:

"We gave it [the RAV4 EV] a good run ... there were some learnings there," Hollis said. "But the marketplace, even today, is the marketplace really there? And that's a question for the marketplace still. Is it really there? Or are manufacturers forcing it to be there? Or is a pull versus a push?

"There's a lot of question marks around that. We stopped that [the RAV4 EV] because at that time, the market wasn't there to justify the expense, in order to justify what it was. But the learning in battery-electric, we had heard from the guests what they need."

Toyota's RAV4 EV sold in small numbers until 2014. Today, they're highly sought after on the used market.

Toyota

At least in the near term, Hollis' bet is likely right -- in calendar 2017, plug-in vehicle sales enjoyed substantial growth, but even then, they still only represented around 1 percent of total US sales, with pure-electric models accounting for 0.6 percent of that total. This, despite federal, state and local governments offering hefty incentives, including substantial tax breaks.

Even today, hybrid model sales are only 2.1 percent of new passenger vehicles sales in America, and the technology has been on the market for nearly 20 years. 

(For some added perspective, Toyota sold just 2,600 second-generation RAV4 Hybrids over a three-year run, although the model was only offered in California. In today's burgeoning SUV market, Toyota sold over 400,000 RAV4 models in North America last year alone.)

None of this is to say that Toyota isn't committed to electrification -- on the contrary, during the roundtable, Hollis reiterated, "By 2025 each one of our products will have electrification capability. All of our products." And indeed, Toyota is hoping to amp up interest in the 2019 RAV4 Hybrid (seen above) by positioning it not just as the green choice, but as the highest-performance model in the family, with the quickest acceleration and best-handling chassis to go along with best-in-range efficiency. With most analysts expecting fuel prices to stay low, this strategy could resonate with more shoppers than attempting to sell on parsimony.

With the RAV4 Hybrid's new performance emphasis, Toyota doesn't seem to be worried about alienating green buyers. "Could you probably [design in] less performance and higher efficiency? Maybe. But who is that drawing in?" said Hollis. "[The RAV4 Hybrid] is being created to draw in a person who really wants to have it all."