Addressing one of the major problems facing electric vehicles, Toyota set out to maximize the range of its RAV4 EV, while keeping the overall price and charging times reasonable.
When I took the wheel of the Toyota RAV4 EV during an event in Los Angeles, two things stuck out: a Prius shifter on the console and the all-digital instrument cluster. Clearly, this SUV would not be a typical RAV4. That feeling was accentuated when pushing the start button produced a silent system check, the car booting up, as opposed to the crank of an internal combustion engine.
The exterior of the RAV4 EV also offered a few clues to the nature of its drive train, not least of which were the EV and Electric logos on all sides. By comparison, the lack of a large front grille seemed almost subtle. One cue that few would notice without a spec sheet was the LED low-beam headlights, tucked away in their casings next to standard projector high beams. Toyota made a smart move here, reducing energy usage on the low beams, while reducing costs on the high beams, which get less use.
The fueling hatch was in the same place as on a standard RAV4, the left rear fender, but it hid a charging port rather than a fuel filler. This location seemed a little inconvenient for typical charging stations, which usually sit at the front of a parking space. However, every charging cable I have seen would be long enough to stretch down the length of the RAV4 EV.
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Opening the rear hatch or looking into the rear seat space, I was impressed to see a flat floor, unimpeded by battery casing protrusions. Even better, folding down the rear seats created a very large, flat-floored cargo area. Toyota preserved the utility of its RAV4 EV. Under the cargo floor was a little extra storage, which Toyota used to stash away a 110-volt adapter cable.
Popping the little Prius shifter into drive and pushing the go pedal made the RAV4 EV head off without hesitation. The first inch of pedal travel had a soft spot, which seemed designed to promote electricity-saving slow starts. Beyond that, the power comes on harder. This is a vehicle where I got to use all of the pedal travel.
Flanking the digital speed readout on the instrument cluster were two range gauges, which seemed confusing at first. The right showed 152 miles in this fully charged car, and the left showed the same number, at least until I turned on the climate control. On the moderately warm Los Angeles day when I drove the RAV4 EV, I turned the air conditioning on in what Toyota calls Normal mode. The air blew very cold but the left gauge dropped to 93 miles in range, a big hit.
However, Toyota included a few power-saving modes, so I switched the car to its Climate Control Low setting. The fan speed dropped a little and the range jumped up to 99 miles. Feeling like Goldilocks, I felt it was still a bit chilly, so I moved it to the next setting, Climate Control High, a counterintuitive naming convention, which further reduced the effectiveness of the air conditioning, but jumped the range up to 112 miles. That setting proved to be very comfortable for the entire day's driving, which was warm outside but not excessively so.
The right side display continued to show the RAV4 EV's maximum potential range, until I cycled through its other screens. It could also show driving efficiency, an efficient driving coach rating my speed, acceleration, and braking, and a friendly CO2 reduction meter, which grew green vines on the screen to reassure me I was driving a zero-emission vehicle.
Turning the steering wheel at low, parking-lot speeds, the electric boost was obvious. It felt like a giant rheostat, requiring little effort to turn. But while the car was running down the road at 45 mph, the steering wheel settled into heavier, more responsive action.
The RAV4 EV is also heavier than its gas-engine counterpart by about 450 pounds, yet that extra weight, due to the 41.8-kilowatt-hour lithium ion battery pack, was not immediately obvious. The 115-kilowatt electric motor, producing 218 pound-feet of torque from almost a standstill, helped mask the extra weight on acceleration. And the position of the battery pack, underneath the car, lowers the center of gravity to that of a typical sedan, making for very un-SUV-like cornering.
As the fruit of a partnership between Toyota and Tesla, much of the RAV4 EV's power-train specs should sound familiar to those who have looked at the Model S. Battery pack, electric motor, and the power control unit are all shared with Tesla's planned low-end version of the Model S. In fact, the partnership with Tesla catapulted the RAV4 EV's development forward, letting Toyota get a near-production model out in just 20 months -- hyperspeed for the auto industry.
The RAV4 EV benefits greatly from Tesla's development of long-range electric vehicles. The EPA range only came up to 103 miles, but these calculations typically underrate the range of electric vehicles. In a presentation, Toyota cited data showing its development team making trips of up to 145 miles without running out of juice.
In my experience driving the RAV4 EV around for an afternoon, it seemed to have more range than most electric cars coming out on the market. For example, the range gauge said 112 miles with the climate control in its High position. After playing around with different modes and going for maximum acceleration a number of times, the range dropped to 70 miles, which approximated the actual miles I had driven, showing that it was a realistic figure.
There is another quirk about the RAV4 EV's range. It can be charged up in either Normal or Extended mode, the former only using 35 kilowatt-hours of battery capacity. Normal charging mode means less overall range, but also extends the life of the battery. Toyota included the Normal charging mode under the assumption that the majority of drivers will need at most 50 miles for a daily round-trip commute. As such, there is no need to charge the battery to its full potential.
Charging times also factor into these different modes. With such a large battery pack, it will take over 44 hours to charge it from empty to full from a 120-volt source. From a 40-amp, 240-volt source, Toyota says it will take 5 hours to charge in Normal mode and 6 hours in Extended mode. At 16 amps and 240 volts, that time jumps to 12 and 15 hours, respectively. Toyota partnered with Leviton for home charger installation, and will also inspect the houses of potential buyers to determine the suitability for home charging.
Toyota includes another means of sapping the range in the RAV4 EV: a Sport mode. Before driving the Honda Fit EV, I had not seen a Sport mode in an electric vehicle, as most focus on maximizing range. With the RAV4 EV, Sport mode ups the motor output to 273 pound-feet of torque. It also made for more immediate response from the acceleration pedal, with just a little travel making the SUV push quickly forward. Toyota lists a zero-to-60 mph figure of 8.6 seconds for Normal mode and 7 seconds in Sport. The company also notes that Sport mode raises the top speed from 85 mph to 100 mph.
After testing out Sport mode on public roads for a few miles, I settled back into the Normal drive mode. While it was fun getting that immediate, hard acceleration from Sport mode, the Normal mode was more than adequate for keeping up with traffic and passing. And while the RAV4 EV has a lower center of gravity than its gasoline-engine counterpart, it is not a vehicle I want to hammer around corners. The suspension, tuned for the extra weight, handles it well, but I could feel the heavy damping in the turns and when the car went over bumps.
Another significant difference between the standard RAV4 and the electric version is the navigation head unit. Toyota wanted to use a larger, 8-inch touch screen in the RAV4 EV, but that meant losing some of the fixed buttons on the bezel of the standard unit. Going for a high-tech look, Toyota virtually eliminated all buttons and dials from around the LCD, relegating all stereo, navigation, and phone controls to the touch screen. The only button left is an iPhone-like home button, which opens up the main menu on the touch screen.
The major problem with this interface is the lack of a physical volume and tuning dial. To change the stereo volume, I had to dig into an audio screen, open up the tone control, and move a slider. The saving grace here was that Toyota kept a volume-control button on the steering wheel.
Along with the normal infotainment functions in the head unit, Toyota included some specific to electric vehicles. Integrated with the navigation system is a database of EV charging stations, which Toyota filters by 120-volt and 240-volt. To make this database even more useful, each entry includes notes about the station hours, and includes a detailed location, so drivers will not have to cruise vast parking lots looking for the couple of spaces with an EV charger.
Included in the head unit is also the ability to set charging schedules for the RAV4 EV. Toyota set it up so drivers can program a departure time for each day of the week. The car will automatically try to give drivers a full charge based on the times they will head out. It can also be set to preheat or cool the cabin while it is plugged into the wall, depending on the outside temperature.
The head unit incorporates Toyota's Entune apps system, which includes such useful features as OpenTable and Bing local search. And the Entune app for smartphones brings in a few extra EV features, some of which mirror those in the car. The smartphone app also has a list of EV charging stations, but this one comes from the Toyota cloud, so should be the most up to date. Other features of the app include scheduling charging and a car locator.
Toyota will begin sales of the RAV4 EV in California later this summer, with a base price of $49,800. Buyers will be eligible for a federal tax credit of $7,500, along with state incentives.