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Just about every automaker has an electric vehicle in its lineup now, from the Nissan Leaf to the soon-to-be-released BMW i3, but among this crop of quiet cars there is only one electric SUV. The Toyota RAV4 EV came about as tribute from Tesla Motors, in recompense for Toyota ceding its Fremont, Calif., manufacturing digs. I think Tesla got the best end of that deal.
However, the RAV4 EV, powered by a Tesla Motors driveline, steals a march on Tesla's own upcoming Model X electric SUV. With the Tesla-derived 41.5-kilowatt-hour lithium ion battery pack, the RAV4 EV boasts a 103-mile EPA estimated range, greater than those of all other recent electric cars except for Tesla's Model S.
With the RAV4 EV's SUV-format, Toyota can also point to the vehicle's 108.2 cubic feet of passenger space, and 37.2 cubic feet for cargo, making for a roomier ride than other electric vehicles.
In stance, the RAV4 EV reads small, its body needing merely to encompass its five-passenger cabin. Although the gas-engined RAV4 received major restyling for the 2013 model year, the RAV4 EV for 2012 and 2013 is based on the prior generation, with more masculine wheel arches and a subtler beltline.
The grille, which need only do minimal duty as air intake, is a solid piece of sheet metal emblazoned with the Toyota EV logo. It sits above one narrow slit, making the car instantly distinguishable from its fossil-fueled brethren. As an odd quirk, the rear hatch hinges to the side rather than lifting up.
Despite the driveline, it was obvious I wasn't sitting in a Tesla Model S cabin. Hard plastics swept across dashboard and door surfaces, while cloth, probably recycled or otherwise ecologically manufactured to fit the theme of the car, covered the manually adjustable seats.
Is that an iPad in your dash?
However, Toyota seems to emulate Tesla somewhat by putting a big, 8-inch touch-screen LCD in the center of the dashboard. Below it sits one big menu button, making the thing look like an iPad. There are no hard buttons to immediately call up navigation or the stereo. More useful would have been some kind of back button, as it is easy to get lost in the onscreen menus.
The main menu is new for Toyota vehicles, but much of the underlying software isn't. I immediately recognized the navigation system's maps and destination screens. As with other Toyota vehicles, the maps only show in plan, or 2D, view, with no perspective view available. I found that the maps refreshed quickly as the car moved and street labels were easy to read.
Under route guidance, the system showed reasonably detailed graphics for upcoming turns and read out street names. Traffic event and flow data were shown on the maps as well, and the system used that information to dynamically recalculate my route.
Toyota didn't bother to eliminate gas stations from the points-of-interest database, and you won't find an electric-car charging station category, either. However, the system has an option to show icons on the maps representing charging stations, something that proved very useful during my time with the car.
To help drivers find places to charge the RAV4 EV, Toyota adds an online list of charging stations to Entune, its telematics system. Entune is an app that runs on iPhones and Android phones, and pairs with the car to provide data for popular apps, such as Bing search, OpenTable, and Pandora, on the car's touch screen.
Tapping the Charging Station Map icon from the Entune menu on the touch screen didn't exactly bring up a map. Instead, it showed a list of the 24 closest charging stations. I could also have it show charging stations in a particular city. I would have preferred a map interface, but it was convenient that each listing included detailed information, such as now many chargers were available, and whether charging was free.
Outside of the car, I was able to use the Entune app to check the current battery and charging status and schedule future charging. Those features worked where the RAV4 EV could get a wireless data connection, but when I left it plugged in deep in an underground parking garage the app proved useless.
Beyond Entune's EV monitoring capabilities, Toyota builds a couple more useful features into the RAV4 EV. Under an EV menu item, I found a range map, which gave me an approximation of how far the car could go on its current charge, with a shaded circular area overlaid on a map. But because that range was shown "as the crow flies," I knew that I would have to moderate my expectations. The RAV4 EV also includes some energy usage screens, which will help drivers who want to blog about their electric vehicle driving accomplishments.
Armed with the Entune app on my iPhone and the various tools the car RAV4 EV provided for finding charging stations, I set out on a trip from San Francisco to Palo Alto, Calif., a 66-mile round trip that would obliterate the 65 miles of range the car currently showed available. I chose the destination based on the range, and the proliferation of public charging stations in the area.
However, the tools in the car weren't really geared for scanning a map and finding a concentration of charging stations. I relied on the PlugShare.com Web site and app to help me, which offered a better map view and filters.
Pushing the RAV4 EV's start button caused the LCD instrument cluster to light up, showing a digital speed readout in the center, along with range and a power gauge to the left. On the right, Toyota gave me a choice of six tools, from an Eco Coach to an accessory energy usage gauge, the latter showing how much the stereo and climate control were drawing from the battery.
I tapped the shift knob, which comes directly from the Prius parts bin, into Drive, and the RAV4 EV crept out of the parking garage. In this regard, the car did not reflect its Tesla driveline at all. The Model S features a creep mode, but its default drive program is to sit still until you apply throttle. Lift from the accelerator, and the Model S immediately slows from heavy braking regeneration.
Toyota chose more conventional programming for the RAV4 EV. It creeps forward when you take your foot off the brake and coasts when you lift off the accelerator.
It was actually kind of boring to drive. Electric power steering added enough boost to make the wheel easy to turn and the electric drive motor made acceleration very smooth. The accelerator pedal tuning made it easy to take off without lurching. Whether on city streets or on the highway, it felt very much the same. And despite all the range tools, it was a very easy car to jump in and go.
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.
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.
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.
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.
|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|
|Price as tested||$50,645|