First Drive: Rav4 EV Prototype Embodies Tesla Spirit

By · April 07, 2011

Toyota RAV4 EV

Photos: Copyright Brad Berman/PluginCars.com. All rights reserved.

Unlike a number of electric car start-ups denying access to pre-production models, Toyota this week allowed a few dozen journalists to drive the current iteration of its upcoming RAV4 EV all-electric SUV. I had about 20 minutes behind the wheel, with another 40 minutes or so as a passenger. All signs indicate that Toyota and Tesla are on the way to producing the big boy of the new electric vehicle era.

But like those medication television commercials that use more airtime to list side effects than benefits, my notes are dominated by caveats. The current version is not even version 1.0. “This is a sophisticated proof of concept,” Sheldon Brown, executive project manager for RAV4 EV, told me.

The Toy-Tes team has built about 30 of these so-called “Phase Zero” models purely as a way to target and validate goals for the first real prototype models that are already up and running. What do we know about the targets? In 2012, the dynamic duo will make and sell an all-electric version that is almost identical in appearance to the V6 gas version of the RAV4, offering the same amount of functionality and acceleration. That means zero-to-60 performance in 9 seconds. The goal for driving range is 100 miles, and the Phase Zero version is indeed consistently achieving 96 miles in real-world testing, according to Toyota. That means a battery pack with 37 kWh of usable energy, and a 150-horsepower electric motor (with a little more than 100 kW of power at peak).

Toyota RAV4 EV

The good news is that this motor and large battery very successfully throw around the considerable weight of the RAV4 platform. Brown said the scales are now tipping to about 3,900 pounds, adding about a quarter-ton or more to the already hefty gas version. Do the math to discover SUV-caliber efficiency of 2.6 miles per kWh, well below the rule-of-thumb 4 miles per kWh for electric cars. Even aerodynamic tweaks to the front and rear fascia, wheel wells and underbelly—some already implemented and more planned—are not going to add more than a fraction of efficiency. Those aero changes are the only slight changes in visual appearance from the conventional RAV4.

The anti-EV crowd will probably have a field day showing how a RAV4 EV powered in a coal-intensive region is a gazillion times less green than buying a reasonably sized gas-powered compact—but go with it, folks. This is a big and heavy vehicle. It’s the upper limit of EV size on a consumer product—and I found it a blast to pilot such a hulk on the free-flowing state roads around La Jolla, Calif.

Toyota RAV4 EV

How many electric vehicles provide this amount of utility and cargo room?

Step into the accelerator and the wheels squeal. (No ABS or traction control on this prototype.) At one point, I had the RAV4 EV zooming past 90 mph, with room left between the accelerator and the floor. As I was driving, I imagined a Tesla Roadster motor and battery system purring away, deep inside the body of a bloated crossover SUV. This model is literally Tesla’s system transplanted into the RAV4 platform.

Handling, steering and cornering—not yet calibrated for the heavy battery pack and new cross members—already has a solid and planted feel. According to Brown, the handling of the production EV will beat out the gas version.

What Grabs You

RAV4 EV gear selection />

Tesla-style gear selection, for now.

There’s more good news: the regenerative braking is as aggressive as any I’ve experienced. Let off the go-pedal while traveling at a clip of 40 mph or so, and you’re pulled down to about 5 mph in a matter of seconds. That’s without any assistance from the current brake pedal that is currently exclusively a conventional friction brake. The engineers have the regen cranked up to the max, to see the highest possible level of available regenerative power—from which to later dial down. When I pulled my foot off the pedal at about 30 mph, the power meter pegged for a few seconds at 40 kW flowing back to the battery pack. (It’s fun to drive with just one pedal, playing a game of finding the right time pull off the accelerator to decel/coast toward a red light.)

Now the bad news: Don’t expect that amount of regen or acceleration on the production version. “We’re going to have a much more sophisticated, engineered, and tailored system in place,” Brown said. I suspect that means tuning out the Tesla-ness, and dialing up Toyota’s signature Middle America smooth and steady vehicle personality. Brown and other engineers were already talking about modeling the “invisible to the driver” brake/regen system from the Toyota Prius. That would mean a smidgen of grab when you start coasting, and the rest during the first degrees of pressing on the brake pedal until you go further down into the friction brakes.

Most experienced EV drivers prefer more grab, and perhaps Toyesla engineers will be forced to dial it up more than the Prius, in order to extend range. Brown told me that the regen calibration choices could mean between 10 and 30 percent more or less overall range. He also said to expect a couple of different modes—like econ or power—to give drivers some control over the matter.

Toyota RAV4 EV

So, expect the brake feel and the launching off the line to become more suited to a five-door-SUV from Toyota, rather than a two-door Roadster with Musk-like bravado.

For now, the Phase Zero uses Tesla’s existing battery pack, an off-the-shelf motor, and an electrical system that also powers the vehicle accessories, like climate control. The production version will have a customized new battery pack. Curb height is the same as the V6 RAV4 although running clearance will drop 15 mm to make room for batteries (and improved aerodynamics). The production model will be front-wheel-drive, but the team is already starting to consider all-wheel-drive in the future.

Toyota RAV4 EV

Economics

Now the really bad news. This is going to be one pricey SUV. It’s a wild guess but my gut says around $50,000 range. In other words, the RAV4 EV price could be more than $20,000 above the V6 version, which has an MSRP that tops out at $28,335. The electric RAV will probably compete on price with the Tesla Model S. Such an apples-and-oranges decision pits a sleek Maserati-like full-size sedan with 150+ miles of range—and tons of sex appeal—against the full functionality of an SUV with the generic crossover styling. (Of course, the Model S is still theory right now, and the RAV4 EV is already becoming a tangible reality.)

Why do I think Toyota will price the RAV4 EV so high? First of all, it’s a huge and expensive battery pack. Second, Toyota corporate strategy—if I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a 1,000 times—is that small-battery vehicles (like conventional hybrids or the Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid) make the most sense. Pricing a big-battery-big-ass vehicle like the RAV4 EV at a competitive priced-to-sell level would run counter to Toyota doctrine. (Full disclosure: I think Toyota is bang-on right that small-battery hybrids, with and without plugs, will be the long-term market winner.)

Toyota RAV4 EV

We have about 18 months to find out how Toyota and Tesla will price the RAV4 EV. In the meantime, the two companies deserve a big pat on the back for moving so fast on such a compelling vision of what a 2012 electric SUV could be. I can’t wait to drive the Phase One version.

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