Driven: 2012 Toyota Rav4 EV

By Doran Dal Pra

August 06, 2012

—Newport Beach, California
It has been 15 years since Toyota launched the first iteration of its Rav4 EV. Produced from 1997 to 2003, it was met with a surprising amount of success. The car's heavy but durable nickel-metal hydride battery pack gave customers a range of around 100 miles, and some owners reported putting over 150,000 miles on the car's original batteries. Now, the Rav4 EV is back and, like the car that came before it, is a positive step in the right direction for electric vehicles.
Toyota partnered with Tesla Motors in developing the Rav4 EV and each company handled a different element over the car's 22-month development process. Toyota controlled the refinement and preparation of the Rav4 platform, while Tesla supplied the car's motor and transmission, which it shares with Tesla's Model S luxury sedan.
In Rav4 EV guise, the 115-kilowatt electric motor makes 154 horsepower and either 218 pound-feet of torque in Normal driving mode, or 273 pound-feet of torque in Sport. There was a noticeable on-road difference in how the Rav4 EV behaved in the two modes—Normal mode is subdued and smooth under full throttle, while the Sport mode is urgent and strong and even throws in a dash of torque steer to keep things interesting. Sport mode allows the Rav4 EV to hit 60 miles per hour in 7.0 seconds, and provides access to the car's top speed of 100 mph. Normal mode reins the party in at 85 mph.
Driven: 2012 Toyota Rav4 EV
The Rav4 EV uses two charging modes to fill its 50-kWh battery—Standard and Extended. Standard mode will fill the battery to around 80-percent capacity and help prolong battery life, while Extended mode will charge the batteries right to the top. The 50-kWh battery is more than double the size of the Rav4 EV's competitors—the Honda Fit EV has a 20-kWh battery, the Ford Focus uses one that is 23-kWh, and the Nissan Leaf has a 24-kWh unit.
In Standard charging mode, and hooked to a common 120-volt household circuit, the Rav4 EV's battery takes 44 hours to charge. A full 52 hours is required for Extended charging. Yes, that's a long time. By comparison, the Fit EV’s much smaller battery pack will charge from the same outlet in 15 hours, the Focus EV in 20 hours, and the Leaf in 21 hours.
Toyota admits that a 120-volt supply is not ideal and recommends a 240-volt circuit for day-to-day charging. The company partnered with electrical expert Leviton to provide a 240-volt charging unit which runs $1590 fully installed. With the Leviton unit, charging times are reduced to five hours on Standard and six hours on Extended. Those times are certainly more in line with the competition. With a 240-volt charger the Fit EV fills up in just under three, the Focus EV in about four hours, and the Leaf in seven.
Range is where the Rav4 EV clearly has an advantage—thanks to that same set of batteries that take so long to juice up. The EPA rates it at 92 miles of combined highway and city driving when charged in Standard mode and 113 miles on Extended. In testing, Toyota engineers saw range go as high as 145 miles. Comparatively, the Fit EV has a combined range of 82 miles, the Focus EV gets 76 miles, and the Leaf 73 miles.
During our time behind the wheel we achieved numbers that matched the range calculated by the car’s systems. Sitting in light traffic, merging onto the freeway, and steady cruising on local highways on 20-mile loops around Newport Beach saw the available range display decrease right along with how far we had driven. Cranking up the air conditioning or digging deep into the throttle caused range to drop, especially in Sport mode when all the electric motor’s power was available. If we were gentle with the throttle and the air conditioning, however, we could drive those loops using slightly less than 20-miles of range.
Swing open the driver's door and the interior of the Rav4 EV looks nearly identical to the gasoline-powered car—the same dash layout, same seating position, and similar visibility fore and aft. Noticeable immediately, however, are bespoke digital gauges that greet you through the tilt and telescoping steering wheel. The gauges are easy to read at a glance and provided a host of useful vehicle information. To add a bit of driver involvement, and taking a page from Ford’s playbook, there is also a display that adds branches and leaves to a virtual plant, in concert with how efficiently you are currently driving.
Driven: 2012 Toyota Rav4 EV
The lithium-ion battery pack is mounted in the floor of the car under the back seats. Surprisingly, Toyota has managed to keep cargo volume exactly the same as the regular Rav4. The handy storage wells in the rear of the car also remain, as well as ability of the back seats to split 60/40 and fold flat.
The glossy black center stack in the Rav4 EV features a large touchscreen that controls the infotainment system, navigation, the customizable charging and climate control system, and Toyota's Entune product. The touchscreen is easy to read and navigate and responds quickly and smoothly to inputs.
Out on the road, the Rav4 EV feels solid and refined and drove like a normal Rav4 in nearly every situation. While it weighs 375-pounds more than a V-6 equipped Rav4, the extra weight only becomes noticeable when you push the car hard into a corner. On more than one occasion when we had to jam on the brakes after coming upon bicyclists on blind curves, the brakes clamped down immediately and felt strong and progressive. The car's regenerative braking system was never intrusive and gently assisted in slowing things down. A smooth and easy-to-modulate throttle means the Rav4 EV is a breeze to poodle about town and hustle down the freeway. Prod the throttle liberally at any speed and the electric motor whooshes the 4032-pound crossover down the road with enough gusto to do a passable impression of a conventional car.
Steering has more weight than expected and is reasonably responsive, but became slightly vague and didn't inspire a lot of confidence under aggressive driving. The EV's electric power steering felt a touch more artificial than the system in the regular Rav4, but it delivers more feedback than others we have driven.
As one would hope from a small, Toyota CUV, the chassis is compliant comfortable, and absorbs bumps and broken pavement (a limited commodity in southern California) quite well. Front the standpoint of handling, there wasn't much evidence that you were driving around in something with an 845-pound disadvantage to a standard Rav4.
Efforts were made to make this EV a refined place to be and those efforts are noticeable on the road. Toyota installed sound damping material in the roof and doors, as well as acoustic windshield glass to reduce the ambient noises left behind when there is no combustion engine banging away up front. The result is a calm and quiet cabin with mild wind and tire noise and only the occasional whir from the electric motor when you put your foot down.
Driven: 2012 Toyota Rav4 EV
When the Rav4 EV goes on sale later this summer, the 2600 units Toyota is planning on building will only be sold in California. Sacramento, Los Angeles/Orange County, San Francisco, and San Diego are the initial areas that will receive the Rav4 EV. If the response is strong enough, Toyota could make it available in other markets.
When the discussion turns to the subject of price, it has to be said that when compared directly to their gasoline counterparts, EVs will almost always lose out. Current technology simply costs too much to make them a viable alternative for most consumers. MSRP on the Rav4 EV is $49,800 before any state and federal incentives, compared to the Fit EV ($36,625), the Leaf ($37,250) and the Focus EV ($39,200).
There is no denying that is a serious amount of money. And considering a well-optioned gas powered Rav4 is about $25,000, it is hard to make a solid case for shelling out nearly double that. What’s more, and as you can see from the prices listed above, there are certainly less expensive EV options if an electric powertrain is what your heart, mind, and conscience desire, too. What the Rav4 EV offers is a bit more space, quite a bit more overall range, and a package that is slightly more practical overall for many customers. That it offers all of that for a price of $50K makes any real practicality dubious though. 
2012 Toyota Rav4 EV
Motor: Electric motor, lithium-ion battery
Output: 154hp/273 lb-ft
Weight: 4032 lb
Range: 113 mi (est)
Base Price: $49,800
On Sale: Late Summer 2012