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.