It's eco-friendly, fast and has ample range for daily use, but Toyota's latest entry in the green segment comes with a big question mark: Will people seeking those traits in their next ride be willing to pay $50,610 for the 2012 Toyota RAV4 EV?
Sure, there's a federal electric vehicle tax credit that's worth up to $7,500. And in California — the only place Toyota will be selling its new crossover EV at first — there's likely to be a $2,500 rebate as well.
But that still puts the cost of the RAV4 EV at $40,610 after both incentives are applied. That's nearly twice the price of the base 2.5-liter, four-cylinder RAV4 and a few grand above a top-of-the-line, 3.5-liter V6 RAV4 Limited with every option.
Toyota's not too worried, though, about the RAV4 EV's price. After all, the company plans to sell just 2,600 over the next three years, targeting well-heeled techies and electric vehicle enthusiasts. The sales launch is now slated for late September. There will be just one trim level, and no options.
While initial volume is low, it is enough, coupled with the new Prius Plug-in Hybrid and the upcoming fleet of Scion iQ EVs, to satisfy Toyota's requirements under California's zero-emissions vehicle (ZEV) mandate and, of course, to avoid the embarrassment of rows of unsold vehicles on dealers' lots if there's not much consumer appetite for a $50K crossover EV.
Toyota doesn't think that will happen. In fact, it expects that sales will be helped by the mystique that's built up around the first-generation RAV4 EV in electric car circles. "We're getting inquiries" from some of those former — and present — first-gen RAV4 EV drivers, says Bill Fay, Toyota division group vice president and general manager.
The company made about 1,500 of the electric SUVs back in the first days of the ZEV mandate, selling them at $42,000 a pop (before up to $13,000 in incentives) from 1998 through 2003. About 450 are still on the road and on the rare occasion one is offered for sale, it usually goes for about what Toyota will be asking for the 2012 model.
Toyota turned us loose with a handful of pre-production 2012 RAV4 EVs in Newport Beach, California, this week. While there were no mountain roads to climb — they are anathema to an EV anyway — the variety of freeways, surface streets, hills and vales in suburban Orange County was sufficient to show off the crossover EV's nicely done suspension and powertrain — a slightly detuned version of the package in the new Tesla Model S luxury EV.
The RAV4 EV's Tesla-developed propulsion system delivers performance that meets or exceeds that of the V6-equipped RAV4, including class-leading, grin-inducing 0-60 acceleration in under 7 seconds. The oomph comes when operating in "Sport" mode, as the power-saving "Normal" mode slows down its 0-60 sprint to 8.6 seconds.
The electric drive system delivers 154 horsepower in either mode, but torque in Sport mode peaks at 273 pound-feet versus 218 lb-ft in the normal setting. Top speed is also dialed back to 85 mph in Normal versus 100 mph in Sport. There is noticeable torque steer from the front-wheel-drive system when accelerating hard. The power-assisted electric steering keeps it manageable, although it disconnects the driver from the road a bit.
Its regenerative braking system has two settings, one allowing more coasting than the other. The system is unobtrusive, but while there are no neck-jerking slowdowns when releasing the accelerator, a lot of brake energy is captured. Toyota claims that a practiced driver can boost the RAV4 EV's range by 20 percent with judicious use of the feature.
With a curb weight of 4,032 pounds, the RAV4 EV is 460 pounds heavier than the V6 model. But replacing the engine and transmission with EV components redistributes the load for a nicely balanced 56 percent front/44 percent rear weight distribution. The battery pack is mounted low and flat beneath the floor, greatly improving the tallish crossover's center of gravity. The extra weight helps pin the RAV4 EV to the road and it exhibits little body roll or SUV bounciness.
For battery safety and longevity reasons, the RAV4 EV isn't rated for towing. The 880-pound payload rating is about 18 percent less than the V6 model's 1,070 pounds.
The just-redesigned standard RAV4 improved on an already successful member of the small-midsize crossover family and the 2012 Toyota RAV4 EV improves the package once again, although the interior still suffers from the down-market hard plastic surfaces that visually cheapen too many Toyotas these days.
Most of its exterior tweaks are for improved aerodynamics. Despite its SUV-like crossover contours, the RAV4 EV boasts a sedanlike drag coefficient of 0.30, versus 0.35 for the non-electric version. Changes for the RAV4 EV include an elongated rear spoiler, semi-sealed underside, smooth front fascia and narrow and wind-cheating sideview mirrors adapted from the Korean-market Camry sedan.
There also are plenty of blue-tinted EV emblems — front, rear and sides — to make sure that everyone knows you paid up for the electric model. Energy-saving and lightweight LED low beams and projector high beams light the way at night, and the rear features LED tail- and stop lamps under a smoky gray lens cover. The lighting package alone is 152 pounds lighter than on the standard RAV4, so it's not all for looks.
Not Your Average RAV4 Inside
Inside, the 2012 Toyota RAV4 EV offers seating covered in environmentally friendly cloth, and a new meter cluster with the usual array of EV-specific gauges including power use, predicted range, battery charge level, a driving efficiency indicator and an auxiliary power monitor to let you know just how much juice the three-mode climate control system is drawing.
The center of the dash features an 8-inch touchscreen that does away with all the usual buttons and switches for audio and navigation. HVAC controls are touch-sensitive. The 2012 RAV4 EV comes standard with Toyota's Entune infotainment center, Bluetooth technology, satellite radio capability and a back-up camera.
With 37.2 cubic feet of cargo space that can expand to 73 cubic feet when the second-row seats are folded flat, the RAV4 EV matches its gasoline-slurping siblings in the space race. The EV model won't offer the optional third-row seat.
One of the 2012 Toyota RAV4 EV's key selling points — perhaps the key — will be its range: Toyota says it will be the best of any non-luxury EV in the market when finally announced by the EPA.
Toyota expects federal testing to give the RAV4 EV a fuel-efficiency rating of 76 MPG-equivalent — versus 99 MPGe for the Nissan Leaf, 105 for the Ford Focus EV, 112 for Mitsubishi's i and 118 for the Honda Fit EV.
But Toyota's crossover carries a much larger battery that its competition. The company won't say just how big it is, but admits to 41.8 kilowatt-hours of usable battery capacity (the energy equivalent of 1.24 gallons of gas). That means the whole pack — including the small percent that remains in reserve to prevent deep-discharge damage — is likely around 45 kWh.
In normal circumstances, that would give the RAV4 EV an EPA-rated range of up to 113 miles on a single charge. Nothing else — save the luxury Tesla sedan with its even larger batteries and lighter weight — tops 100 miles per charge under the EPA's measuring system.
So What Is the Range?
That's complicated. Toyota has decided to make an 80 percent recharge the default setting on the car to increase battery life. A 100 percent charge can be selected via the infotainment screen.
"It's like deciding whether to fill your gas tank all the way or just 80 percent," said Sheldon Brown, executive program manager for the RAV4 EV. Federal regulators didn't want to go with the "full tank" range potential, and Toyota argued that using the 80 percent level unfairly lowered the real range, so the final number will be an average of the two.
That number hasn't been determined yet, but Toyota engineers did their own calculations and figure the 2012 RAV4 EV will wind up with a range rating of 103 miles based on a 92-mile range at the 80 percent recharge level — combined city and highway driving — and 113 miles with a 100 percent recharge.
Those are the regulatory numbers. Brown and RAV4 EV Chief Engineer Greg Bernas said that in real-world driving, prototype models have consistently delivered 120-130 miles of range.
Toyota will offer a Level 2 (240-volt) home charger for the RAV4 EV through electrical equipment giant Leviton. Starting price is $1,590 including basic installation. Buyers will make initial arrangements through their Toyota dealer.
The charger is capable of delivering up to 9.6 kilowatts of power per hour to the 2012 Toyota RAV4 EV (the same system is on the Tesla Model S) and a depleted battery pack can be replenished in as little as 5 hours. Toyota won't offer a fast-charging option because it doesn't believe there is much demand for the occasional 30-minute top-up that the big, expensive and hard-to-find commercial chargers offer.
There's already talk of broadening the sales plan in late 2013 or 2014 to include EV-friendly areas in several other states that have adopted California's ZEV mandate. A global launch could follow as soon as 2015.
Clearly, the RAV4 EV wasn't designed for mass consumption, at least not yet. Its range and utility would certainly interest plenty of consumers, but its price makes it a luxury that the average buyer can't afford. Until that changes, this RAV4 EV is more likely to carry on the tradition of the original as a unique vehicle for unique buyers.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.