By Larry E. Hall
Toyota’s 2013 RAV4 EV is the automaker’s second go round of converting its small gasoline powered sport utility to an electric vehicle. From 1997 to 2003, 1,484 RAV4 EVs were leased or sold. Of those, Toyota says approximately 449 are still on the road.
This time, rather than develop the electric RAV4 on its own, Toyota joined forces with upstart Silicon Valley electric carmaker Tesla Motors to co-develop and co-engineer the latest all-electric RAV4.
Toyota was responsible for the vehicle’s design, ride and handling, safety systems and its human-machine interface. Tesla supplies the RAV’s electric drivetrain, including the battery and electric motor, which it shares with Tesla’s base Model S luxury sedan.
Developed in a remarkably short 22 months, production is completed at the RAV4’s plant in Ontario, Canada.
Based on the 2012 RAV4 – not the all-new 2013 model – Toyota says only 2,600 units will be made, with production halting at the end of 2014.
The battery-powered RAV4 is available for sale only through select dealers in California’s major metro market areas of Los Angeles / Orange County, the San Francisco Bay Area, San Diego and Sacramento.
With a manufacturer’s suggested retail price of $49,800 plus $845 destination charges, RAV4 EV customers have the option of a purchase or lease program. The vehicle is eligible for a $7,500 Federal Tax Credit and qualifies for California’s $2,500 rebate through the Clean Vehicle Rebate Program as well as that state’s white sticker program, allowing a single occupant to drive in HOV lanes.
Tesla Produced Powertrain
Deviating from Toyota’s custom of employing synchronous permanent-magnet motors in their hybrid powertrains, Tesla supplied an AC induction motor. The 115-kilowatt motor’s peak output is 154 horsepower with torque output selectable by the driver.
In Normal Mode, the motor’s generated torque is 218 pounds feet and sends the electric RAV4 from zero-to-60 mph in 8.6 seconds with a top speed of 85 mph. When needed, the Sport Mode increases the torque to 273 pounds feet, decreasing the time to reach 60 mph to 7.0 seconds and increasing top speed to 100 mph.
Power from the motor is directed to the front wheels through a fixed-gear open-differential transaxle with a gear ratio of 9.73:1.
Located beneath the floor pan under the rear seats, the RAV4’s battery is a 386-volt lithium-ion pack comprised of around 4,500 cells similar to those used in laptop computers. Rated at 41.8 kilowatt hours of usable energy at full charge, maximum power output is 129 kw.
The liquid cooled battery pack’s 41.8-kwh capacity is nearly double that of competitive EVs Honda’s Fit EV is equipped with a 20-kWh battery, the Ford Focus Electric employs a 23-kwh unit and the Nissan Leaf uses one that is 24-kwh.
Unlike other electrics, the RAV4 EV features two charging modes, Normal and Extended. Normal charges the battery to 35 kwh providing the vehicle with an EPA-estimated average driving range rating of 92 miles.
If a driver needs more driving range, the Extended mode charges the battery to its full capacity of 41.8-kwh and extends the range to 113 miles.
For the window sticker, the EPA requires averaging the two, showing 103-mile range. Comparatively, the Focus EV has an EPA average range of 76 miles, the Leaf 75 miles.
While Standard charging provides less driving miles, it does extend the life of the battery. However, regardless of the mix of charging modes, including Extended charging only, spokesperson Mario Apodaca said the battery is covered with an eight-year, 100,000-mile warranty.
With such a large battery pack, funneling electricity to the car at 110 volts takes 44 hours for Standard mode and 52 hours for Extended mode. But thanks to a 10-kw onboard charger, using a level two 40-amp, 240-volt home charging unit reduces charging to five hours for Normal mode and six hours for Extended. That’s on par with the Leaf’s six to seven hours but more than the four hours for the Focus.
Toyota deserves a gold star for the additional driving miles from the Extended charge mode, but earns a demerit for not providing a quick-charge port.
Maximizing Battery Efficiency
Apodaca said the development team made trips of up to 145 miles per charge. Obviously they used a judicious right foot, but engineers also devised ways to maximize the battery’s efficiency, including engineering the regenerative braking to minimize kinetic energy loss. The results of this cooperative regenerative braking are increased driving range by up to 20 percent.
Since regen braking cannot effectively stop a vehicle under hard braking, a conventional hydraulic system takes care of that task.
The RAV’s climate control system has three modes that allow the driver to select the preferred level of comfort and driving range. Normal mode provides maximum comfort, but draws the most juice, thus reducing range.
Eco Low mode dispenses a balance of comfort and extends range by automatically activating the seat heaters if necessary and reducing power consumption of the climate control system up to 18 percent. Eco Hi also automatically activates the seat heaters if needed and further reduces power consumption up to 40 percent compared to Normal. While the results are incremental, using Eco Lo or Eco Hi modes extends driving range.
Also, a remote climate control system lets owners preheat or precool the RAV4 while it is plugged-in, which conserves battery charge and EV range. The system can be programmed by a timer on the navigation display, and can be activated using a smart phone.
The electrified RAV mimics other contemporary Toyotas, featuring a coefficient of drag (Cd) of 0.30 – impressive for a SUV-like contour and a notable improvement over the standard RAV4′s 0.34 Cd.
Contributing to the low Cd number are a new grille and front bumper, more aerodynamic mirrors, deeper rear spoiler and underbody cladding. The front-end changes give a more contemporary, sleek appearance to the RAV4 EV compared with the 2012 edition’s truck-like front.
New lighting isn’t just for looks. Battery power consumption is reduced by using LED low beam projector headlights with halogen projector high beams, LED daytime running lights which dim to parking lights and LED taillights.
RAV4 EV buyers have a choice of just one trim level with no options. The vehicle is basically a standard RAV4 V6 with the sport appearance package, meaning no spare tire mounted on the rear hatch.
Slip onto the driver’s seat and the interior looks nearly identical to the gas-powered model — the same seating position, same outward visibility and same bi-level dash layout with upper and lower glove boxes. Immediately noticeable, however, are new digital gauges, a restyled center stack with an eight-inch color LCD touch screen atop, the absence of control knobs and the quirky gear shifter borrowed from the Prius.
Flanking the digital speedometer are two small gauges. The left posts driving range while the right can scroll through screens to show things like trip efficiency, CO2 reduction and a driving coach with an overall driving score. Engaging the Sport mode changes the background color to red from the Normal mode’s blue.
The large touch screen contains audio controls, backup camera, a navigation system that can locate charging stations and Toyota’s Entune app system. Having to dig into the system for audio settings is somewhat annoying, but at least there’s a volume-control button on the steering wheel.
Front seats, with eco-friendly cloth, are supportive but not excessively firm, with acceptable bolsters and thigh support. A tilt-and-telescope steering wheel and six-way adjustable driver’s seat makes easy work of finding a comfortable driving position.
A relatively high seating position, low cowl and sloping hood provide excellent front visibility, while lengthy side windows eases over-the-shoulder lane checking.
There’s generous room for two rear seat adult passengers, three, not so much. Rear seatbacks recline and the 60/40 split seats slide fore or aft to optimize passenger room or cargo capacity.
Since the battery doesn’t intrude into the cabin, the 37.2 cubic feet of cargo space behind the second row seats is the same as the gas powered model — more than enough to hold a week’s worth of groceries. For more space, a simple flip of a lever folds the rear seat flat to expand cargo room to 73 cubic feet.
If little ones are along for the ride, rear seats can accommodate two rear-facing infant-safety seats, two convertible child-safety seats or two booster seats. Latch anchors on the outboard seats are buried in the cushions but are easily reachable. Attaching tether anchors, however, is somewhat cumbersome and requires sliding the seats forward to connect the tethers.
Driving The RAV4 EV
My time with the RAV4 EV was limited to around an hour, but the drive route north of downtown Phoenix was varied enough to walk away with a good grasp of how Toyota’s small electric SUV performs and handles on the road.
When I pushed the blue start button, the RAV electric went through a quick and silent system check, “booting up,” Apodaca said – no sounds of a gasoline engine coming to life.
With the familiar Prius style shift lever moved to “D,” the small crossover moved silently through the parking lot. The rack-and-pinion electric power steering felt light, needing only a slight effort to turn. As speed increased, the steering became more weighted and acceptably responsive with more feedback than anticipated.
Short brake-pedal travel took a few miles to get used to. Once I adapted, I found breaking to be smooth without the grabby, jerky feel of some regenerative braking systems. Panic stops produced no surprises and there was no indication when the hydraulic system took charge to safely bring the RAV to a halt.
Acceleration is quite frisky – really frisky in Sport mode. The go pedal is easy to modulate allowing minimum electricity use during in-town driving yet, providing instant get up and go when necessary.
Ride and handling is similar to the conventional RAV4, meaning it’s close to a typical small car. The all-independent suspension did a commendable job of absorbing bumps and the infrequent Arizona potholes.
The RAV4 EV is certainly no canyon carver, but the placement of the battery lowers the center of gravity allowing even sharp curves to be taken with confidence while exhibiting only slight body roll when pushed hard.
Toyota added sound insulation in the roof, doors and front fenders as well as thicker windshield glass. The result is a serenely quiet cabin with just a touch of wind and tire noise and, on occasion, a slight whine from the electric motor.
And about the driving range?
After going through the system check, the dashboard display lit up showing an estimated range of 119 miles. That was immediately reduced to 92 miles when I selected the climate control’s Normal mode to cool the interior. Hey, the RAV had been parked for more than an hour in near 80-degree heat.
After a couple, three minutes the cabin cooled, I switched to Eco Hi and the range increased to 118 miles.
The drive route included a state highway, a four-lane boulevard, residential streets and a cruise through a small town. While the terrain was primarily flat, we did encounter a four or five mile hilly stretch with some very sharp curves.
As the miles went by, the decrease in the estimated driving range stayed very close to the miles driven until I decided to try out the Sport mode, and then it was Whoopee!
Pushing the sport button was transformational. The Mr. Green Jeans personality instantly became a near silent road rocket and before I realized it, we were at 75 mph in a 55 mph zone. Not good. This was the last of the four-day press introduction of the 2013 RAV4 and the local gendarmes were out in force, having already handed out three speeding tickets.
Driving in Sport for six miles knocked driving range down by nearly eight miles but I added some juice along the way by braking more than normal. When we pulled back into the parking lot, the 48.3 run lost just 46 miles of battery range. Apparently, Toyota and Tesla have figured out battery efficiency.
A Compliance Vehicle?
Like the first RAV4 EV this latest edition is indeed produced to comply with California’s ZEV (Zero Emission Vehicle) mandate, a requirement that a certain percentage of vehicles sold in the Golden State must meet.
But Toyota says the electrified RAV is not just a compliance vehicle.
“The Zero Emission Vehicle mandate has been a fact of life in California for over 20 years. It’s nothing new,” said Jana Hartline, environmental communications manger for Toyota.
“We’re committed to meeting our ZEV credit requirements through a combination of plug-in hybrid, pure battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicle sales.
“Do we think electric vehicles will replace the internal combustion engine? No. But we do think they are an important part of our portfolio of technologies for the future.”
Toyota is also learning from its alliance with Tesla. While the company would not discuss specific technology based issues, Sheldon Brown, RAV4 EV executive program manager, said that it has been a very useful collaboration.
“In a number of areas from power train control to battery management strategies to HV system architecture, our engineering teams each brought their own experiences and understanding to the table and debated and collaborated to find the best application for the specific issue at hand.”
“In the end,” Brown continued, “it really served as a great gut check – a chance to re-consider some of our traditional practices and determine for ourselves if we need further improvement.”
One of those traditional practices being reconsidered might well be Toyota’s stance that hybrids and plug-in hybrids with small batteries are the best answer to the broad range of consumer needs rather than large battery EVs.
Reinforcing that stance, Toyota’s vice chairman, Takeshi Uchiyamada stated in February that, “Because of its shortcomings – driving range, cost and recharging time – the electric vehicle is not a viable replacement for most conventional cars.”
Digging deeper, however, it appears that Toyota’s dismissal of EVs is in the context of near term, not long term.
With little fanfare, in 2008 the company formed a research division to develop “revolutionary batteries.” It aims to commercialize solid-state batteries that will be up to four times more powerful than today’s lithium-ion batteries, followed by lithium-air batteries that will be five times as powerful. Those numbers project a driving range of multiple hundreds of miles on a single charge. Unfortunately, these new batteries aren’t expected until around 2020.
Until then, those who are giving serious thoughts about purchasing a battery-powered vehicle for the first time, as well as EV devotees, should seriously consider the RAV4 EV. With its SUV body style it offers an elevated driving position plus, generous space for passengers and cargo.
And, even though my time behind the steering wheel was short, I came away convinced that it delivers the longest driving range of the current crop of EVs. Except the Tesla Model S, of course.