The new Toyota RAV4 EV is the only all-electric SUV (Photos: Toyota)

If you’re eco-conscious, petroleum adverse, need the cargo space of an SUV and live in California, you’re in luck. Toyota has just rolled the first of their all-new, all-electric RAV4 EVs into dealerships in the Golden State. This is the first time an SUV is available as an EV, and I had a chance to take one for a gas-free test drive around the Napa Valley.

A Toyota/Tesla Collaboration

The RAV4 EV is the result of a unique collaboration with Tesla Motors, who produced the battery and electric powertrain for the vehicle — so the RAV4 EV has the same low, spread-throughout-the-chassis battery configuration as the Tesla S. This gives the RAV4 EV a low center of gravity, and you can feel the difference when you drive it. But more in that in a minute.

First some specifics: The RAV4 EV is coming out as a 2012 model, and there will be an initial run of only 2,600 units produced through the end of 2014. And like I mentioned earlier, it’s rolling out in California, and will, for now, only be available in Cali. (Unless the demand is so high Toyota just has to expand availability to other parts of the country. So, California residents: for the sake of the rest of us, start buying these things.)

The front wheel drive, midsize EV will come fully loaded at a sticker price of $49,800. But keep in mind it does qualify for state and federal incentives that could drop the cost about $10k. So for around $40,000 you can haul a weekend’s worth of house project supplies home from the store (it has 73 cubic feet of cargo space), take the kids to soccer practice or drive all your buddies to the game, and not use a drop of gas, ever.

Space to haul everything... except gas

Unique Exterior… All New Interior

The RAV4 EV looks like Toyota’s traditional gas-powered version, except for some newly designed exterior features, including a re-styled front bumper, upper and lower grill, side mirrors, rear spoiler and under body design, made to lower the drag coefficient of the vehicle to help extend the driving range. In fact, the RAV4 EV boasts the lowest drag of any SUV in the world.

The interior is all new, with a dash designed specifically for the EV

Inside, the interior is all brand new, featuring an eight-inch capacitive touch screen that supplies navigation, telematics, and EV drive information and settings at a touch. Pair your phone and there are several apps available that allow your phone to communicate with the system, giving you a nearly endless number of features and “upgrades.”

The main screen gets you to the info you need

And there are no buttons on the dash. Everything is done by touch, even the controls for the air conditioning built into the center stack respond to touch, without needing to press.

Almost all controls on the EV are touch

The dash display color is blue in normal driving mode, but switch to Sport mode and it illuminates red to let you know you’re about to add some more wow (and less mileage range) to your ride. The RAV4 EV’s electric powertrain has a maximum output of 154HP (115kW), and will take you 0-60 in 8.6 seconds in normal mode, with a top speed of 85 mph. But drop it into Sport mode and your 0-60 drops to 7 seconds and will top out at 100 mph. For those times when you need to calm your jones for the days when emissions mattered little to you and you drove that 350 small block…

The dash provides a multitude of info at a glance, and glows red in Sport mode

Optimized Range

But for the times when reducing your footprint is your main goal — and if you’re dropping 40 large on an EV SUV it should be — then optimizing your range is key. And the RAV4 EV makes it easy to do that. Toyota engineers devised a number of strategies to help optimize the available EV range on the Toyota RAV4 EV.

The Leviton charger juices the RAV4 EV in about 6-8 hours

One is the unique climate control system. It has three modes that allow you to select the perfect balance between level of comfort and EV driving range. In NORMAL mode, the climate control system operates just like a conventional vehicle and provides the maximum comfort level, but also draws the most power, which in turn reduces the EV range. ECO LO mode gives you a balance of cabin comfort and improved range through reduced power consumption. ECO HI further reduces blower, compressor and heater levels and also automatically activates the seat heaters if necessary. The use of ECO LO can reduce the climate control system power consumption up to 18 percent compared with NORMAL, while ECO HI offers up to 40 percent power reduction compared to NORMAL.

So using either ECO LO or ECO HI mode extends the vehicle’s EV driving range, which is EPA-estimated to be 103 miles on a single charge. There is an Extended Mode that allows the battery to charge to its full capacity of 41.8 kWh, providing an EPA-estimated driving range of 113 miles. But there is a trade off, since Extended Mode does reduce overall battery life to give you those extra 10 miles of driving.


Battery-Powered… But You Won’t Even Notice

How does the RAV4 EV drive? Here’s the biggest compliment I can give it: I didn’t notice. By that I mean it drives about as close to a traditional SUV as you can imagine, with a couple of key differences: The electric motor delivers great low end torque, so you leave the line without any lag, and when you do leave the line and accelerate, the electric motor is nearly silent, so you don’t get that satisfying audio sensation of power. Which for most people is perfectly ok. And barely noticeable.

The electric engine that powers the RAV4

The RAV4 EV handles very well, in part to the low center of gravity the weight of the battery pack spread over the bottom of the chassis gives it. The EV is also heavier than the traditional RAV4, but it doesn’t seem to hurt acceleration or handling at all.

Again, the point of buying an all-electric isn’t (necessarily or primarily) for performance, it’s to lower your footprint. It’s just nice to know you can do that in the RAV4 EV, not sacrifice  drivability, still have a lot of fun driving it, and haul everything you need for a weekend at the lake. so consider this my personal plea to Toyota to make the RAV4 EV available to us non-Californians. They already have the best surfing and all the celebs… why should they be the only ones to enjoy the only all-electric SUV?

MSRP: $49,800

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