The RAV4 EV could have brought electric power to the mainstream | Top Gear
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The RAV4 EV could have brought electric power to the mainstream

Toyota nailed the electric SUV thing decades before anyone else even tried it

  • What is it?

    It’s Toyota's first production electric car. Hardly as avant-garde or wilfully overstyled as you were expecting, is it?

    Yep, what you’re looking at is an original-shape RAV4, stripped of engine and gearbox and fitted with a brace of batteries and an electric motor up front. Apart from the exceptionally Nineties ‘EV’ applique down the flank, there’s not a whole lot to distinguish it from its petrol-burning brethren. Apart from the lack of a tailpipe, of course.

    As Michele Newman said in a spot on old Top Gear TV, "it shows that manufacturers are starting to take plug power seriously"." Um, ouch.

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  • What kind of technology did it use?

    Nickel metal hydride batteries, which were pretty much the bees knees at the time. Inductive charging, like you get with your electric toothbrush, where nothing electrical has to actually touch; it’s all done thanks to electromagnetic induction. Electric pumps to generate vacuum pressure for the brakes (always a handy thing when it’s time to stop) and electric power steering, as you’d expect. Doesn’t sound too far outside the pale these days, but let’s remember that this was back in the days of frosted tips, boy bands and tamagotchis. Yeah, you were guilty too.

    A late-Nineties two-door petrol RAV4 weighed less than 1,300kg. That’s about 300kg lighter than the battery-powered RAV, which is not nothing. But a 1,600kg, fully electric SUV – based on a petrol-powered model – and built more than two decades ago is the sort of fact that makes you wonder why exactly the Mercedes EQC weighs the best part of two and a half tonnes. Honestly, it could only weigh more if it was made from depleted uranium.

  • Was it fast?

    In a word, no. It took something in the order of 18 seconds to... er, ‘sprint’ from zero to 60, and the top speed was about 75 miles per hour. But let’s remember just how often your average SUV driver sprints from zero to 60, and just how legal it is to do more than 70mph. The fact of the matter is that most SUV drivers punt around cities, rarely exceeding 30mph (unless they live in a planned city like Canberra, with its penchant for parkways) and therefore only doing zero to 30mph sprints at the Traffic Light Grand Prix. And here, of course, is where even rudimentary electric cars shine, thanks to instant-on torque.

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  • Was it cheap?

    Not particularly, at about $40,000 US, but California government grants and federal tax credits certainly helped make it a much more accessible $30,000. Then there are the usual EV benefits – cheap to refill, cheap to service and so on – that defray the upfront cost.

  • Tell me something interesting about it.

    The RAV4 EV was launched, as you’d expect, in California. But it also made a bit of a splash in Jersey. That's the tiny island in the English Channel, by the way – not Tony Soprano's fiefdom.

    Jersey is only five miles from north to south and nine miles from east to west. It has no motorways – which does make a lot of sense considering the size of the place – and the speed limit tops out at 40mph. If you drove every bit of A road on Jersey in one go, you’d still only rack up 50 miles.

    So you can see how perfect the little Bailiwick is for electric cars. Toyota thought so too; leasing a small fleet of EVs to Jersey hotels for tourists to rent on their holibobs.

  • What electric cars does Toyota make now?

    Well, that really depends on if you’re willing to include ‘electrified’ in that definition. If so, there’s a raft of hybrids from the now-ubiquitous Prius to hybrid Corollas, Siennas, Avalons and more. And yes, a hybrid RAV4.

    Moving past that, there’s the Mirai, which uses hydrogen fuel cells to generate electricity rather than plugging into a wall socket or fast charger. That was the ‘next step’ that Toyota was talking about, way back when the first RAV4 EV came out.

    But if you’re looking for a dyed-in-the-wool, 100 per cent battery-electric car with a Toyota badge on the front? Short of nicking one from a Land Cruiser and sticking it to the front of your Tesla, you’re out of luck.

  • Why did it fail, and what did we learn from it?

    Well, the short answer is that Toyota wasn’t allowed to use the batteries it had fitted to the RAV4 EV after Chevron (yes, that Chevron) sued battery-maker Panasonic for patent infringement, right after Chevron had bought and merged its way into possession of that particular patent.  

    But the long answer is that, like GM’s EV1, the original RAV4 EV was really only a reaction to the California Air Resources Board’s 1990s mandate on zero-emissions vehicles. The gist, in case you’re not willing to wade into the minutiae of state-level air quality requirements, is that all manufacturers who wanted to sell cars in California had to meet certain requirements – chiefly, that two per cent of all new cars a manufacturer sold in California had to be a zero-emissions vehicle. This would increase to five per cent in 2001 and 10 per cent in 2003.

    But in the end, the zero emission vehicle mandate was rolled back. Diluted regulations replaced the original my-way-or-no-highway mandate and car companies didn’t have the particularly juicy carrot of access to the California car market – or the rather threatening stick of that access being revoked – being reliant on electric vehicles.

    So, just like GM, Honda and Ford, Toyota reclaimed all the RAV4s it could and started crushing them. And like with GM’s EV1, a wellspring of owners protested the demise of their beloved little cars. After a grassroots campaign started to focus on its own retrieve-and-crush scheme, Toyota allowed some RAV4 EV lessees to buy their car. That’s why there are a few hundred RAV4 EVs left and just a handful of EV1s.

    And what did we learn? Oh, just that we’re about two decades behind where we should be with electric cars. Not that it’s biting us in the backside, or anything.

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