Somebody Please Explain Why the RAV4 EV Isn’t a Big Hit

By · August 30, 2013

Toyota RAV4 EV

Photo: Brad Berman.

As previously reported, Toyota is offering dramatic discounts on the RAV4 EV all-electric crossover SUV. Sales of the vehicle have been meager, so the implied message is that consumers aren’t interested in the RAV4 EV. A few weeks ago, I drove the car again—through a one-week loan from Toyota—and I was just as blown away as my two previous times behind the wheel. (See my drive review, from exactly a year ago, in The New York Times.) Frankly, I don’t understand why the RAV4 EV isn’t the most sought-after EV on the market.

Do consumers not understand that the RAV4 EV has Tesla underpinnings—and is therefore, in essence, the least expensive way to own a new Tesla? When I put the RAV4 EV into Sport mode, and stomped on the accelerator, it provided nearly all the madcap thrill of being in a Roadster or Model S. The RAV4 EV is seriously (and in my hands, perhaps even dangerously) fast.

An Affordable Tesla

Now combine that driving fun with a 41.8 kilowatt-hour battery pack, which grants 120 miles or more of driving range. The EV community does a lot surveys (and hand-wringing) about the bottom-line amount of driving range needed to make electric cars go mainstream. A 42-kWh pack comes quite close to that bogey. While observers and investors go ga-ga over Tesla, and anticipate the arrival of the Model X SUV and a future more affordable electric model, the RAV4 EV is on the market now. Why isn't the electric RAV the electric car we've been waiting for? (Okay, it would be nice to add all-wheel drive to the mix.)

Along the same lines, some shoppers fretted over Tesla canceling the 40-kWh version of the Model S—but here’s a 42-kWh Tesla-powered vehicle, with all the space and high-riding practicality of a small SUV, and it’s escaping notice. Okay, the styling is straight-up Toyota (see: yawn) but it’s moderately attractive. Actually, I preferred piloting a Toyota-wrapped Tesla below the radar of fellow drivers—over my time in the Model S, which always felt a bit too showy for my taste.

Yes, there have been warnings about the RAV4 EV deals not being as good as advertised at some dealerships. And some technical problems have been reported (even if I didn’t experience any of those in my week with the car.)

And general-market shoppers might feel like a Toyota SUV—even with the discounts and incentives that bring the vehicle down to mid-$30,000s and leases to $299 a month (granted, with a sizable downpayment)—is not worth the electric car premium. Still, I don’t get why more shoppers explicitly interested in an EV don’t see the RAV4 EV as the best electric car on the market—based on its big-battery range, proven Toyota-designed comfort and cargo features, and a kick-ass Tesla powertrain.

Guzzling Kool-Aid Again?

If I wasn’t afraid of over-hyping the RAV4 EV, I might nominate it as—dare I say—the best electric car of all time. It has a great legacy, with the first generation model escaping the claws of destruction that crushed the EV1. Those Gen1 models are still providing great service to many of its owners. Of course, Model S owners are going to think I’m nuts. But when you look at range/power/functionality on a per-dollar basis, I might argue that the RAV4 embodies more of what the EV movement needs in an accessible but robust model—over the much more costly Model S. (Look at the passenger and cargo space you get compared to the upcoming BMW i3 subcompact, which has garnered so much more enthusiasm and media attention than the RAV4 EV ever received.)

Maybe the problem is that Toyota itself is not a believer in electric cars, so it undermines the achievement of the RAV4 EV. Fair enough. Still, I’d like to know from readers where I’ve gone off the rails in my assessment.

Regardless, I’ll stop my sales pitch right now, because—for purely selfish purposes—I’m not sure I want too many shoppers to see the RAV4 EV as a sleeper hit. The three-year lease on my Nissan LEAF is up in spring 2014, and I want those great deals to still be available.

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