By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc. July, 20, 2016
I last time wrote about Toyota’s RAV4 EV (electric vehicle)—the all-electric version of the company’s signature small SUV—was in the November 26, 2013 issue of the Pund-IT Review, a couple of months after my wife and I began a three-year lease with Toyota and took delivery of our RAV4 EV. With just a couple of months to go left on the lease, it seems like a good time to reflect on the highs and lows of the experience.
As background, Toyota originally launched the model in 1997 as a fleet vehicle, then pulled it in 2003 due to poor performance. A new version of the RAV4 EV hit the California market in 2012 with a battery pack, charger and drive train designed and manufactured by Tesla. As an aside, that partnership ended in 2015, after Toyota decided the manufacture its own EV components.
The 90-plus mile range per charge the RAV4 EV delivered was more than adequate for our around-town needs. But the clincher was California’s extension (to 2019) of a rule allowing lone drivers of EVs and other clean alternative fuel vehicles to use high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes, a huge plus on traffic-choked San Francisco Bay Area highways. In other words, the RAV4 EV seemed like a ticket to commuter heaven which was a serious enticement for us at the time.
So how has the experience been? Mostly positive, particularly in the following areas:
- Driving experience – Since (like other EVs) the RAV4 EV accelerates linearly with none of the shift pauses common in cars with transmissions, it’s one hell of a lot of fun to drive. And that’s not just in using the “Sport” acceleration, a mild version of the “Insane/Ludicrous” mode in some Tesla models.
- Handling – Several hundred pounds of battery packs means that the car’s handling takes some getting used to. At first, it feels like it should be logy and unresponsive but the rapid acceleration belies that. Plus, the weight and low center of gravity makes the car feel extremely stable and “glued” to the road.
- Comfort – The driver and passenger seats are comfortable, and the front seat area is roomy and comfortable. The seat heaters (front only, and the first we’d ever had in a car) felt like a real luxury. Over time, we got into the habit of using them instead of the primary heater. That also added a few extra miles to our driving range since the primary heater sucks up power. The AC unit is powerful and efficient, and doesn’t have an enormous impact on mileage.
- Controls are easy to reach and manage, and most are relatively intuitive. The back-up camera is large and a real bonus at night and in tight parking situations.
- In-town driving – In retrospect, my wife and I are just the kind of drivers EVs are meant for—a family with two cars, one of which (the EV) is mainly used for short in-town errands that constitute about 3/4 of the miles that an average family drives. We drive our Subaru Forester on longer trips.
- Charging – The charging process is simple, especially using the car’s timer-based charging system. But we’ve seen additional benefits due to qualifying for our local power utility’s non-tiered, time-of-use plan. That allows us to charge the car during off-peak hours (11pm to 6am) when electricity costs about a quarter of peak time rates. That has more than paid for the cost of buying/installing a Level 2 240V charger for the car. The car comes with a charging cable that fits standard 110V sockets but it requires 4X-5X the time as using the 240V system.
- Range – The RAV4 EV’s average range per charge is about 85 miles, with some weather-related variations (colder = shorter). However, given our location that easily translates into round-trips to most anywhere in San Francisco, the SF Peninsula and San Jose/Silicon Valley, plus all major airports.
- Toyota maintenance – The maintenance department at our local dealership (AutoNation Toyota in Hayward, California) has been absolutely stellar – extremely helpful, informative and transparent during the repair process. The only negative I can think of is that we’ve gotten to know them pretty well (see Reliability, below)
Then again, our experience has had some downsides.
- Back seat/cargo space – While the RAV4 EV offers front seat passengers more than adequate room/comfort, the same can’t be said for the backseat area. The space is cramped and the seat itself is a lightly-padded split bench. The rear cargo area (with a side-opening door) is fine for grocery runs but inadequate for handling bulky items from Home Depot or nurseries.
- Highway road noise – Road noise in the RAV4 EV, especially on the highway, is noticeably loud; around 86-90dBs, or about the same as a kitchen blender according to my phone Smart Meter app. That’s 15 dBs louder than driving the same routes in our Forester. I assume that Toyota skimped on soundproofing material in order to save weight/add range but the result can be uncomfortable on long highway trips.
- Quick charge option – There isn’t a fast charge plug on the RAV4 EV, making it one of the few EVs lacking this feature. That limits the use of commercial charging stations (unless you take along a good book to read), and makes it inconvenient or impossible to use the car for longer trips that require recharging.
- Reliability – Our experience to date can be described as 32 months of great, fun driving and two months that really sucked. That was due to two faulty charging units. In the first case, which happened a couple of months after we got the car, it took Tesla (which is located less than 20 miles away) over six weeks to ship the replacement unit to our Toyota dealer. That really sucked a lot of the joy out of our new car experience. If the service manager and repair guys at AutoNation hadn’t been so great, the experience would have been truly awful. Then last month, the same unit failed again. On the bright side, this time around it only took a week for Tesla to ship the dealer a replacement unit. Cue fireworks and marching band.
So how has our EV ownership been? Net positive, overall. Outside of the visits to Toyota service, the car was fun to drive, performed much as we thought it would, delivered the benefits we hoped for and cost about as much as we expected. As we begin looking for a new car, an EV is clearly in the picture but we definitely won’t be buying out the lease on our 2013 RAV4 EV.
In fact, a week or so ago a Toyota representative called to ask if we were planning to keep the car after the lease expired, and I think I confused the poor guy when I started to laugh. As much as we like our local service guys, I think we’ll all stay better friends if we don’t see one another quite so often.
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