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The 2012 Toyota RAV4 EV is actually the second all-electric RAV4 the company has offered. The first version--of which almost 500 remain on California roads today--was built a decade ago to meet that state's zero-emission vehicle requirements.
The latest model serves the same purpose, but with an added fillip: Its battery-electric drivetrain was designed and engineered by Silicon Valley startup Tesla Motors, whose own Model S electric luxury sedan has just gone into production at Toyota's former factory in Fremont.
From the outside, aside from a new front fascia and a few styling touches--and its reduced ground clearance--Toyota's electrically driven compact crossover looks very similar to high-end gasoline RAV4 models. There's also an extended tailgate roof spoiler that improves airflow, but if you didn't look twice, you might not find the RAV4 EV any different than the hundreds of thousands of the current model Toyota has sold since 2006.
The electric RAV4 is propelled by a Tesla Model S traction motor, though its peak power is limited to 115 kilowatts (154 horsepower) by the output of the 42-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack that fits neatly under the RAV4's floorpan. Its entire powertrain, in fact, is quite similar to the one that will be fitted to the lowest-range Model S, when that version becomes available early in 2013.
And it produces a RAV4 that's both fun and remarkably quick to drive, with acceleration in some speed ranges handily beating gasoline RAV4 models fitted with the 269-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 engine. Going from 30 to 50 mph, for example, takes the RAV4 EV just 2.5 seconds. And in Sport mode, the 0-to-60-mph sprint can be covered in less than 7 seconds. Top speed, however, is limited: 85 mph when running in Normal mode, or 100 mph in Sport mode.
While the electric RAV4 weighs in at just over 4,000 pounds--about 470 pounds more than a V-6 RAV4 Limited model with front-wheel drive--the 840-pound battery pack is mounted under the floor, as low as it possibly could be, which lowers the car's center of gravity. That improves roadholding and cornering compared to the gasoline models, whose weight sits higher up. Toyota has retuned the electric power steering to give more road feel at high speeds, but increased assist at parking speeds, to cope with the heavier car.
The most impressive feature of the 2012 Toyota RAV4 EV may be its range. Tesla offers two charging modes: Normal and Extended-Range. The first charges the battery pack to 80 percent of capacity, which prolongs its life. Toyota expects the EPA to rate that version at around 98 miles of range, whereas with a fully-charged pack, the EPA is likely to say the range is 112 miles.
It should be easy for owners to get 100 to 115 miles of real-world range, depending on which of three climate-control settings are chosen. Eco-High is the one that gives the most parsimonious use of electricity, though we found it suitable for two front-seat occupants in dry weather in the mid-80s. Eco-Low gives the system a bit more oomph, and Normal offers the same degree of heating or cooling as a gasoline RAV4--but uses the most battery energy, meaning it cuts range the most.
Inside, the seats are covered in an inoffensive eco-fabric, with manual front-seat adjustments to conserve energy. The under-floor battery gives the electric RAV4 the same interior volume, rear-seat foot room, and 36.4 cubic feet of cargo space as the gasoline version. That's hardly the case in other electric conversions of gasoline cars, including the Ford Focus Electric and the smaller Honda Fit EV.
The dashboard has a larger display than the standard RAV4, with a variety of different screens for climate control options, displaying energy usage, and so forth--and its graphics are mirrored in the instrument cluster, which also has a color display. Capacitive touch switches below the center display replace some of Toyota's buttons and dials, and a Prius-style shift selector replaces the longer chrome transmission lever of regular RAV4s.
Neither the NHTSA nor the IIHS has yet crash-tested the 2012 Toyota RAV4 EV, and it's possible neither will, given the car's low volume. Toyota worked hard to ensure that the electric RAV4 would meet all the latest safety standards, with extensive structural modeling and reinforcements to protect the low-mounted battery pack in a variety of crash situations.
One other appealing feature of the RAV4 EV is its onboard 10-kilowatt charger, which can recharge the battery pack up to three times as fast as the chargers on the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt. To take advantage of this feature, Toyota recommends a special Leviton 240-Volt Level 2 charging station that delivers 9.6 kW at 40 Amps, giving a recharging time of just six hours for a fully discharged battery pack (a somewhat unlikely scenario, given the car's range). The charging station starts at $1,590, with basic installation included. Unlike Tesla's own Model S, the RAV4 EV uses a complete standard J-1772 charging plug.
Toyota says it will provide a warranty for the battery pack for 8 years or 100,000 miles, but the coverage applies only to failed packs. The warranty specifically does not cover any loss of battery capacity, which on the earlier Tesla Roadster was estimated at up to 30 percent over five years.
The 2012 Toyota RAV4 EV carries a price of $49,800, and the car is eligible for a Federal tax credit of $7,500 and a California purchase rebate of $2,500. Toyota hasn't yet announced details of any leases it may offer, but says it's looking into that option as well. The RAV4 EV be offered in selected California markets in the fall of 2012.
For more information on other aspects of the crossover's utility, quality, and styling, see our full review of the 2012 Toyota RAV4.