Toyota RAV4 EV first drive

For a while, the modern eco-friendly vehicle had a familiar silhouette, and it was Prius shaped. Now, though, Toyota is branching out in not only its electric range but its types of drive, and so we have the RAV4 EV, eschewing gas and fuel-cells altogether in favor of what could be the most pious interpretation of green driving so far. Still, when your engine and battery are provided by Tesla, there's probably more to the story than just making all-electric family-friendly. We clambered behind the wheel (and brought our heaviest right foot) to see if the RAV4 EV holds up to scrutiny.

It isn't the most handsome SUV on the market, and some of Toyota's aerodynamic aids don't much help. Whereas the car helped kick-start the original city-SUV market in its first generation, by this point it has grown – or perhaps swollen – in all directions, gaining space for five and luggage in the process, but losing some of its agile charm. The blanked-off nose, proudly bearing a huge "Toyota EV" badge, helps with airflow but doesn't look great, while the crease line on the side contributes to a somewhat pinched looking front-end when viewed in profile.

Still, it's an eco-friendly vehicle that wouldn't necessarily intimidate traditional SUV owners, though getting them to even consider adding an EV to their shortlist is providing to be Toyota's primary challenge. On the face of it, the RAV4 EV falls between two demographics: the all-electric drive is viewed with suspicion by the traditional crowd, while the SUV form-factor perhaps isn't what environmentally-conscious drivers would prefer.

Getting behind the wheel helps assuage some of those concerns, happily. Toyota custom-designed the dashboard for the RAV4 EV, and it's an interesting place to sit: the center stack is two overlapping tongues of control, with a color touchscreen up top that handles navigation and multimedia, and a spray of touch-sensitive climate control buttons underneath with their own color LCD. The touch-keys are big and easy to press, with useful ridges to help guide your fingers even if you're not looking down at the panel, though Toyota flanks the whole thing with some unpleasantly glossy plastic trim.

The rest of the dashboard is decent, if not outstanding. There are plenty of cubby holes and cup holders, front and back, and the seats are supportive and comfortable. Where you'd usually expect to find the gas gage on the left in the driver information display, you get a range indicator instead for the EV drive, showing estimated remaining range in miles, as a decreasing bar, and the current demand being placed on the engine (or, conversely, if you're putting power back into the battery using the regenerative braking system).

It's Tesla's contribution to the RAV4 EV that's most interesting, and though the SUV ostensibly shares little with the Model S to the outward glance, there are some key similarities when you're driving. Not least of these is Sport mode: press the button on the lower center console, changing the speedo illumination from blue to red in the process, and if you're feeling brave turn off the traction control too. Plant your right foot from a standing start, and the RAV4 EV will spin its front wheels with the sheer amount of torque it has to play with.

Toyota RAV4 EV test-drive:

Hardly the most practical way to drive an SUV, perhaps, but it does highlight the RAV4 EV's efficiency (not to mention the potency of all-electric drive, useful to remember if you're arguing your choice of car with skeptical friends). Even with a couple of such standing starts to tax the battery, the Toyota only dropped six miles in power supply despite an overall trip of around 5.5 miles, at mixed highway and city speeds. Maximum speed is 100mph, with the car well-behaved on highways though with some wind-noise.

Nonetheless, with a total estimated range of 103 miles – and a practical one more like 80 miles, conditions depending – the RAV4 EV certainly isn't for everybody. Charging up requires some forward-planning: with the battery still good for another 65 miles, the SUV was warning it would take more than two hours on a 240V connection to get back up to 100-percent. That spooled out to more than eighteen hours on your standard 120V household connection; charge from flat, and Toyota warns it could take almost two solid days. The family-friendly accommodation makes it a solid school run machine, while the unrelenting torque and sizable trunk space – more if you drop the rear seats – mean it would be ideal for making regular trips to the recycling center, but either way you bump up against the Toyota's price.

That starts off at $49,800, which puts the RAV4 EV up against some serious competitors in the SUV market. Toyota recently announced a new leasing package, effectively halving the monthly cost of ownership, as well as offering zero-percent financing, though there's no escaping that the car is likely to be too expensive and too compromised for all but a minority of drivers. Still, as a sign of where the all-electric car is headed – and the fact that EVs needn't be Prius-shaped – the RAV4 EV is an undeniably interesting first-generation product, and is certainly capable of putting a smile on the face of drivers who fit the niche.