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A Weekend With a RAV4-EV From EV Rental Cars

The good folks at EV Rental Cars (at the Budget Rental Cars location near the Los Angeles International Airport) keep adding more kinds of Environmental Vehicles to their lineup (that's what the "EV" in their name stands for, not the usual "electric vehicles"), so I keep going back to try them as they come in. I'm already behind; they've had Ford Ranger electric pickups from their inception in December 1998, and recently they added Honda Civic GX compact cars powered by compressed natural gas (CNG), and I haven't rented either of those, just the GM EV1 (twice) and Honda EV Plus electric cars. Nonetheless, I'm trying to keep up with them, so when they added a fifth vehicle to their stable recently, I rented one for the Memorial Day weekend. This was the Toyota RAV4-EV electric mini sport utility vehicle.

Toyota RAV4-EV from EV Rental Cars

As you can see, this looks pretty much identical to the conventional gasoline version of the RAV4; unlike the EV1 and EV Plus, it was not designed from the ground up as an electric vehicle, but it is nonetheless a very impressive, well-integrated package. The battery pack is under the belly, costing a little ground clearance (though not much beyond what you already lose to the underbody-mounted compact spare tire) but leaving the interior completely stock. What impressed me the most was how quiet the vehicle was; the EV1 makes a gear whine on acceleration that I, for one, enjoy (sounds like you're firing up a small turbine engine!), but with the RAV4-EV the loudest sound was always that of the tires on the road. Of course, one reason I find the silence of the RAV4-EV so impressive may be that I finally got a chance to pull the "EV sneak" on somebody: I found a group of co-workers walking across the parking lot at work, pulled the electric vehicle in behind them, and followed them for quite awhile before one of them realized that there was a full-size automobile right on their heels!

Toyota RAV4-EV charge port

Initially Toyota was part of the conductive camp in the tug-of-war between conductive and inductive charging standards for electric vehicles, along with Honda and Ford. However, Toyota has for years built cars jointly with General Motors at the NUMMI factory (Chevy (formerly Geo) Prizms and Toyota Corollas), and in the last year these two automakers have been cooperating more and more closely on advanced vehicles; in particular, they are jointly developing a successor to the inductive charging "paddle" used by GM and Nissan. Thus RAV4-EVs have been available during the transition with a choice of charging ports, and all of the ones at EV Rental Cars have the inductive paddle and thus can be charged up anywhere that an EV1 can. With Honda stopping production of its EV Plus in order to concentrate on gasoline hybrid-electric vehicles (which recharge from an onboard generator attached to an internal-combustion engine, and thus don't need an external charging port), I think Ford is the only major automaker still using the common conductive connector (DaimlerChrysler uses a different conductive connector, which is not at all widespread). So it looks as if the standards battle might be about over...

RAV4-EV instrument cluster

I mentioned above that the RAV4-EV was unusually quiet, even for an electric vehicle; another significant difference between it and the other electric vehicles I've driven is the way it implements regenerative braking (whereby the motor, on deceleration, turns into a generator and slows the vehicle down by feeding energy of motion back into the battery pack). You'll note, in the photo above of the instrument cluster, that the shift pattern is P-R-N-D-B. "B", not "L"? Yes, it stands for "braking" (I assume...), and the green letters to the left read "EB", for "electronic braking". There are three modes in which the vehicle can operate; first, if the selector is in "D" and the button on the shifter is set to disable electronic braking (so that the "EB" indicator disappears), then when you lift your foot off the accelerator the vehicle just coasts. Second, if the selector is in "D" and electronic braking is on, then a very gentle regenerative braking takes effect when you lift off the accelerator; there is no perceptible lurch as the vehicle changes from accelerating to decelerating. Third, if the selector is in "B" (regardless of the "EB" status), then a much stronger regenerative braking cuts in when you lift your foot; this causes a significant lurch, and is best used like a downshift for coming to a complete stop, rather than in "slow-and-go" city driving. I have to say that, of the three implementations of regenerative braking (RAV4-EV, EV1, and EV Plus) that I've tried, I like this one best; it offers both a coast mode and strong regeneration, like the EV1, but the in-between "EB" mode offers a gentler option like that in the EV Plus.

As for range, when I rented the vehicle I was quoted a figure of 100 miles for a full charge of the NiMH battery pack. I occasionally drove pretty hard (giving people test rides, you want to show off the vehicle!), but with 79 miles of driving and no recharging I was not quite into the yellow zone on the "fuel" gauge, so I think that 100 miles is an honest figure if you're willing to dip into the red zone!

RAV4-EV and Budget sign

Well, EV Rental Cars will be adding the Nissan Altra when it becomes available, and ditto the Insight hybrid-electric car from Honda when it starts selling later this year and the hybrid-electric Prius from Toyota that is already selling like hotcakes in Japan and will arrive in the U.S. next year, so I'll be back. Many thanks to Yvonne J. for checking out the vehicle to me, and to Terry O'Day and Joseph Borges, Jr. for putting up with me again! By the way, here's another local connection to this vehicle: as I was driving around the Los Angeles area, three students from Torrance North High School just down the road were driving a RAV4-EV on the east coast as Toyota's representatives in this year's Tour de Sol electric-vehicle rally, sponsored by the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association (NESEA). Retroactively, I wish them luck!

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new 30 May 1999, revised 2 April 2000