Here at Transport Evolved, our editorial team pride themselves on having collected a wide and varied set of experiences with all sorts of cleaner, greener, safer and smarter transportation. Some of these have been gained from the years of press launches and media drives we’ve been on, but the majority have come from years of electric, plug-in hybrid, hybrid and classic car ownership.
Our current and previous staff car fleet have ranged from little-known electric bubble cars like the City El three-wheeler and the notorious REVA G-Wiz through to the Tesla Roadster, BMW i3, and Nissan LEAF by way of the Chevrolet Volt, Toyota Prius and Honda Insight. We’ve even been lucky enough to have owned a 1985 Volkswagen Golf CityStromer: one of only a few hundred prototype electric cars built by Volkswagen in the 1980s.
This time next week however, we’ll be adding what is arguably one of the most iconic and well-known electric vehicles produced in the last two decades to our fleet. A first-generation Toyota RAV4 EV.
For those unfamiliar with the vehicle, the original Toyota RAV4 EV was produced by Toyota between 2001 and 2003 (1997-2003 in Japan) as a way of satisfying the Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) mandate passed in 1990 by the California Air Resources Board. That mandate required the seven major automakers in the U.S. at the time to produce and sell (or lease) electric cars to California customers in order to be allowed to sell gasoline cars in state.
Among them, General Motors made the EV1 and S10 electric pickup; Honda made the EV Plus; Ford made the Ranger EV pickup truck and Think City; and Toyota made the RAV4 EV. At the time none of the automakers were keen on the CARB legislation, and lobbied almost continually to have the legislation repealed.
Originally only available for businesses or local governments to lease, the Toyota RAV4 EV came with seating for five, a 27 kilowatt-hour Nickel Metal Hydride battery pack, and a 50 kilowatt electric motor driving the front wheels. Based on the first-generation (1996-2000) RAV4, it looked almost identical to the gasoline version, but instead of a fuel filler cap, all but the very earliest examples were recharged via a small paddle inductive charging system located behind the front grille. With a top speed of 78 mph the RAV4 EV wasn’t as fast as today’s electric cars, taking 18-seconds to reach 60 mph from standstill. But with plenty of room on board for passengers and cargo, it certainly was the more practical choice over other electric cars available at the same time for anyone who wanted to carry a load or passengers.
It also had an EPA-approved range of 95 miles per charge, although many drivers reported real-world ranges in excess of 130 miles per charge in the right conditions.
Of the majority of first-generation RAV4 EVs made, most were leased to businesses and local governments. Although Toyota campaigned for the ZEV mandate to be repealed alongside GM and other automakers, it actually changed the RAV4 EV lease agreement to make it easier for private individuals to sign up for a RAV4 EV, an agreement which included the option to purchase the car outright at lease end.
As anyone who has watched Who Killed The Electric Car? will remember, this meant that while large numbers of Toyota RAV4 EVs ended up being sent to the crusher alongside the EV1, Honda Plus and many others after CARB caved and removed the ZEV mandate, some 328 or more RAV4 EVs survived that terrible fate.
Those cars, alongside surviving Ford Ranger EVs and GM S10 electric pickups, have been lovingly maintained by their owners ever since. Thanks to the NiMH batteries inside the RAV4 EV — the same type of batteries found in other longer-range EVs of the time — many of these cars now have odometer readings in excess of 100,000 miles. Some have even managed 200,000 miles during their lifetime, although most now have battery packs which are starting to show their age.
Sadly however, the NiMH batteries which power these cars are no-longer available new, thanks to the acquisition of the very patents which made the RAV4 EV’s battery pack possible by Chevron Texaco. Consequently, these early first-generation RAV4 EVs are now, after more than thirteen years on the road in some cases, starting to show their age.
Which is where we come in. The car we’re soon to welcome on our fleet — or rather the Gordon-Bloomfield fleet on behalf of Transport Evolved has some 76,000 miles on the clock. It’s on its second NiMH battery pack, a reconditioned pack from a battery specialist in California. It currently doesn’t drive at all, but that makes it all the more special because we don’t want it to be one of the growing number of RAV4 EVs to be slowly fading away as their owners enjoy newer, easier-to-maintain cars.
The car’s current owner has been on the lookout to find it a suitable home since it came off the road in May last year. And we’re hoping to be that home.
We’re hoping to rebuild the car, troubleshoot its faults, and bring it back onto the road as both an acknowledgement of its pivotal place in history but also to help preserve part of electric vehicle heritage for the future. Along the way, we’ll document some of the challenges of owning and operating an older electric vehicle, teach you the basics of maintaining an older plug-in car, and hopefully having fun along the way.
As part of its donation, we’ve promised to drive it as much as possible, and we’ll be trying to educate and entertain along the way.
In the meantime, if you’re a reader who has experience in the first-generation Toyota RAV4 EV, or happens to have some spares lurking in the back of your garage, we’d love to hear form you. This is a project we’re hoping to share with our readers every step of the way, so roll up your sleeves and join us as we bring this amazing car back to life!
(In case you’re wondering: no, these images aren’t of the car we’re adopting. They’re official Toyota press images from the period. Ours will be grey, and we’ll share photos just as soon as it arrives next week!)
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