Staff Car Report: Our Historic 2002 Toyota RAV4 EV Safely Arrives — And We Get to Know ‘Sparkie’ Better

Unlike most automotive news sites on the Internet, we here at Transport Evolved try hard to lead by example, owning and driving the very cars we cover on this site as our family vehicles. We call them our Transport Evolved Staff car fleet and to date, we’ve owned a myriad of cleaner, greener, safer and smarter cars.

Between us, our editorial fleet — and the cars of some of our regular contributors — encompass a fantastic array of vehicles. Some were purchased brand new. Others were purchased used. Some are all-electric, while others are hybrid. Some, like the Tesla Roadster owned by Michael Thwaite are modern-day classics, treasured and kept for special days. Others, like the first-generation Nissan LEAF owned by Mark Chatterley, are everyday workhorses that have reliably been doing the daily commute for years.

Our 2002 Toyota RAV4 EV staff car has arrived.

Our 2002 Toyota RAV4 EV staff car has arrived.

Our latest addition — as we revealed last week — is a project car that we hope to restore and keep on the fleet as a testament to the first-generation of electric cars which played such an influential role in the lives of so many electric car owners and advocates today. And on Saturday, we met that very car — called ‘Sparkie’ by her former owners — for the first time.

Despite her advancing years, Sparkie is in remarkably good shape.

Despite her advancing years, Sparkie is in remarkably good shape.

For those who aren’t familiar with the photograph above, Sparkie is one of several hundred surviving Toyota RAV4 EVs produced between 1997 and 2003. Produced by Toyota as a ‘compliance’ car at the same time as the GM EV1 was roaming the streets of California, the first-generation Toyota RAV4 EV was initially only leased to corporate customers. Then, towards the end of its planned production, just as Toyota, GM, Nissan, Ford and many more automakers had succeeded in lobbying the California Air Resources Board to repeal their zero emission mandate, Toyota made a limited number of RAV4 EVs available to private customers.

Sparkie is one of those several hundred cars — and consequently avoided the crusher-fate that all EV1s and all of the leased Toyota RAV4 EVs suffered (if you’re not familiar with the story, watch Who Killed The Electric Car? on Netflix, and you’ll be filled in).

With 76,000 miles on the clock, Sparkie has had a reasonably quiet life. Some Toyota RAV4 EVs of her vintage have 100,000 miles on their odometers, many of which were completed on the original Nickel Metal Hydride battery packs that came with the car. There are even a few Toyota RAV4 EVs with 200,000 miles or more on their odometers, although we understand most of these vehicles have had some form of battery replacement at some point.

Sparkie's 12-volt battery was dead on arrival -- but our Staff Nissan LEAF helped out.

Sparkie’s 12-volt battery was dead on arrival — but our Staff Nissan LEAF helped out.

Coming from Southern California, Sparkie is in great physical shape, although was donated to us with a particularly frustrating problem: namely that she wouldn’t charge and that her main traction battery pack (the thing which makes the car move) is not in the greatest of health. Replaced four years ago by her owners with a remanufactured lightly-used NiMH pack (due to the fact that Chevron owns the patent to NiMH pack technology brand-new packs are impossible to buy) Sparkie’s pack will probably need replacing at some point with a new battery pack made of an alternative battery chemistry.

Doing this is no mean feat: aside from the electrical changes that will need to be made, we’ll have to tackle things such as battery management in order to ensure that the battery pack remains in good condition and doesn’t damage itself or Sparkie’s 14-year old wiring. And because different battery chemistries have different charging characteristics and care requirements, we’ll have to take that into consideration too when we make the upgrade.

But we digress.After arriving at Transport Evolved headquarters late on Saturday evening (thanks to both EV expert Tedd Abramson and John “Plasmaboy” Wayland for ferrying Sparkie up from Southern California in relay-fashion) we pushed Sparkie into the garage and lifted the hood. Upon discovering her 12-volt battery had been disconnected for the trip, we reconnected it, and turned the key.

As we’d been warned, Sparkie’s 12-volt battery had lost all of its spark — and it suffered the same sulphated fate that many a starter battery on an internal combustion engined car succumbs to. With jump start cables at hand, we decided to give it a little help, and Sparkie sprung to life. With a little coaxing, she even engaged her traction pack, and let us drive five feet forwards before giving up the ghost.

The author gets a little excited when Sparkie comes to life.

The author gets a little excited when Sparkie comes to life.

With that evening’s success in mind, Sunday was spent fitting a new 12-volt battery and wiring up one of the two inductive paddle charging systems that the RAV4 EV came with.

The original Toyota RAV4 EV, like most electric cars made at the same time, uses an inductive paddle charging system rather than the conductive charging system found on most modern electric cars. Unlike today’s wireless charging system, the inductive paddles of the time relied on transferring power across a very small distance between the metal coil hidden inside the insulated charge paddle and a similar inductive coil hidden inside the charge port door on the front of the RAV4 EV.

With the system wired up and ready to go, we tried to get Sparkie to charge. As her previous owners had explained however, she happily charges for around one minute, then switches the charger off.

On the first-generation RAV4 EV, a particular electrical component (a large capacitor) located under the hood in what Toyota RAV4 EV aficionados call “the suitcase” was notorious for failing. When it does, it causes the car to demonstrate the kind of behaviour we’ve been seeing. So, when we’ve a chance, we’ll be following the instructions given by Darell Dickey of to check that isn’t what’s causing our particular problems.

Is Sparkie on the road yet? No: while we’ve managed around 1-mile of low-speed driving on a private road, she’s not yet ready for the trip to the DMV to get officially licensed. For that, we’ll need to actually get the battery pack to charge beyond the 20 percent or so it currently sits at — and we’ll need to make sure that Sparkie can drive fourteen miles without running flat.

What’s next? Aside from a darned good clean — and we’ll be covering that in detail in a coming post — we’re going to try and coax the main battery pack to life and get our classic EV charging too.

But first, we’re going to set ourselves up with the official factory manual for Sparkie in order to read any troubleshooting diagnostic codes hidden inside her on-board computer. Without the preferred RAV4 INFO palm-pilot setup favoured by RAV4 EV owners back in the day, we’re going to have to do that the old-fashioned way.

Watch this space.

Do you know about the Toyota RAV4 EV? Would you like to help Transport Evolved bring this classic electric car back to life? Or perhaps you’d like to help us prepare Sparkie for the modern age with a new battery pack and modern charging system? If the answer is yes — or you know someone who can help us — be sure to contact the team via the Contact Us form.


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