Staff Car Report: And Then There Were Two (2002 RAV4 EVs, That Is)…

[Ed:] As regular readers will know, one of our Staff Writers, Kate Walton-Elliott has been hunting for a new electric car. Having made the transatlantic jump to Transport Evolved’s new Pacific Northwest base, she’s been on the look-out for something to replace the 2010 pre-production Mitsubishi iMiEV that sadly had to be sold just before moving. And if you’ve been keeping up with her quest to find an affordable, electric car that could manage a daily commute of more than 70 miles on a single charge, you’ll know that it’s not been easy. 

Mercifully it seems that the hunt is over. 

With a frequent need for a 1500 ft climb, a 67 mile return journey, and a pretty limited budget, the next EV to join the Transport Evolved staff car fleet was going to have to be pretty special. Especially since I’ve previously declaimed we’d never buy a car without rapid charging.

We said we'd never buy a car which couldn't rapid charge

We said we’d never buy a car which couldn’t rapid charge

Yeah. About that.  

Never. Say. Never.

Like a Hunger Games for EVs, each option was pitted against the others in a duel to the death. Or, well, a consideration to buy. It’s not like Transport Evolved performed a destruction derby with different electric cars and the winner was crowned champion. That would be a quirky, but ultimately expensive and unwise way to select an EV. Fun, but… not particularly helpful when budgets are tight. Although the winner, in this case, may well have been the winner of that imaginary derby.

Since the route is both hilly, and sports only one Level 2 J1772 charger (which practicality dictates could only realistically be used in an emergency) — the first limiter was range. You see, while we live in the electric car friendly Pacific Northwest (comfortably in reach of the Puget Sound) I happen to work in a town with no public charging. And the route between home and work? Yeah, that’s lacking in charging too.

We promise, this is the last one.

We promise, this is the last one.

My commute is nearly 70 miles return, door to door. With that in mind, the most popular and affordable electric car for most used car buyers — a 2011-2015 used Nissan LEAF — was definitely out. In summer it’d probably squeak in that journey, but in winter, or on a windy day, there was no hope. Particularly as most of the LEAFs within budget were first generation or S variants with the more energy-hungry resistive heater.

So we scratched the LEAF from the list. Nearly all of the current crop of compliance EVs – the Chevrolet Spark, the Focus EV, etc, they disappeared from the list too, because they all have a similar range. 

After a little research and consideration, the cars left standing were the 30kWh Nissan LEAF, the BMW i3REX, the Toyota RAV4 EV (both variants), the Kia Soul EV, and all the Teslas ever built.

So then it was down to elimination based on price.

The Tesla Model S and Roadster were excluded because, whilst a Model S would have been a delightful addition to the fleet, it would have precluded buying somewhere to live (apart from living in the car — only really a possibility in the Model S — and unlikely to be a popular decision).

The current generation BMW i3 REX – well it would potentially squeak in the miles on all electric and could definitely do it with just a hint of petrol, but price, again, knocked it for six, with all the used i3 REX’s on the West Coast sitting at well over $20k. Similarly the recently-launched 2016 30kWh Nissan LEAF lost out – if it’d only been in production for a couple of years the price might have been where it could be justified. But it’s still so new and shiny that finding a second hand one was incredibly unlikely, and eventually the conclusion was that it wasn’t going to be available in a reasonable period of time.

For a while Transport Evolved team haunted the iaai auction website, attempting to work out if one of the second generation, Tesla engineered Rav4 EVs could be acquired for around $5k. Since the ones located were undriveably bent or burned, and given Toyota’s somewhat lackadaisical approach to parts for the second generation Rav4 EV and Washington’s requirement for invoiced parts, the price had to be pretty good. But all the vehicles located rapidly shot up in price to well beyond our limit.

It's in amazingly good condition.

It’s in amazingly good condition.

And then, there it was. An e-bay auction for a surprisingly clean, remarkably original 2002 Toyota RAV4 EV. It was more expensive than a high-mileage, used Nissan LEAF, but it had some benefits over Nissan’s popular hatchback. It had a decent load bay space. A low load bay floor (handy, because we’re trying to build our own house). It has a heat pump heating system, heated front window and heated seats. 

Like the solar panels on President Carter’s White House, and the former Transport Evolved Enfield 8000 EV, the new staff car invites drivers to consider ‘what might have been’. As we added another compliance car to the fleet we were forced to consider the possibility of a diagnosis of temporary insanity. Not only does this vehicle not have rapid charging, although there is a committed fellow attempting to add it, it doesn’t even have the ability to not-rapid-charge except from its somewhat cumbersome and now unsupported charger. If you’re in the right place in California, you can charge at public locations, but outside the state, there are essentially none available.

Yes, whilst Sparkie, the other Transport Evolved 2002 Toyota Rav4 EV may be currently off the road waiting for a new battery pack, I’ve gone and added a second one to the fleet. Except this one is a little happier than Sparkie. And it lives about 120 miles north, so the two may never actually meet…

We're saving to convert the minor to electric. For now, the RAV4 EV will suffice.

We’re saving to convert the minor to electric. For now, the RAV4 EV will suffice.

Fitted with a reconditioned battery pack, and with just 84,000 miles on the clock, our white 2002 Toyota Rav4 EV arrived — purchased scarily unseen from e-bay (not a recommended practice)  — on the back of a transporter and was off-loaded by a very polite, but slightly confused driver who commented that he’d not seen an electric Rav4 before. Cue the now automatic speil about how they mostly ended up being crushed and the battery patent is (irritatingly) owned by Chevron. Now automatic because virtually everyone says “I didn’t know they built electric Rav4s”.

The truck driver who delivered our new car was... impressed.

The truck driver who delivered our new car was… impressed.

So far, we’ve covered 500 miles in this newest addition to the fleet and it is a fascinating experience. Toyota intended the vehicle mainly to go into fleet ownership, and it feels like it. Unlike most electric cars, there is no throw-you-back-in-the-seat launch-you-from-the-starting-line acceleration. Pressing the pedal to the metal leads to reasonable acceleration… for a decade old SUV. But decidedly lackluster given what we know EVs can do. The Rav4 EV is highly torque limited to make sure it had a long productive life in fleets. Ironic, given that Toyota crushed 3/4s of the produced vehicles while their paint was still shiny. But it’s not like it is slow or underpowered, once rolling, there’s more than enough go to keep you moving swiftly.

On the road the (as-yet unnamed) Rav4 EV handles itself respectably. With an theoretical range of around 90 miles — however that is very much not recommended with it being likely to damage the batteries — the challenging 70 mile commute is doable. On a warm, wind-free day, the return journey was easily completed with over 30 miles of (human-guesstimated) range. Of course, the second time the wind and rain combined to make the return journey somewhat challenging, arriving with the battery gauge exactly at what is advised by the Rav4 owners group to be the lowest you want to actually take it — sitting between the last green segment and that scary orange segment that marks a pack less than 30% full. Part of this is undoubtedly due to the Rav4’s appalling profile. The coke-bottle sides and a friendly nose are not unattractive, but that smiling face is about as aerodynamic as a brick. Something that rapidly becomes apparent at speed, even descending slopes that the Transport Evolved Honda insight uses to recharge, the Rav4 is expending energy trying to keep up a decent pace.

It looks like other RAV4s from the same period, but the decals shout "EV".

It looks like other RAV4s from the same period, but the decals shout “EV”.

But then, unlike the similarly archaic but entertainingly futuristic first generation Honda insight, (and the Rav4’s comrade in arms, the GM EV1) it goes out of its way to feel like an ordinary gas-guzzler. Although externally the EV and “ELECTRIC VEHICLE” decals proudly announce its evolved fuel design, the interior is pure turn of the century gray plastic. A bog standard mechanically driven speedometer / odometer sits next to battery gauges that are simple in the extreme. No attempts are made at range guesstimation, just a voltmeter to give you some idea of the health of the pack and a state-of-charge meter. But despite its simple interface, it also sports some remarkably forward thinking features. Timer controlled charging and AirCon were standard, and whilst you can’t set a temperature, you can say “make it warm” or “make it cold” whilst it’s hooked up to the charger.

Even under the hood, lurking in that well packed front end (which is densely filled with electronics) things are impressive. There is a heat-pump based heating system, which combined with the windshield heater and front-seat heating make for remarkably efficient cold-weather potential. And despite the long-obsolete charging paddle, charging is a doddle, easier than most DCQCs, with the paddle simply slipping into that slot. No concerns about keeping it completely dry, nor about making sure the connector is really well seated. It is truly a shame that the technology wasn’t improved and enhanced.

So the Rav4 EV stands as a testament to the recalcitrant nature of automotive companies. The petulant “no-I-won’t” that car maker’s cried when faced with the requirement to use available technology to produce vehicles that could be made, but they said couldn’t. And perhaps it stands as a monument to just how effective legislation can be at bringing about change.

Whilst it’s taken over a decade, it’s unlikely that without the Rav4 EV, and its zero emission kin, EVs would be where they are now. Although the majority of them ended up crushed, the two on the fleet will hopefully keep giving good service, and this one at least will be gently coaxed into the modern EV era with, it is hoped, J1772 charging and possibly even a rapid charger.

Would you consider an archaic compliance car? Do you think the Rav4 EV will be a classic? Or do you think the TE team are nuts for keeping ancient EVs on the road? Let us know in the Comments below.


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