Staff Car Report: After 3,000 Miles With Us, Our 2002 Toyota RAV4 EV Has Its First Tantrum

Given the first generation Toyota Rav4 EV’s illustrious place in EV history, it perhaps seems harsh to subject an example to 1500 miles per month and treat it like it’s fresh off the dealer lot and not 15 years old. But that’s what we’ve done since acquiring our (still unnamed) white Toyota RAV4 EV back in May.

Trying to precondition our car resulted in an 'oops' moment...

Trying to precondition our car resulted in an ‘oops’ moment…

With plenty of space and seating for four, not to mention cheap running costs, our Rav4 EV has become our main vehicle for any trip that clocks in under the roughly 70 mile range of our lustrum-and-decade old vehicle. Given its sedate life prior to coming to live with us, it has, for the most part, responded to that sudden change in treatment pretty well. But having switched from travelling an average of around 500 miles a month, to 1500, a few problems are inevitable in a vehicle of its age, regardless of its fuel source.

Our RAV4 EV has been no exception to that rule.

Some of the issues we’ve experienced thus far definitely fall into the PEBKAC (or perhaps PEBS(W)AC) category. I recently (and this is a truly shameful admission) locked the keys in the car, with the car’s ignition switched on.

We forgot our car locks its doors when the ignition turns on...

We forgot our car locks its doors when the ignition turns on…

See – are you prepared for the excuses? – I had this genius idea that as it was a hot day, I could get my fully-charged car to turn on the air conditioning with the charger still attached, and have the car fully cooled down by the time I wanted to leave. Luckily, Toyota’s engineers had the same bright idea when they build the RAV4 EV, including just such a setting in the car’s charge timer computer. But although I’d set the timer for it to come on, I forgot to turn the timer on.. leaving me with a hot car.

No bother I thought. I’ll jump in the car five minute before I leave, turn on the ignition, and let the air conditioning cool my car, and do a few quick jobs in the house before coming back to a perfectly cooled car. Plans are always great, but execution sometimes shows their flaws. And in this case, slamming the door behind me as I nipped back into the house was the big mistake.

Y’see, my RAV4 EV (not all of them do this) automatically locks the doors after you turn the ignition on, presumably to make sure that nobody can carjack you while driving in the wilds of wherever you happen to live. In this case though, my keys were cheerfully hanging from the ignition barrel, and the only person trying to get into the car was me… without a spare set of keys.  Of course, the spare keys were off with my partner miles away with no expectation of her return in the near future.

Cue lots of panic and a quick telephone call to our editor (who also happens to own a similar vintage RAV4 EV) to see if she had a suggestion to fix it. But despite our long friendship, the best she could manage was some feigned sympathy and sotto voce giggling down the telephone. Given that said same person once locked herself out of her 2013 Chevrolet Volt back in the UK (and British Volts don’t have OnStar to rescue you from such a predicament) I’d hoped for a more mature response…

Eventually after several abortive attempts at breaking and entering (it’s really much harder to use a coat-hook to gain entry than it looks in the films), I called our breakdown company and they got me in. By which time the 12-volt accessory battery was stone-cold flat after I tried a suggestion from, shall we say ‘someone else with a Rav4 EV’ (naming no names, Nichola), to pull the charger. She hoped that pulling the charger might flip the car back out of ready mode and unlock the doors — it didn’t.

The Toyota RAV4 EV has a high level of notoriety when it comes to its 12-volt accessory battery.

The Toyota RAV4 EV has a high level of notoriety when it comes to its 12-volt accessory battery.

Anyhow, excusing that little incident the other issues we’ve had until now have boiled down to Toyota’s lackluster handling of the 12v auxiliary battery.

In an ICE automobile, the lead-acid 12v battery is subject to rapid discharge and charge, a process that keeps the battery in better condition than the 13.7v continuous charging that the Rav4EV does. This is related to the chemistry of your average lead acid battery which is not intended for long term trickle discharge with incomplete charging – a process which tends to allow the battery to sulphate. The Rav4EV is not alone in this behaviour, the Toyota Prius is also known as a bit of a battery killer.

Incidentally, the recommended fix for this is to top up the battery using a trickle charger at regular intervals.

Certainly since we’ve been using our shiny new trickle charger the quirky problems that we had seen disappeared. And when I say ‘quirky’ I mean things like a random failure to charge (with no errors showing on the charger, it just happily ignored me); the car switching out of ready mode when the battery was under heavier than normal load (and flicking on a cheerful array of warning lights); and reporting “full” but not going into “Ready” mode on first try. Indeed, the owners group say that if you do start seeing utterly inexplicable random behavior – change the 12v battery – it’s one of the weakest points in the car. Still, with the 12v battery topped up and the car behaving perfectly, yesterday’s experience was one of those that no EV owner wants to have.

After a happy day of moving house we got to our new home, unloaded a few items and popped the car on charge. Only we didn’t. As we pulled the handle from its cradle on our battered old MagneCharge charger there was a brief but just about perceptible flicker of the error light. Slipping the paddle (it’s a J1773 paddle on these archaic machines) into the slot, the car said “hi”, but the charger sat blankly.

We had a scare with the charger too.

We had a scare with the charger too.

We’d had a similar incident the night before, but resetting the charger had proved to be enough. We unplugged the charger for a while having tried the test->reset buttons on the charger (another known failure point), but after several attempts I was forced to admit defeat.

Luckily, the next day (after wiggling the cable a bit) the charger jumped back into life. Thankfully too, we have a spare charger 15 miles away at our last house. We’ve also found a source for J1773 chargers, which is handy because these aren’t the kind of things that most stores carry off the shelf. Of course, this incident has made us more keen to install J1772 charging – something which may be coming to the first generation Rav4EV thanks to the work of a fantastically ingenious chap in Norway.  It won’t be cheap, but our home city is reasonably well equipped with J1772 chargers, and getting a new J1772 charger in a hurry is somewhat easier than the legacy J1773 charger on the Rav4EV currently.

So we’ll let you know how it goes. We’d been saving the ‘nicer’ MagneCharge for when we moved in to our house. It, unlike the somewhat battered one we’re replacing, is pretty shiny. But we’ve never tested it, so tomorrow if you hear weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth, you’ll know why.

What are your horror stories? Have you ever been so foolish as to lock your keys in a running vehicle? Let us know in the Comments below.


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