2002 Toyota RAV4 EV Staff Car Update: Sparkie Lives Again!

As regular readers to Transport Evolved will know, we not only believe in covering the latest in cleaner, greener, safer and smarter transportation but also living by example wherever possible, filling our own personal garages with cleaner, greener, safer and smarter cars.

Towing our heavy RAV4 EV with a Ford F250 was an experience in itself.

Towing our heavy RAV4 EV with a Ford F250 was an experience in itself.

While our bank accounts prevent us from affording the latest and greatest Tesla to put through its paces, our fleet of staff-owned cars have included a selection of cars over the years, most of which are some form of battery electric vehicle. Some of them — like the two Nissan LEAFs — are relatively new cars. Others, like our two (now vintage) 2002 Toyota RAV4 EVs are examples of electric cars made long before cars like the Tesla Model S and Nissan LEAF were even being planned.

The new pack was given a full service before installation.

The new pack was given a full service before installation.

Why? Well, aside from our penchant for classic cars, we’re curious to see what life with a previous-generation electric car is really like. Is it possible to own a fifteen-year old electric car as a daily driver? And what is it like owning an electric car that requires some extra TLC?

While our Washingtonian Toyota RAV4 EV — belonging to the Walton-Elliott household — came with a recently-replaced battery pack, ‘Sparkie,’ the Oregonian Gordon-Bloomfield Toyota RAV4 EV hasn’t been particularly healthy since we adopted her back in March this year. Gifted to us as a non-runner, we promised her former owners that we’d bring her back to life and get her back on the road for another 15 years of fun.

As we covered back in August, Sparkie’s battery pack had pretty much died by the time summer began, and we found ourselves taking some time out to find a replacement pack. Back then, armed with a hired pickup truck that cost about the same in gasoline per mile driven as a full-charge of Sparkie’s when-new 95-mile EPA approved range, we towed Sparkie off to a secret location in deepest Oregon to have a new pack fitted.

Since then, we’ve been playing a waiting game. While Sparkie’s replacement battery pack was more than happy to come back to life, it turned out that some of her original low-voltage battery sensing wiring loom had sustained damage in the past and wasn’t giving accurate readings. This meant that despite the best will in the world, some of the battery modules just weren’t charging as they should.

More waiting ensued, but late on Saturday last week we got the call we’d been waiting for: Sparkie, armed with a used, good-quality NiMH battery pack of low-resistance cells, was ready to come home.

We've just put a new set of Nokian WRG3 SUV tires on.

We’ve just put a new set of Nokian WRG3 SUV tires on.

Picking up our Japanese SUV, we were warned that the battery pack wasn’t quite balanced yet and asked to drive Sparkie very gently and carefully for the first few weeks, ensuring that each of the batteries that make up the car’s 27.4 kWh battery pack did not fall much below 12.5 volts in general use. That, we were told, would equate to only driving 20 or 30 miles maximum, at least initially.

The reason? Short trips and gentle use would help the car balance its battery pack. Combined with purposeful low-load discharges (where the battery pack is ran empty by leaving it switched on in the garage with the heater turned on), we were told the pack would gently condition itself and be ready to drive far longer ranges.

You see, while pretty much every battery technology out there doesn’t like to stay discharged for long (and can actually destroy itself if left for extended periods of time in this state) NiMH battery technology can enter long-term storage for months or years in a discharged state. When re-entering service however, it must be carefully awoken through gradual discharge and charge cycles before it can really be used in anger.

And that’s where we are right now. With Sparkie’s battery pack slowly waking up, we’re gradually increasing the number of miles we drive per charge, discharging the car fully every night using a low-current drain in order to get the cells as close to each other in voltage as possible. With every drive too, we’re starting to see and feel the same kind of performance and driving experience we did back in 2007 when driving a Toyota RAV4 EV for the very first time.

Brakes are on our list of jobs to complete.

Brakes are on our list of jobs to complete.

Don’t think that we’re done, either: at the moment, we’ve got several pages of improvements and service items that need attention on Sparkie. Near the top is a new set of front brake pads and rotors, which we’ll cover in our next Staff Car Update.

In the meantime, let us know what you think of our classic electric car. Would you want to own an electric car this old? Do classic electric cars still serve a purpose in the modern world of Teslas and Chevrolet Bolt EVs? Or are we just clinging to a past that will ultimately cost us time and money?

Leave your thoughts in the Comments below.

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  • Martin Lacey

    Thanks Nikki for an interesting article. It may benefit others who might want to own a piece of EV history if you could include costs and availability of parts and other such detail for a more complete picture.

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