Any forward thinker interested in buying an electric vehicle today is normally faced with two choices: Pick a generic people carrier with the driving excitement of a Radio Flyer from one of a handful of major manufacturers; or dredge the slush fund and hop on a waiting list for a conscience-clearing geek rocket from boutique brands like Tesla or Fisker. The dichotomy certainly simplifies the buying process, but it hasn’t helped this cutting edge technology’s mainstream aspirations in the slightest.

But what if parties from both sides of the electrified aisle came together to create a car that was practical, fun to drive, and not a source of perpetual aesthetic shame when parked in the driveway? Would that change the game for EVs? We ventured to the yuppie mecca of Napa, California to spend a sunny week with the second generation Toyota RAV4 EV, made in collaboration with Tesla, in search of answers to those very questions.

Find out what we discovered in this edition of Behind the Wheel after the break.

Technical Rundown

While this is technically the second time Toyota has released an electric version of the RAV4 (the first was produced in incredibly limited quantities from 1997-2001), calling the 2013 version the second generation is a bit misleading. This new iteration is instead the result of a relationship between two prominent leaders in the automotive industry, Toyota Motor Corp President Aikio Toyoda and CEO of Tesla Motors Elon Musk. As the story goes, the two decided both companies should develop a car together after meeting in the spring of 2010 — hopefully over a glass of 50-year old Yamazaki. Rather than enter the typical decade-long development process needed to launch most new cars, the dynamic duo selected the existing RAV4 platform as a starting point for warp-speed development.

The final product, produced in a blistering two-year period, is an all-electric SUV that looks very similar to today’s gas-powered RAV4s — with a few notable face lifts. An updated front grille and copious blue EV badging are purely cosmetic; other tweaks, like modified mirrors, underbody and roof spoiler, LED low beams and tail lamps, were included to reduce drag and power consumption and squeeze every last drop of driving range from the electric motor and battery.

Speaking of motors, the 2013 RAV4 EV uses the same AC induction motor found in the Tesla Model S, powered by a 41.8-kWh battery and paired with a different gear set. Together, they result in a peak power output of 115 kW (154 hp), producing 220 lb ft of torque in normal mode, or up to 270 lb ft in sport.

Interior changes in this gas abstainer are far more noticeable, starting with the instrument panel, shifter (which is borrowed from the Prius line), climate controls and infotainment screens. While the revised cabin succeeds in providing a sci-fi vibe, certain elements, like the absence of tactile inputs for nav, music and apps, as well as a reliance on capacitive touch switches for climate controls, proved an annoyance. That said, most touch-screen based car systems we encounter have a fairly steep learning-curve and we’re sure things would get easier with time. Yelling “Captain Picard!” to the RAV4 still won’t work anytime soon.

The revised instrument panel, dominated by an 8-inch color display, on the other hand, provides plenty of useful information at a glance: current speed, nav directions, vehicle settings and what’s playing on the stereo. More importantly, though, is the “miles to empty” readout, which shows the car’s maximum range information in two digestible metrics. One indicates the miles available given your current driving style and climate control settings (yes, blasting the A/C like Biggie after a music video sips extra battery power), while the other indicates the maximum possible range when driving in the ideal power-saving conditions — i.e., leaving cabin comfort up to mother nature and your lead foot at home. After setting whether you’re headed one way or making a round trip, these two ranges can also be displayed as shaded circles on the main navigation map in the center console. The external dial glows blue in normal mode and switches to red in sport, which you’re likely to see far more often if you drive anything like we do.

The Drive

The shift from traditional internal combustion engine to EV is always disorienting. It’s the lack of engine noise that first puts your instincts on alert. Then there’s the gut-checking pull of the torquey electric motor, amplifying the sense of quickness right off the line. These feelings were somewhat familiar based on our drives with other EVs, but experiencing it in an compact SUV was still eye opening.

The external dial glows blue in normal mode and switches to red in sport, which you’re likely to see far more often if you drive anything like we do.

Our grin started the moment we pulled out of the parking lot and heard the turbo-like whine of the motor. Normal mode tops off at a solid 85 mph while reaching 0-60 in 8.5 seconds, and provided a more than comfortable experience for our quick jaunts around Napa’s quaint towns. The handling won’t impress roadster regulars, but the extra 375 pounds of weight and distributed design of the electric powertrain does create a noticeably lower center of gravity — there’s a surprisingly poised feel in the driver’s seat. Combined with the car’s outstanding 100-plus EPA rating, which works out to an equivalent of 78 miles per gallon, the RAV4 has all of the trappings of an ideal city commuter — especially when you consider that fold-down rear seats provide 73 cubic feet of cargo space, matching its gas-powered sibling.

Switching to sport mode via a button on the center console reveals another, entirely different side to the vehicle. An extra 55 ft-lbs of torque are suddenly at the driver’s disposal, and max speed becomes a criminal 100 mph. The result is a tenacious SUV that betrays the emasculating feel of its Prius egg shifter, rewarding firm stomps on the gas right pedal with a somewhat satisfying surge in speed. Changing from D to B piles on the driving fun and adds transparency to the EV’s blended braking, which normally relies on regenerative brakes until the vehicle exceeds their stopping capacity. Of course, these boosts in spunk come at the expense of efficiency; this is made blatantly apparent through the red glow of the dash and shrinking range circles on the nav. Though our time in the RAV4 EV proved that days of having to choose between drivability and a lighter carbon footprint were coming to an end, it’s still not a miracle worker.

Still, the RAV4 is easily the most encouraging EV we’ve driven to date. Sure, it lacks the sex appeal of Teslas — but a future where EVs remain a luxury product, limited by their price or availability, doesn’t sound like much of a future to us at all. Unfortunately, as with any sudden leap past the cutting-edge, it’s not ready for primetime just yet. That’s because even with roughly $10,000 of federal and state tax subsidies, consumers will still pay about $40,000 to take one home, compared to a cool $22,650 for its internal combustion twin.

Then there’s the ever-present elephant in the driveway of charging. Outside of rare pockets in California, buyers will likely only recharge in their own garage, which takes at least 5 hours when connected to a powerful 40 amp/240 volt outlet. That’ll cost you an additional $1,500 to have installed in your home. It’s a notable added cost for sure, but considering the 44-hour juicing time on a run-of-the-mill socket and basic household current, it’s not something we’d recommend skimping on. Subsequently, Toyota opted for an ultra-conservative approach with its latest EV production experiment, producing a mere 2,600 RAV4 EVS, predominantly for California residents, though a few may escape to other EV-encouraging states.

But it is easily the most encouraging EV we’ve driven to date. Sure, it lacks the sex appeal of Teslas — but a future where EV’s remain a luxury product, limited by their price or availability — doesn’t sound like much of a future to us at all.

Final Impressions

Just as it did with the hybrid category over a decade ago, Toyota has proven with the RAV4 EV that making a cutting-edge vehicle that’s both practical and fuel efficient is not only plausible, but totally possible. The fact that the RAV4 EV is still largely a lab experiment is disappointing, but given the infrastructure requirements still needed to really push electric vehicles into the mainstream, we can’t blame Toyota for not betting the farm just yet. Internal combustion cars aren’t going away anytime soon, but when their show finally does end, at least now we know that the driving experience doesn’t have to be completely anemic and can even, at times, provide a bit of excitement.

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