2012 Toyota RAV4 EV Prototype: First Drive

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Just a year ago, seeing the 'RAV4, Powered by Tesla' startup greeting would have been almost unthinkable.

Yet last May, Toyota and Tesla inked a deal that took the industry by surprise—and left a lot of observers scratching their heads. And nearly eleven months since that deal—and nine months since it was announced that Tesla would be powering an all-new RAV4 EV, last July—the agreement makes a lot more sense.

Through one of the first projects in this agreement, Tesla was to provide the battery, motor system, and all the core powertrain components; Toyota would integrate the powertrain with the rest of the vehicle and apply its tuning expertise and manufacturing know-how to the setup.

It's already here, and it all works. In an industry where vehicle development takes three to five years, and advanced powertrains can take far longer, the project has proceeded at a Tesla-like speed. Last November, at the Los Angeles auto show, Toyota gave the first glimpse of the RAV4 EV—in its so-called Phase Zero stage—then this February Tesla completed its first delivery of 31 Phase Zero vehicles, destined for fleet testing.

Why the RAV4? Although Toyota wouldn't say exactly, we think it's because the move is something like GM bringing back its mythical EV1. About a decade ago, Toyota outfitted some of its RAV4 vehicles from that era up to 2003 with a motor system and battery (then nickel-metal hydride). Most RAV4 EV owners, unlike those of other test EVs of that era, were allowed to keep their vehicles, and they've become central conversation points in the EV community over the years.

An EV conversion, but one done right

Technically, though, the RAV4 EV isn't a new vehicle—or a freshly engineered one. It's a conversion. For each of these Phase Zero RAV4 EVs, the project team starts with a stock RAV4 V6 Sport, with the Sport Appearance Package—yes, the one without the tire hanging on the hatch—then removes all of the powertrain and fuel-system components, and performs a full conversion.

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