Toyota turned to Tesla to help it develop the battery version of the RAV4.

No automaker has done a better job of surrounding itself with a green halo than Toyota.  Its Prius model has routinely generated half of all hybrid sales, a number now approaching two-thirds since the introduction of an entirely new Prius “family,” including the big V, compact C and the Prius plug-in.

The latter model was the first from the Japanese maker to opt for state-of-the-art lithium-ion batteries, rather than time-tested, if less powerful, nickel-metal hydride batteries. After running into some early development problems, Toyota has been reluctant to go with more advanced lithium – which partially explains why the Asian giant decided to reach outside for help when it laid out plans for its first pure battery-electric vehicle in two decades, the 2012 Toyota RAV4-EV.

The project pairs Toyota with Tesla Motors, the bold California start-up that just introduced its own new battery-electric vehicle, or BEV, the Model S sedan.  In fact, they share many of the same underlying components – which is why the 2012 Toyota RAV4-EV is likely to shock those used to the typically slow-as-a-snail battery car.

The new Toyota battery car boasts great performance, and good range and handling – but echoes other recent entries from the Japanese maker by cutting corners on interior fit-and-finish.  And the new RAV4-EV introduces what may be the singularly most user-unfriendly infotainment system since the very first BMW iDrive hit the road.

The Toyota RAV4-EV underwent extensive exterior changes to improve aerodynamics.

We headed to Southern California to spend a day with the 2012 RAV4-EV and here’s what we discovered.

The overall look is familiar, though Toyota designers have made a number of changes to the popular crossover to enhance its aerodynamics.  That’s no small matter as cheating the wind is one of the easiest and most effective ways to enhance range – which we’ll discuss shortly.

Among the many aero modifications, the 2013 Toyota RAV4-EV has an all but completely sealed underbody, gets new bumpers, a revised grille, headlamps, new Daytime Running Lights and a larger rear spoiler.  There’s also a big, blue EV badge on the nose.  To our eyes, the changes make the battery-powered version of the RAV look a bit more like an oversized Prius – albeit more ungainly than the gas-powered crossover.

The RAV4-EV's lamentable infotainment system looks good until you try to operate it.

Inside, well, that’s where we really were disappointed.  Toyota has adopted a quirky recyclable fabric design that appealed to some of our colleagues, disappointed others.  But the real letdown was the decision to stick with the same cheap plastic panels found on the standard RAV-4.  This is where Toyota has really slipped in recent years.  The hard and cheap-looking materials on the door and instrument panel certainly don’t support the $49,800 sticker price.

Yet overshadowing the K-Mart finish is the large touchscreen display topping the center stack.  Toyota engineers proudly boasted that they were influenced by the Apple iPhone.  What they came up with is the least functional infotainment system we have seen in years.  There is just one “Home” button – which means tuning the radio or even adjusting volume is awkward and surprisingly distracting.  Finding a channel not preprogrammed requires you to glance off the road for a dangerously long time.  And even the iPhone has separate volume buttons.

A special Lutron 30A charger can recharge the RAV4-EV in as little as 4 to 5 hours.

It’s a good thing the driving experience proved so good or we might have turned thumbs down on the 2012 RAV4-EV even before we got out of the hotel parking lot.  But here’s where the battery crossover shines – largely thanks to Tesla.

While the start-up and Toyota worked quite closely together since announcing the program in mid-2010, Tesla played lead on the driveline side.  There are modest changes to the hardware but essentially what you’re getting is the Model S powertrain.  In the RAV4-EV that translates into 154 horsepower and 273 lb-ft of torque.  That might seem lame compared to the 259 horsepower made by the V-6 RAV4 yet the battery-ute pretty much matches or even exceeds its performance, with 0 to 60 times rated at around 7 seconds.

The 2013 Toyota RAV4-EV combines battery power with a spacious interior.

One should recall that, as with a diesel, it’s the torque, here, that matters, and electric motors churn out maximum lb-ft the moment they start turning.  The difference between the 2012 Toyota RAV4-EV and many other new battery cars is that its acceleration curve doesn’t begin the taper off at 30 mph or so.  It keeps pulling and pulling – right up to an 85 mph top speed in standard mode and 100 mph in sport.

Backing up that performance is an 845-pound package of lithium-ion batteries producing a maximum usable 41.8 kilowatt-hours of juice.  Toyota has taken the unusual step of letting an owner choose from two charging modes: a standard-range mode and an extended-range mode.  The latter will yield perhaps 20 more miles but could diminish the life of those batteries a little more quickly.  And it’s important to note that while Toyota offers an 8-year/100,000-mile warranty on the pack that does not cover battery range degradation.

Tesla oversaw the development of the 2013 Toyota RAV4-EV powertrain.

How far can you go? Because of the way the EPA calculates range Toyota officials lament they’ll likely get “just” a 103-mile number, by their preliminary estimation.  They insist they have regularly seen something closer to 170 miles in extended mode.

Of course, that depends on how you drive – you can watch the estimated range readout drop fast when your foot is to the floor on the freeway – and how much you use the heater or air conditioner.  Electric heat, in particular, is an energy hog, which is why the Toyota RAV4-EV includes an oversized seat heater.  The maker would like owners to dial down the heat and use that instead.

Beyond the satisfying pull of the RAV4-EV’s Tesla-made driveline, the overall ride and handling of the battery-ute is satisfying and again familiar to those who’ve experienced the conventional Toyota RAV4. The steering is a bit numb but responsive.  The chassis is poised, though you will occasionally feel a bit of torque steer, especially if the wheel is pointed at an angle during a hard launch.

Toyota only plans to sell 2,600 of the RAV4-EVs over the next 3 years.

Considering the heft of the battery pack it has relatively little impact on handling.  All-in-all, the RAV4-EV actually weighs in at 4,032 pounds, only about 375 more than the V-6 version. And Toyota and Tesla engineers maintained a good center of gravity by mounting the D-cell-shaped batteries within the ute’s modified load floor – the same approach used in the sporty Tesla Model S.

As earlier noted, the 2012 RAV4-EV will set you back $49,800.  But you should also qualify for $7,500 in federal tax credits and if you live in California you can add in another $2,500 in state incentives.  (Toyota officially plans to sell the RAV4-EV only in the Golden State but has indicated it will consider expanding into other markets over the next several years.) Add another $1,590 for the Leviton 30-amp charging system and whatever it will cost to install it.

The new Toyota EV badge.

By comparison the similarly equipped RAV4 V-6 goes for $29,460.  Is it worth the premium?  If you’re just looking at saving money on gas you’d probably have a hard time making the numbers work unless you plan to keep the Toyota RAV4-EV for quite a few years – though the maker expects to have a strong appeal to true believers who put a lot of value in the simple act of going “green.”

Nonetheless, Toyota’s ambitions for the 2012 RAV4-EV are modest, the Japanese maker’s contract with Tesla calling for the production of only 2,600 of the battery-utes.  Think of it more as a learning experience likely to influence the next generation of Toyota electric vehicles.

If the maker can continue to deliver this sort of performance we’ll be waiting to see what’s next.  Just, please, lose that awful infotainment system and put a few bucks back into the interior.

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