Toyota and Tesla Motors are going back to the future to update the RAV4 EV, essentially resurrecting an excellent electric vehicle the Japanese company killed seven years ago.
The two companies announced today that they will develop the vehicle with a goal of producing it in 2012, bringing cheers from EV advocates thrilled by the return of a vehicle they adore. It’s a brilliant move for everyone involved. Toyota, which has so far been lukewarm about EVs, gets something on the road quickly and cheaply. And Tesla gets its drivetrain in more vehicles.
“Basically, for a net investment of $8 million, Toyota has gotten itself a ready-made EV program,” said Aaron Bragman, an auto industry analyst for IHS Global Insight. “Toyota is behind the ball when it comes to fully electric vehicles. This is them playing some serious catch-up and doing it for relatively little investment.”
Both companies also get some good PR when they need it. Toyota’s been hit by yet another round of recalls, and Tesla’s stock price fell below its initial offering price earlier this month. The company’s stock rose almost 4 percent today on the announcement.
The Japanese giant took the Silicon Valley upstart under its wing in May when it gave Tesla the New United Motor Manufacturing factory for $42 million and agreed to buy $50 million in stock when Tesla went public. They said from the start that we’d see an electric vehicle born of the marriage, but neither side is breaking new ground here.
Toyota is essentially updating an electric vehicle it built in limited numbers between 1997 and 2003. The vehicle featured a 27.4-kilowatt-hour nickel-metal hydride battery that recharges in 5 hours at 240 volts. Toyota leased RAV4 EVs to utilities, businesses and cities through 2002 and sold 328 of them to private citizens in 2003. Unlike other automakers (cough GM cough Honda), Toyota didn’t crush the cars at the end of its EV program, and most are still on the road.
“I’m still getting 120 miles of range,” said Paul Scott, a founder of the advocacy group Plug-In America. He bought his in September 2003. “It still runs exactly the same as the day I bought it. There’s no degradation of the battery, no variation in the performance. It just runs.”
Scott, like other EV advocates, couldn’t be more excited to see the RAV4 EV return. The current generation RAV (pictured above) is roomier and more nicely appointed than the model Toyota electrified 13 years ago (pictured below), and using a lithium-ion battery should boost performance.
“Toyota did a great job with the original, and the new RAV4 will be even better,” he said.
Neither Tesla or Toyota offered any specs for the next-gen EV. But a small electric SUV makes a lot of sense because it provides more practicality than a compact.
“It will have a wider appeal than many EVs that will be on the market,” Bragman said. “This is one of the things GM is thinking of with a crossover utility vehicle version of the Volt. This is what the next level will be.”
As for Tesla’s role in all of this, Toyota says “prototypes will be made combining the Toyota RAV4 model with a Tesla electric powertrain. Tesla plans to produce and deliver a fleet of prototypes to Toyota for evaluation within this year.” In other words, there’s no guarantee Tesla drivetrains will appear in production models. It’s similar to Tesla’s work with Daimler, which used Tesla batteries in the Smart ForTwo Electric drive prototypes but will use its own packs in production models slated for 2012.
“The RAV4 may be a reality in 2 to 3 years, but only if Toyota puts a lot more than their initial $50 million behind it,” said Mike Omotoso, an analyst with J.D. Power and Associates. “Tesla is not financially self-sufficient and will need more money to build a RAV4 and/or Model S.”
Toyota’s investment in Tesla gives the Japanese company a peek at some excellent technology and helps put Toyota’s EV program on a fast track quickly and cheaply. But to suggest, as many have, that Tesla is Toyota’s electric savior is ludicrous. Toyota dominates the hybrid market, so it clearly knows how how to build batteries and motors that work.
What’s more, the original RAV4 was, and remains, an impressive vehicle. Toyota could slap the original’s electric drivetrain in the current RAV4 and have a competitive EV. That’s a testament to the original’s technology and Toyota’s EV expertise.
UPDATED 4:10 p.m. Eastern.
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Toyota built the RAV4 EV from 1997 until 2003, and most of them are still going strong. The cars are such solid performers and so highly sought after that they would routinely command prices of $40,000 to $50,000 on those rare occasions someone sells one.