By on November 13, 2017

Image: 2002 Toyota RAV4 EVThe first-generation Toyota RAV4 arrived on the market at the beginning of the compact crossover boom. While almost all first-generation models had four cylinders under the hood, there were exceptions. If you were fortunate enough to live in the People’s Republic of California, you could pony up for the electric version and show all your neighbors how conscientious you were. But that’s only part of the story.

The rise and fall of the RAV4 EV is an interesting historical aside, because it shows you exactly what corporate treachery can do.

Image: 2002 Toyota RAV4 EVToyota’s idea was fairly simple, at least in the beginning: Develop an EV for sale in California to benefit from a MOA (memorandum of understanding) with the California Air Resources Board. The RAV4 EV became available back in 1997, but only via a fleet lease with a term of three years. Toyota did not develop the RAV4 EV with the intent of public sale.

This changed in 2001, when Toyota modified the leasing agreement, making the EV available to small business owners as a “fleet of one.”

Image: 2002 Toyota RAV4 EVBusiness lessees enjoyed the electric RAV4’s EPA gasoline-equivalent rating of 125 city, 100 highway. Top speed is limited to 85 miles per hour, with a driving range of 95 miles (remember, this is ’90s technology).

Image: 2002 Toyota RAV4 EVThe next year, Toyota flipped the policy once more, declaring that a small number of RAV4 EVs would be available for purchase by California consumers. The reason behind Toyota’s change of heart is a minor mystery, as the extent of the leasing program had already satisfied CARB’s requirements under the agreement.

Image: 2002 Toyota RAV4 EVA total of 328 RAV4 EVs were sold directly to consumers throughout 2002 and into 2003. Its base price of $42,000 was made more tempting by California government grants of $9,000 and an IRS tax credit of $4,000. Combined, these brought the price down to a more reasonable $29,000, which included an in-home charging unit.

Image: 2002 Toyota RAV4 EVTotal production figures for the RAV4 EV come to 1,484 units. Leased examples were re-sold to their original lessees, or distributed by dealers as used vehicles. But happy purchasers did not ensure the continuance of the RAV4 EV, as its fate had already been determined. Time for a short story.

Image: 2002 Toyota RAV4 EVThe RAV4 EV used a patented NiMH EV-95 battery. The very same (excellent, reliable) battery was found in GM’s EV pilot program in the early 1990s. Remember the EV-1?

GM purchased the patent from the original inventor in 1994 via a subsidiary (GM Ovonics), under the guise of use in the EV-1 vehicle. In 2001, Texaco purchased a controlling interest in GM Ovonics. Within months of this purchase, Texaco filed a patent infringement suit against Toyota’s battery supplier, Panasonic, winning a settlement of $30,000,000. Later in 2001, Chevron would ink a deal for a merger with Texaco in the amount of $100 billion. Now, ChevronTexaco held the veto power for licensing of the EV batteries.

In 2003, ChevronTexaco did a little rebranding, and turned the joint battery production venture between Texaco and Ovonics (which made battery systems) into Cobasys. As patent holder over the batteries, ChevronTexaco retained a right to seize all Cobasys’ intellectual property rights in the event that Ovonics did not fulfill contractual obligations. Meanwhile, though the NiMH batteries were commercially viable, Cobasys would only accept orders for over 10,000 units, effectively shutting out any individual or small-scale development of EV vehicles.

The net effect here prevented Toyota from ordering more batteries for its small fleet of RAV4 EVs (and killed other EV opportunities), and that’s why it’s dead. The clean example of pre-treachery EV you see here is for sale in Florida for $4,850.

[Images via eBay]

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28 Comments on “Rare Rides: A 2002 RAV4 Has a Dark Story to Tell...”


  • avatar
    saturnotaku

    RAV4 didn’t get the V6 engine option until the third generation in 2006.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    It’s sad that there isn’t an electric CUV for sale today, except for the unreachable Model X. I know they’re coming, but the range on this is on par with the 1st-gen EVs of 2011, like the Leaf.

    • 0 avatar
      28-Cars-Later

      Odd, how can that be?

      • 0 avatar
        TwoBelugas

        Makes sense though. Last I heard GM loses a lot of money (9k by Bloomberg estimate) on every Bolt, why would they cannibalize profitable CUV sales with money losers?

        https://www.wired.com/story/general-motors-electric-cars-plan-gm/

      • 0 avatar
        SCE to AUX

        @28: No doubt that mainstream mfrs are reluctant to lose money on EVs.

        Funny thing is, there are Tesla haters who predict the bigger mfrs will eat Tesla’s lunch someday, but I always point out that they’re not real eager to lose money on an EV program. Today, some mfrs are producing EVs because they *have* to, and a few must think they can eventually make money on them, but most don’t want to bother when they can print money with Camrys and F-150s.

        I actually do believe Tesla can become profitable, but it’s a long and painful road to get there. The Gigafactory doesn’t exist solely to provide battery volume; it’s there to reduce up-front costs and reduce costs via recycling old batteries. If it can’t meet the cost reduction promise, Tesla will sink. The massive effort being demonstrated by Tesla to make all these pieces work together is too much for other mfrs to even consider.

        So my original comment about how sad it is there isn’t another EV CUV is just because of the hot CUV market, not because it’s a slam dunk to provide a viable entrant.

    • 0 avatar
      gsnfan

      The current RAV4 is available as an EV. At least in California.

  • avatar
    brandloyalty

    Something like how GM bought street car companies in US cities in the 50’s and bankrupted them.

    • 0 avatar
      JohnTaurus

      Its too bad that American companies can’t be as ethical as the Germans or Asians.

    • 0 avatar
      bumpy ii

      It was the ’40s, streetcar companies were already bankrupt, and GM bought them for the operation rights and not the aged, nearly-worthless equipment.

    • 0 avatar
      Steve65

      I never could track the regulatory and financial intracacies. Before they failed most of the private streetcar operators were owned by electric utilties, who used them as essentially a captive market for their output and managed to be profitable that way. A change in the rules meant that stopped working, and that’s when the trolley system collapsed into a sea of red ink. (It may have been an antitrust law prohibiting that level of vertical integration)

      It’s a fascinating story. Far more so than the simplistic “GM shut down viable trolley systems to force people to buy cars” myth that’s so popular.

    • 0 avatar
      WildcatMatt

      “I bought the Red Car so I could dismantle it!”

  • avatar
    bullnuke

    Major oil companies Chevron and Texaco bought the patents for the miraculous electric RAV4 EV NiMH battery and locked ’em in the same secret drawer as the patents and prototype of that old 100 mpg carburetor from several years ago to keep everyone locked into evil gasoline and oil. BUWAHAHA!

  • avatar
    ajla

    Someone do a takedown on Honeywell.

  • avatar
    JohnTaurus

    Seller says it’ll go 300k on the batteries. Typical Toyota hype or is that claim valid?

    Aftermarket cruise doesn’t work, “possibly a fuse”. I love how *everything* that is inoperative on a used car is “probably a fuse” at fault, since, ya know, it is SO LABOR INTENSIVE to pull it out and look. Read it as: “probably an expensive repair that I don’t want to spend money on, so I’ll just pick the cheapest and easiest possible solution to throw out there to make you feel like its no big deal”.

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    These were not West Coast only EV’s. I used to see a few tooling around the NYC area. The were usually used by government agencies or utilities. This was when those concerns had mostly CNG fueled fleets.
    From what I heard they were fairly ok for use within the 5 boroughs considering there were the chargers were at the location of the offices. With more charging facilities throughout the region you could see one being practical for use here even with its 70 mile range.

  • avatar
    Scoutdude

    I know a lady who has one as part of her and her husband’s all electric fleet. The other cars are a Tesla Roadster and a Leaf.

  • avatar

    So great to see this. And frankly it is astonishing to read so much accurate information about the cars. Stuff that’s rarely reported correctly.

    I’m one of the original owners who still uses his 2002 Rav4EV as the daily driver. And even more info on the car can be found at EVnut.com – choose Rav4EV on the left side and have at it. Note that there will be some broken links as I’ve not been maintaining the site for a while. But the info I have up is accurate and timeless!

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