Rare Rides: A 2002 RAV4 Has a Dark Story to Tell

Corey Lewis
by Corey Lewis

The 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.

Toyota’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.”

Business 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).

The 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.

A 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.

Total 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.

The 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]

Corey Lewis
Corey Lewis

Interested in lots of cars and their various historical contexts. Started writing articles for TTAC in late 2016, when my first posts were QOTDs. From there I started a few new series like Rare Rides, Buy/Drive/Burn, Abandoned History, and most recently Rare Rides Icons. Operating from a home base in Cincinnati, Ohio, a relative auto journalist dead zone. Many of my articles are prompted by something I'll see on social media that sparks my interest and causes me to research. Finding articles and information from the early days of the internet and beyond that covers the little details lost to time: trim packages, color and wheel choices, interior fabrics. Beyond those, I'm fascinated by automotive industry experiments, both failures and successes. Lately I've taken an interest in AI, and generating "what if" type images for car models long dead. Reincarnating a modern Toyota Paseo, Lincoln Mark IX, or Isuzu Trooper through a text prompt is fun. Fun to post them on Twitter too, and watch people overreact. To that end, the social media I use most is Twitter, @CoreyLewis86. I also contribute pieces for Forbes Wheels and Forbes Home.

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3 of 28 comments
  • Scoutdude Scoutdude on Nov 14, 2017

    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.

  • Evnut Evnut on Nov 14, 2017

    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!

  • El scotto I look forward to watching MTG and Tommy Tuberville when the UAW comes to their states.
  • El scotto Vehicle company white collar (non-union) engineers design the parts and assembly procedures. The UAW members are instructed on how to install the parts. Engineers are also in charge of quality control. The executives are ulimately responible for the quality of their products.
  • Chris P Bacon I don't care either way, the employees have the right to organize, and I'm never going to buy a VW. But.... It would be interesting if the media (HINT HINT) would be able to provide a detailed look at what (if anything) the VW workers gain by unionizing. There will be dues to pay. How much? I bet the current policies, pay and benefits mirror other auto companies. When all is said and done an the first contract signed, my money is on the UAW to be he only ones who really come out ahead. That leads into my next comment. Once a union is voted onto the property, it is almost impossible to get rid of them. Even if the membership feels the union doesn't have their best interests in mind, the hurdles to get rid of them are too high. There were a lot of promises made by the UAW, even if they don't deliver, they'll be in Chattanooga even if the membership decides they made a mistake.
  • 1995 SC How bout those steel tariffs. Wonder if everyone falls into the same camp with respect to supporting/opposing them as they did on the auto tariffs a few weeks ago. Doubt it. Wonder Why that would be?
  • Lorenzo Nice going! They eliminated the "5" numbers on the speedometer so they could get it to read up to 180 mph. The speed limit is 65? You have to guess one quarter of the needle distance between 60 and 80. Virtually every state has 55, 65, and 75 mph speed limits, not to mention urban areas where 25, 35, and 45 mph limits are common. All that guesswork to display a maximum speed the driver will never reach.