The cheapest Tesla you can buy is a 2013 Toyota RAV4 EV

Tesla cars are supercool—and superexpensive. But there’s actually a Tesla-powered car that’s noticeably less expensive—if still not really cheap—and it’s called the 2013 Toyota RAV4 EV. Yes, Toyota took its popular small SUV and outfitted it with a Tesla-built battery and all-electric drivetrain.

Toyota
The RAV4 EV has more interior room for people and stuff than any other electric car currently available.

An electric car this roomy and practical should catch the eye of people who didn’t think they could fit their life into the smaller-sized competition. But there are two caveats: One, the RAV4 EV starts at just under $50,000—compared to a starting price of $23,300 for the non-electric Toyota RAV4. Also,its range on a full charge hovers around 100 miles—competitive with smaller all-electrics, but disappointing for the road trips this roomy car seems to invite. Given that Tesla demonstrates its swappable battery tomorrow, wouldn’t it be nice if this cousin could also enjoy that service? Dream on, but don’t hold your breath.

Designed to save battery life

For what it’s worth, Toyota has made some extra effort to boost the car’s electric power. The company designed a longer rear spoiler and special side-view mirrors for the SUV, to improve aerodynamics. The car also comes equipped with power-saving tools for the driver, including two different climate eco modes and two different drive modes (“Normal,” which has a maximum speed of 85 mph, and “Sport,” which has a maximum speed of 100 mph).

Melissa Riofrio
Two different climate modes are one way that Toyota helps the RAV4 EV conserve battery power.

A special “Eco Coach” for the driver shows an overall driving score (out of 100) along with a breakdown of how the driver is doing at acceleration, speed, and braking. Unfortunately. it doesn’t give information on how your driving directly affects the car’s power.

A high-tech interior

The cabin has multiple screens, including three that make up the all-digital instrument cluster. The instrument cluster screens consist of a range meter (think of it as your gas gauge), a speedometer/odometer, and a customizable screen that shows various modes (Eco Coach, Trip Efficiency, etc).

Toyota
The instrument cluster has a range meter and a central display that glows red or blue depending upon your driving mode.

The 8-inch touchscreen on the console is where you’ll find the car’s infotainment features, such as media, apps, phone connectivity, navigation, and EV information. The display can be partially controlled by voice commands and steering wheel buttons, in case you don’t want to take your eyes off the road.

If you want to talk to your car, you can tap the voice-recognition button on the steering wheel and say a command. Voice recognition on the RAV4 EV is quite responsive—I’d say it’s just below Audi’s excellent voice recognition system, and far above Ford’s. The car understands most of what you say (though it did mistake “Home Goods” for “Pizza” on more than one occasion).

Sarah Jacobsson Purewal
The 8-inch display in the center dash controls all infotainment features.

As a touchscreen, the navigation screen is responsive and easy to use. A single, physical button under the screen takes you to the home screen when pressed—Apple users will feel right at home.

Sarah Jacobsson Purewal
The apps include Toyota Entune, Bing search, and iHeartRadio. All require using your phone’s data plan.

To use certain features, such as apps via Toyota Entune, you’ll need to connect your phone and use its data plan. Apps include Bing Internet search, iHeartRadio streaming music, and OpenTable restaurant reservations. On the RAV4 EV, you can also use an app that shows you charging stations based on your car’s location.

Sarah Jacobsson Purewal
The charging-station app shows places to charge near your current location.

Volume controls are sparser than they should be

My only issue with the controls: volume. First of all, the car lacks physical volume controls. In order to change the volume, you must tap the upper left corner of the navigation screen and then use the on-screen slider. The physical volume controls on the steering wheel may suffice for the driver, but not the passenger. Also, the car doesn’t automatically dim music volume when it gives directions.

Toyota
The climate controls include a small non-touchscreen display and impressively responsive touch-sensitive buttons.

The RAV4 EV has one more screen: a small, full-color one, below the main navigation screen. Similar to what we saw in the Toyota Avalon, it displays the car’s climate settings and has touch-sensitive buttons. These were impressively easy to find and tap, and ultra-sensitive, so they worked better than I thought they would.

A car you buy for love, not money

The 2013 Toyota RAV4 EV is an interesting car: It’s high-tech on the inside, family-crossover-SUV on the outside, and…really expensive for a second vehicle.

Toyota
The RAV4 EV is the roomiest all-electric currently available, but its limited range means it’s best for short jaunts around town, not road trips.

One of the supposed paybacks for hybrid or electric vehicles is the gas expense you’ll save over time. Given the RAV4 EV’s limited range, you’d have to work hard—really hard—to rack up enough miles to get your return on investment. The 2013 RAV4 EV is not a car you buy because it makes economic sense. It’s a car you buy because you care about the environment—and need to haul a lot of stuff around town.

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