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

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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