Slipping behind the wheel of any development vehicle is always an occasion of note. In the case of our early drive in the Toyota RAV4 EV, it almost qualifies as a minor miracle given the incredibly compressed time schedule that brought it to this point. Our admittedly limited initial encounter with the automaker's nascent plug-in battery electric model wasn't the longest or the most intensive on record. And the advisory caveats regarding changes we'll see on the subsequent production variant were nearly as numerous as the specifics provided about what's in this fleet of early-build mules that were hand-assembled in the Northern California plant formerly known as NUMMI -- currently the facility owned by Toyota Motor Corporation's technical partner in this groundbreaking program, Tesla Motors. Those qualifications aside, the experience provided a number of enlightening insights regarding the nature of what's to come for this plug-in people mover.

Since announcing their high-profile joint venture in this ambitious program last summer, the two have been engaged in a Herculean collaborative effort to turn out a fleet of 35 of what Toyota is referring to as "Phase Zero" RAV4 EV prototypes in roughly 120 days. Four are headed to the show circuit but the remaining 31 have now entered into a real-world evaluation regimen. Last week, during the annual Toyota Sustainable Mobility Seminar in La Jolla, California, we became part of the first group of outsiders to actually take to the streets -- if not to the freeways -- in a pair of these admittedly "in-process" RAV4 EVs and experience the look and feel of what's due to hit the showrooms sometime in 2012.

Executive Program Manager for the Toyota Technical Center, Sheldon Brown, characterized this initial batch of RAV4 EV evaluators as "sophisticated proof of concept vehicles." Spun from a standard RAV4 V6, these units that have the basic appearance of the production EV models and will serve as "representative performance specification vehicles that reflect our expectations for acceleration and range." To that end, the motors, lithium-ion battery packs and controller electrics fitted are all Tesla sourced -- as they will be for the production RAV4 EV -- but are not the same components that will appear in subsequent volume-build models which will be based on a purpose-modified EV variation of the current-generation RAV4 platform.

Brown indicated that the motor and battery (which will retain the same type of "commodity-cell" basic structure as the existing Tesla pack) as well as the controller hardware/software will be specially Toyota-tailored iterations of designs now being engineered by Tesla for use in its own Model S sedan, which is also due out in 2012. "A lot of this effort is aimed at validating our targets so that we'll actually have some empirical evidence to support our primary goals. As we're building the concept, we're also directly applying what we're learning to the 'Phase One' production package."

The mule motor in these Phase Zero vehicles produces 150 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque in this installation, output figures Toyota says should let the RAV4 EV run from 0-60 mph in about 9.0 seconds. With all of its torque available from one rpm, the front-drive RAV4 EV feels decidedly V6-like during the 0-30 mph part of its launch sprint. While somewhat coy about total capacity, Toyota says the battery pack used in these prototypes -- actually two battery packs, each liquid-cooled and mounted transversely beneath the front and rear seats -- hold a "usable" 37kWh of electricity. It claims that's sufficient to give these 1,788kg early-build variants as well as their production successors a real-world range of 80-120 miles under normal driving/atmospheric conditions. Currently recharge times using the 3.3kW on-board charger run about 28 hours on a standard 120V outlet and 12 hours on a 240V line. However, those intervals are due to plummet rather dramatically on the final production packs -- which will be optimized for the higher-power (240V) Level II replenishment regimen.

While range-extending regenerative braking will be part of the series-build RAV4 EV package, its operational character is destined to be far more like the Prius Plug-in than the overtly aggressive setup on these prototypes, which is the same as the current Tesla Roadster. Ditto the ABS and traction control systems, neither of which was operational at this stage of the development game. Although the additional 200+ pounds of EV hardware required a move to slightly stiffer springs, the overall ride quality displayed little compromise and the optimal positioning of that extra mass actually improves front/rear weight bias over a conventional RAV4.

Visually, the exterior design tweaks on the Phase Zero RAV4 EV closely approximate what you'll find on the upcoming production model. The sleeker front fascia treatment alone reportedly improves the coefficient of drag by a modest but meaningful 0.2 count, and at some point may also see duty on gasoline-powered RAV4 models. Additional aero cleanup touches also are in the works, specifically aimed at tidying up the wheelwell and underbody areas. While the same 17-inch alloy wheels used here will transfer to the "Phase One" versions of the RAV4 EV, they'll be wrapped in an even more efficient strain of 225/65 low-rolling resistance tires.

Inside, the overall look and functionality of the RAV4 EV's passenger cabin will be largely remain standard RAV4 -- including the same 73 cu-ft of maximum cargo space. What is destined to change is the design of its largely standard RAV4 main instrument cluster and the configuration of its button-style transmission selector array that comes straight from the Tesla Roadster.  Here, too, expect the alternative treatments to have a more defined "Toyota Tech" appearance, ala the Prius Plug-in Hybrid model.

No word as yet regarding estimated pricing and eMPG numbers on the Toyota RAV4 EV. However, the automaker indicated those figures will be "competitive" with other electric-powered rivals when it does go on sale during the first half of next year.

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