223 Miles in Toyota's Tesla-Based SUV

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Let's say you want a Tesla ( TSLA). However, you want it to be an SUV. Also, you want it for half the price of a Tesla.

Luckily, if you live in California, Toyota ( TM) has answered your prayers. It has brought to the California market a Tesla-based SUV for half the price of the entry-level Tesla, and I drove 223 miles in it over a few days.

You can have the base Tesla for as little as $71,000. Toyota sells its SUV version with a similar Tesla electric motor and a smaller battery for $51,000. However, unlike Tesla, it offers a $9,300 discount. Both cars are eligible for $10,000 in tax incentives for Californians.

That means the Toyota can be had for $32,000 before sales tax, compared to $61,000 for the Tesla Model S -- approximately half the price. Obviously, Tesla's average selling price is much higher than $61,000 given plenty of options available, with a potential for over $110,000. The Toyota's only options are a choice of three colors.

In the Toyota, the Tesla electric motor has been moved from the back of the car to the front. The battery sits under the floor, and you can choose to charge it to 35 kWh or 41.8 kWh. Over a variety of conditions, including the cold/warm seasons, you should expect to average almost three miles per kWh for a typical range of 95 to 115 miles.

The Toyota RAV4 EV occupies a unique space in the plug-in car market today. There is nothing like it, and there may never be. What do I mean by that?

On the one hand, we have cars such as General Motors' ( GM) Chevy Volt, Ford's ( F) Focus Electric and the Fiat 500e. They are adequately fast but they are all very noticeably slower than the Tesla-based Toyota RAV4 EV. They also have smaller interior space.

On the other hand, we have the Tesla Model S. It is blisteringly fast, 0-60 miles per hour in 4.4 seconds. In contrast, the Tesla-based Toyota can't match it to the millimeter.

However, the Toyota feels faster than the Tesla Model S, in an old-world sense of the experience. A key reason for this: the tires. Whereas the Tesla Model S rides on wide, low-profile tires, the Toyota has very regular -- and dramatically less expensive -- narrow SUV highway tires.

This means that when you drive the Toyota, you do burnouts all the time. Driving the car up the steepest streets in San Francisco, you feel like nothing short of Steve McQueen in the movie classic Bullitt (1968): It's a very wild ride, just like in the famous 1968 Ford Mustang, with narrow tires as well.

Luckily, your propensity to be airborne is a little less than in Bullitt, thanks to the 845 lbs battery being placed under the floor in the center of the car. This means that even though the Toyota is as tall as other SUVs, it's got a much lower center of gravity and therefore much better handling.

Speaking of airborne, this is the one EV where you feel compelled to hold onto the steering wheel for dear life. The torque steer is significant and the seats have no side bolstering, causing only the seat belt to hold you in place from flying around like a rag doll.

The Toyota RAV4 EV looks as understated, as you might imagine, but just as the 1968 Bullitt version of the Ford Mustang, it is destined to become a cult collector car. With Toyota making only 2,600 of these, you have only a limited time to acquire one of these radically engineered classics.

From an interior noise level standpoint, the RAV4 EV is more like the "raw" Tesla Roadster than any other EV in the market today. The other EVs tend to be so extremely quiet that you just can't hear a thing. In the Toyota, you can hear a turbine-like whine from the electric motor. It's the electric-equivalent of the burbling exhaust sound from the movie's 1968 Mustang.

The interior is Toyota's entry-level standard from five or more years ago: Gray plastic everywhere and mouse-gray cloth seats, too. This is the old RAV4, which was replaced in the last few months by a totally updated all-new model.

The RAV4 EV lacks a tire pressure monitor, and the Sirius XM ( SIRI) controls are hard to use -- but at least it's got an analog AUX jack, just like the Volt, but unlike the Ford plug-ins. The cupholders are appropriately shaped for holding smartphones and keys.

The interior space is excellent: It's easy to get in and out, the back seat has tons of space in every dimension, and the luggage space is superb from every angle. Why haven't Ford, GM, Chrysler, Honda ( HMC), Nissan ( NSANY) and many others copied this idea for an electric car?

One reason might be that Toyota is selling only approximately 80 of these cars per month. However, that may not be because it's sold only in California, but also because it's a limited series product so prospective customers may be worried about long-term support. Consumers want to see volume commitments from the auto makers when it comes to plug-in cars: big investments in purpose-made vehicles, not limited-series conversions.

The smartphone app that comes with the car is a bit behind offerings by major competitors such as Ford and GM. For example, it does not allow you to send directions to the car via the cloud nor does it unlock the car.

All in all, this was the most fun car experience I have ever had, for two reasons: First, the car is blisteringly fast, just like the regular Tesla -- even if you are dealing with narrow and inexpensive tires and sitting high up as you would be in any SUV.

Second, precisely because it's an SUV, the car is a tremendous pleasure because it is so practical. Many of us are either tall or getting old and no longer find it easy to bend down into a low-slung car to get in and out. We want tall minivans and SUVs with big doors, so we can slide in and out without pretending to be in yoga class.

So what is the case against the Toyota RAV4 EV? Aside from the obvious limitation of any electric car with a 100-110 mile range, it's all about the competition that is about to arrive on the U.S. market over the next year. This includes cars such as the BMW i3 and the Chevrolet Volt 2.0.

Electrified cars are making huge progress right now, so if you wait even as little as a year, you are most certainly going to find much-improved options.

For example, the Toyota RAV4 EV doesn't have the new standardized DC fast-charger. This means that despite a 100 mile range, you can only recharge at rate of approximately 18 miles per hour at most current public charging stations.

With cars such as the BMW i3 and Chevrolet Spark, you would be able to recharge much faster -- perhaps get a 60-mile charge in under 30 minutes. These chargers are not yet available, and won't be broadly deployed until late 2014 at the very earliest. But when they are it would be something you would miss in the current Toyota.

That said, the Toyota RAV4 EV is the ideal around-town commuter SUV. You can reliably drive close to 100 miles, the car is insanely fast and the SUV body makes it very roomy and practical for people and luggage alike.

If you live in California and you need an electric car right now -- as opposed to a few months down the road -- the Tesla-based Toyota RAV4 EV should be at the top of your list, side by side with the regular Tesla and the Chevrolet Volt.

You will be driving with a big grin on your face, and with practical satisfaction, for years to come.

At the time of publication the author was long F.

This article was written by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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