Rivian’s electric truck is a cutie and a beast

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The formidable Rivian R1T, the first crusher in a coming wave of electric pickup trucks, can fly unscathed over gnarled boulders, hitch an 11,000-pound payload and scorch 60 mph in about 3.5 seconds. The truck brings everything and the Sink, with outdoor options like a rooftop tent and a track-mounted Camp Kitchen, which allows owners to make an omelette on the side of the trail and wash up afterwards. And following its promising IPO, Rivian is already valued at nearly $100 billion, surpassing giants like Ford Motor and General Motors.

All good so far, finger-crossed company shareholders, stakeholders (including Amazon and Ford) and 9,500 employees. Some consumers may have another question: What the heck is a Rivian?

The R1T, now out of a former Mitsubishi plant in Illinois, has to navigate that awkward introductory phase, much like a then-dark Tesla did with its 2008 Roadster and Model S in 2012. For the most part for himself, Rivian faces direct competition from GM’s 1,000-horsepower GMC Hummer EV pickup, and from a Ford F-150 Lightning — based on America’s best-selling vehicle in 39 straight years — which will arrive in the spring. Tesla has pushed production of its outré Cybertruck in Texas to sometime in 2022.

Rivian, based in Irvine, California, has taken 12 years to hit the market, but the timing seems ideal. Pickup trucks continued to gain market share as the pandemic boosted sales of traditional cars. Residential flight from major cities, such as the New York exodus to the north, may have played a role. (Home Project, Introducing Pickup Truck.) One in five cars sold in America is now a full- or medium-sized pickup truck, or more than three million sales in a typical year.

Where Ford’s Lightning appears to be a more conventional, task-oriented truck, the 16-inch-shorter Rivian is a born adventurer. Also a pioneer, proof that an electric four-by-four can handle the most foreboding hinterland. This summer, an R1T successfully navigated the TransAmerica Trail, a melting pot about 5,000 miles from North Carolina to the Oregon coast. If most buyers are happy with just a dirt road to a cabin or campground, they can always dream.

Starting at $68,575, the Rivian will be the market’s first EV to integrate four independent electric motors, each rated at 18,500 rpm. This allows for all kinds of “torque vectoring” tricks, where real-time power is distributed to each of the four wheels to maximize performance. And all this while making hardly any noise. “Run lightly” is the mantra of any conscientious off-roader, and the Rivian eliminates a noisy combustion engine and its exhaust pipe.

“You can hear the stream babbling as you come down the trail—and the birds,” said Brian Gase, Rivian’s director of special projects.

Still, little will stand in the way of the R1T or its sport utility offshoot, the R1S. An adjustable air suspension and four off-road modes – Auto, Rock, Rally and Drift – provide ground clearance of up to 15 inches. That’s a whopping 4.2 inches more than a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, a touchstone of overland capability.

Move to smoother urban surfaces and this 835-horsepower beast will outrun or dance any petroleum pickup I’ve tested, claiming a 3.0-second sprint to 60 miles per hour. That’s despite a curb weight of nearly 7,150 pounds, about a ton more than a typical full-size gasoline pickup. This truck defies not so much physics as an overt revolt.

The Rivian never feels quite Which fast, and automatic publishing finds 3.5 seconds to 60 mph is more like it. Even that’s ridiculous acceleration for any bona fide four-by-four, let alone one that weighs as much as two BMW 330i sedans, and can tow three Bimmers at highway speed. Like most whispering EVs, the Rivian plays tricks with the bodily system. Without auditory cues and crazy pistons, a more reliable calculation for forward progress is watching small cars turn into smaller dots in the mirror.

On hilly roads that surround New York’s reservoirs, the Rivian hacked into those BMWs and Benzen like holiday turkeys, and the clever hydraulic anti-roll system kept the truck’s body as flat as a saucer. A battery pack of about 135 kilowatt-hours, shielded by composite underbody protection, offers a range of up to 514 miles, as rated by the Environmental Protection Agency — reasonable, given all that mass and drag. Switching to Conserve mode lowers the ride height and operates only the front axle motors to conserve juice.

For an extra $10,000, a battery of about 180 kilowatt hours extends the range to over 400 miles. That’s better than the $112,595 Hummer EV, which should go about 350 miles with its roughly 200-kilowatt-hour pack, the largest ever mounted on an electric vehicle. Rivian also plans to offer a more affordable 105-kilowatt-hour package with a range of approximately 230 miles.

The R1T’s brake pedal feels a little soft for my firmer tastes, but there’s no denying the truck’s awesome ability to lose speed. In objective testing, Edmunds.com found that the Rivian set lofty new pickup records for braking distance, acceleration and handling. Less rushed owners can drive for hours or even days without ever touching the brake pedal: a cleverly chosen, operator-adjustable regenerative function enables effortless one-pedal driving to bring the truck to a smooth stop by releasing the accelerator pedal to leave.

For all its crushing power, the Rivian is a cutie. Today’s pickup mode, epitomized by the Hummer or Cybertruck, should resemble a Mechagodzilla, a stomping, fire-breathing menace. The Rivian’s oval, translucent LED eyes, clean lines and cheerful mien are more Iron Giant: suitable for all ages, genders and personalities, not just Costco cosplayers with trucker hats.

The interior chooses a safe path with the Apple-esque minimalism that is in vogue for EVs. The R1T is longer than medium trucks, much shorter than large sizes, and offers a rear seat that is comfortable for two or three adults. Most traditional switchgear has been sheared in favor of controls on a 16-inch central touchscreen, not always for the better.

Company representatives believe the cloud-based navigation system can handle directional tasks, and an 18-speaker Meridian audio system will play well with built-in apps like Spotify, or pair smartphones via Bluetooth. But the lack of available Apple CarPlay and Android Auto — standard fare for most budget cars — may require a course correction.

Yet design, materials (including vegan leather and real ash wood) and craftsmanship are convincingly luxurious. And ingenuity rules. A portable Bluetooth speaker disconnects from the center console, ready for campfire sing-alongs, with a 1000-lumen flashlight in the driver’s door. USB ports and 110-volt outlets are scattered throughout the cabin and bed. That bed has a power tailgate and an optional air compressor to “air out” tires for off-road exploration and refill them for the ride home. There’s no need to pack light: a large storage case is located under the hood and another under the 4.5m load floor, with a drain plug that doubles as an icebox for the tailgate.

The so-called Gear Tunnel will drill into outer hearts. Powered by the lack of an internal-combustion driveshaft, this door-to-door abdominal cavity behind the passenger cabin swallows cargo or extras like the optional $5,000 Camp Kitchen. That a la carte item is not cheap. But unfolded from the Rivian, the industry’s first unit will stop traffic at any tailgate or bonfire, featuring a two-burner convection hob, collapsible sink with spray tap and water tank, and a 30-piece Snow Peak kitchen set.

Now all that’s left for Rivian to do is boost sales. Like a baby Tesla, the company expects to burn a few billion dollars before it can generate positive returns. Amazon has a 20 percent stake — currently worth about $20 billion, more than five times its original investment — and has ordered 100,000 last-mile Rivian vans through 2030. We’ll see if such fleet vans become Rivian’s sideshow or the main job.

Whatever early adopters of electric trucks prefer, you better get a seat in the queue. Ford says it has 160,000 customer reservations for its Lightning, but expects to build just 15,000 next year before rapidly expanding production. Rivian cited a backlog of 55,400 orders for the R1T and R1S in a federal filing.

Ford lowered the Lightning’s starting price to about $42,000, but for a working version with a modest 230-mile range. Good luck finding one from dealers. A higher volume Lightning XLT starts closer to $55,000, with a loaded Platinum edition costing $90,000.

Ford (along with GM) touts massive scale, dealer networks and manufacturing experience, albeit in fossil fuel trucks. Like Tesla, Rivian plans to forego traditional showrooms in favor of direct sales in all 50 states. The company plans to open dozens of service centers in North America, as well as counting on remote diagnosis, wireless updates and mobile technicians to help Rivians at home even when the owners are away.

Either way, Ford can win: It owns 12 percent of Rivian, though it just dropped a plan to develop an EV in partnership with Rivian. Founded by RJ Scaringe, Rivian hopes to fulfill its existing orders by the end of 2023, from a factory that can build 150,000 units per year.

Whatever happens, Rivian can claim to be the first in the field of electric trucks. The R1T makes an impressive first shot of this electric David. Let’s see what the Goliaths do when they come off the mat.

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