The world’s first-to-market electric pickup truck, it turns out, isn’t from Ford or General Motors, nor is it a late-to-market Tesla Cybertruck. Instead, it’s the Rivian R1T, from the California start-up that’s already made founder R.J. Scaringe—a bespectacled mechanical engineer with a PhD from MIT—a billionaire by the age of 38.
Rivian, despite a near-$100 billion market cap, has miles and years to go to become “the next Tesla,” the unfortunate albatross that gets hung from the neck of many electric vehicle newbies. But judged strictly on its performance and engineering merits, the R1T is a spectacular opening shot: A pickup truck that, as Tesla’s Model S did with sedans, upends the very definition of a pickup truck. Starting well-equipped from $68,575, which is in line with prices for loaded, gasoline-powered light-duty pickups, the Rivian is a relative powerhouse of design, innovation and all-around capability.
That capability begins with four individual electric motors, as I experienced on a stirring R1T test in and around New York. The “quad motor” design is a first for any EV, allowing near-magical levels of “torque vectoring;” the ability to speed or slow individual wheels with digital precision, and transfer torque front-to-back or left-to-right with near-instantaneous response. That combines with a clever suspension that integrates hydraulically cross-linked dampers, familiar from McLaren’s vastly pricier supercars.
The system eliminates the need for weighty, mechanical anti-roll bars that also demand a compromise between performance requisites on-pavement versus off-road. Air springs and true monotube shock absorbers with external fluid reservoirs, used in serious off-road vehicles, manage the massive amount of heat generated within the shocks without “aerating” the fluid and losing damping control and allow longer shock travel necessary for extreme wheel articulation when clambering over obstacles.
The R1T is a spectacular opening shot: A pickup truck that, as Tesla’s Model S did with sedans, upends the very definition of a pickup truck.
That all-around capability lets Rivian’s all-wheel-drive “adventure truck” venture through hellscapes like Moab, Utah, where only the hardiest off-road vehicles—your Hummers, Jeeps or Rover Defenders—dare to tread. That includes up to 15 inches of driver-adjustable ground clearance through that air-sprung suspension, about four more inches than Jeep’s formidable Wrangler Rubicon. I’m looking forward to my first hardcore off-road runs in the Rivian. But for proof, the R1T successfully completed the TransAmerica Trail, a roughly 5,000-mile gauntlet from North Carolina to the Oregon coast.
Rivian's RT1, which features a motor for each wheel, can tackle the gnarliest terrain.Rivian
And unlike fossil-fueled 4x4’s, there are no mechanicals underneath that can get hung up or damaged by boulders or other obstacles, only a battery pack that’s protected by an aerodynamic sheet of composite armor. The Rivian can tow 11,000 pounds, on virtual par with the maximum 11,300 pounds of the beefiest Ford F-150 pickup, America’s best-selling vehicle for 39 straight years. And the recreation-minded Rivian is actually closer in size to midsize pickups like the Toyota Tacoma, whose towing might—including the Taco’s 6,800 pounds—pales before the R1T’s.
But the bigger game-changer versus conventional trucks is on pavement: The Rivian doesn’t just defy physics, but beats it senseless. With a staggering 835 horsepower and 908 pound-feet of torque from its four, 18,500-rpm electric motors, the Rivian scorches 60 mph in about 3.5 seconds, faster than many sports cars. That required punching up the “Sport” mode on the Rivian’s Tesla-like center display screen, one of five modes including All-Purpose, Conserve, Offroad (with four sub-modes) and Towing.
That’s insane forward progress for a nearly 7,150-pound truck, about a ton more than comparable fossil-fueled models, thanks largely to its weighty, 135 kilowatt-hour battery pack. The R1T can travel an EPA-rated 314 miles at 70 mpge in combined city and highway use. An optional 180-kilowatt-hour battery (for $10,000) extends range past 400 miles. The latter figure beats the $112,595 GMC Hummer EV that’s set to reach showrooms in early 2022. GMC is targeting about 350 miles from a roughly 200-kilowatt-hour pack, the largest ever fitted to an electric vehicle. Rivian also plans to offer a more affordable 105-kilowatt-hour pack with a roughly 230-mile range.
Even more improbably, the Rivian doesn’t feel like a runaway semi at speed. Instead, the R1T drives more like a sports sedan—a really heavy sport sedan—than anything resembling a truck. Edmunds.com, in objective testing, declared the Rivan not only the fastest pickup it’s ever tested, but the shortest-stopping and best-handling, including a new high in lateral roadholding grip.
In my stint on speedy mountain parkways in New York, the R1T recalled the tutu-clad hippos of Fantasia, twirling with near-balletic grace despite its daunting mass. The Disney metaphor may be apt: Unlike the hulking machismo and intimidation favored by most pickups, the Rivian is downright adorable, from its expressively round, anime-style LED eyes to its streamlined body. The woodland creatures approve: Rivian engineers are proud that the R1T (closely followed by an R1S SUV version) won’t foul pristine landscapes with noxious emissions; the electric powertrain also won’t disturb the peace on roads or trails, so quiet that the only sound I heard on a dirt two-track was the crunch of its all-terrain tires. “Tread lightly” is the watchword of all conscientious off-roaders, and the Rivian adds “tread quietly” to that repertoire, to draw less wrath all-around from environmentalists.
The RT1 features a "gear tunnel" with the option for a slide-out kitchen complete with a convection cooktop, sink and cookware.Rivian
On top of all that, the Rivian charms with pure ingenuity. It looks to lure campers, hikers, kayakers and other outdoorsy types with innovative features. The industry-first “Gear Tunnel” is a cavernous, side–to-side cargo hold behind the passenger cab, only possible because there’s no internal-combustion powertrain. It’s a great place to secure gear without filling the back seat or needing to secure it in the 4.5-foot cargo bed. The tunnel’s showstopper is the electric-powered Camp Kitchen. It’s a pricey option at $5,000, but may prove a gotta-have for hardy campers and beer-swilling tailgaters alike. Slide the track-mounted Camp Kitchen from the Gear Tunnel’s door, and start cookin’, with a two-burner convection cooktop, a sink with a five-gallon water tank and spray faucet, and a 30-piece cookware set from Snow Peak. For a post-meal nap, Rivian offers a roomy Yakima tent that secures either on the rooftop or on aluminum crossbars over the bed.
Camp Kitchen Slides Out
Everything you need for glamping.
No Table? No Problem
You can cook and eat your meal on the Camp Kitchen.
There’s a large storage “frunk” up front, as in many no-engine EVs, and another below the cargo bed, both with drain plugs to double as ice chests. A 1,000-lumen flashlight tucks into the driver’s door, where an umbrella goes in Rolls-Royces.
USB ports, 12-volt and 110-volt outlets are sprinkled through the cabin and cargo bed, topped with a power tonneau cover to keep cargo safe. That cargo bed features a built-in air compressor to “air down” tires for off-road traction, then refill them without a portable compressor or a cautious trip to a gas station—a place the Rivian will only visit for coffee or bathroom stops.
The cabin looks minimal and luxurious, with real wood trims and vegan leather, dominated by a Tesla-like, 15.6 inch center infotainment screen. The system integrates cloud-based navigation, with Spotify, InTune and other onboard apps. A clever, rechargeable portable Bluetooth speaker detaches from the center console, part of an 18-speaker Meridian sound system. The user interface is fairly straightforward, though a few too many traditional analog controls are jettisoned in favor of screen operations. Those include HVAC vents that pivot in tandem with swipes on the screen, but are awkward to operate while in motion. And if the Rivian has one tech blind spot, it’s this: Apple CarPlay and Android Auto aren’t available, though smartphones can of course connect to the system via Bluetooth. It’s a situation Rivian might want to address, pronto.
The first R1T’s are already rolling from a former Mitsubishi factory in Illinois, to be closely followed by an R1S SUV version with seating for five or seven passengers. Rivian, whose backers include Amazon and Ford—the two giants own roughly 28 percent of the company combined—is also preparing to deliver 100,000 last-mile electric delivery vans to Amazon. That side hustle can help backstop the company as it looks to develop an American showroom and service network, including mobile techs who can drive to owner’s homes or workplaces for service, even when owners aren’t around.
But it’s the R1T that’s definitely getting the attention of Tesla, GM and Ford, the latter putting finishing touches on the eagerly awaited F-150 Lightning electric truck that’s due next spring.
In the electric truck revolution, underdog Rivian has fired the first, can-you-top-this shot, and it’s hard to overstate its significance, in both technical and competitive terms. From cities and suburbs to wide-open spaces, the American market is dominated by pickups, which now account for a historic high of one in every four vehicle sales. Those pickups are the mega-profitable cash cows for GM, Ford and Stellantis’ Ram, especially versions swaddled in cowhide and laden with luxury gadgets. Now we’ll see how big a slice Rivian can carve out for itself.
- Ford's 2021 F-150 Pickup Is a Mobile Power Station - IEEE Spectrum ›
- From Global Giants to Feisty Startups, Electric Trucks Battle for ... ›
Lawrence Ulrich is an award-winning auto writer and former chief auto critic at The New York Times and The Detroit Free Press.