The Rivian R1T breaks the electric-pickup game wide open
What it's like to drive a futuristic, mountain-climbing electric pickup truck that packs the power of a supercar.
The all-electric, all-wheel-drive Rivian R1T pickup truck is what you get when an EV startup is run by sports car fanatics who can also read a financial ledger. Rivian started life in 2008 with the aim of building a sport coupe because that’s the kind of car that CEO RJ Scaringe and director of vehicle dynamics Max Koff wanted.
But consumers like pickup trucks. The Ford F-Series, Chevrolet Silverado, and Ram pickup were the number one, two, and three-selling vehicles in the US last year. The GMC Sierra and Toyota Tacoma were numbers nine and 10.
Meanwhile, electric vehicles accounted for just 1.8 percent of US vehicle sales last year, according to IHS Markit. So rather than handicapping itself by targeting a niche vehicle segment with EV technology, Rivian pivoted to the idea of building an electric pickup.
But the car nuts in charge didn’t want to give up on the idea of having a fun-to-drive vehicle, so they recruited chief engineer Charles Sanderson from supercar manufacturer McLaren Automotive. He brought with him familiarity with McLaren’s Tenneco-supplied linked hydraulic damper system, a technology that is as transformative for the R1T’s capabilities as its electric all-wheel-drive system is.
The company began doing its background work for this project years ago, quietly toiling in the shadows while another EV company’s CEO made brash claims on social media and revealed an outlandish-looking pickup prototype while making equally outlandish claims about that vehicle’s capabilities and delivery date. (Yes, we’re alluding to Elon Musk and his Cybertruck.)
Now, Rivian is ready for its big public debut, with the start of production of the R1T electric pickup truck on Sept. 13. Deliveries have begun already. The company introduced the truck to the press with a drive in Breckenridge, Colorado, at an altitude (12,600 feet maximum!) that would leave a combustion-powered vehicle gasping for breath. The thin air at that height would cost a naturally-aspirated combustion engine 37.5 percent of its rated power.
Electric vehicles, on the other hand, don’t need air to breath, so they aren’t affected by altitude. However, the R1T could actually probably afford this handicap because its four electric motors combine for a total peak output of more than 800 horsepower. That’s right, the R1T not only has the suspension technology of a supercar, but it also has the power output of a supercar. It delivers on the promise of these specifications, with a 0-60 mph acceleration time of 3.0 seconds.
A peek through the spokes of the truck’s ginormous wheels (20-inch standard, 21-inch and 22-inch optional) reveals supercar-grade Bosch brake hardware, with huge rotors and calipers that are fully capable of stopping the truck even without the aid of electric regenerative braking. Rivian’s calibration engineers have done a stunning job of blending these two functions seamlessly, without the unpredictability of some such combined brake systems.
The tires are specifically developed for the R1T by Pirelli, and they are impressive. A hard day of off-roading proved their mettle scrambling over rocks and through mud, which is a fine accomplishment. But they also showed surprising on-road competence on pavement. More on this later.
The R1T’s smooth, grille-free front styling recalls Jay Leno’s antique Stanley Steamer steam cars, which also do not need airflow to a radiator. To build the trucks, Rivian took over the plant in Normal, Illinois that used to build the beloved ‘90s-era Mitsubishi Eclipse, Eagle Talon, and Plymouth Laser. Heartbreakingly, these flinty Rivian ledger-readers, upon discovering the tooling for those cars still in place, promptly scrapped it, leaving anyone fantasizing about a brand-new turbocharged, all-wheel-drive Eclipse in tears.
Like most EVs, the R1T has a front truck “frunk” for storage (it measures 11-cubic-feet) where a combustion truck’s engine would lie. Its lid is power-operated by remote key fob or by pressing a button at the front of the truck. But to open or close it from the driver’s seat currently requires a dive through layers of on-screen menus on the R1T’s lovely 16-inch center video display.
The company says it will consider simplifying this through a future over-the-air update that provides more direct access to a “frunk open/close” function for drivers. We’d really like to see an actual physical button of the sort most cars have for their trunk or hatch. It is no surprise that the display’s video imagery is impressive, because Rivian renders the display’s pretty pictures using the Unreal engine from Epic, the video game maker.
If the frunk doesn’t provide enough lockable storage, the R1T has what Rivian calls the Gear Tunnel behind the cab. It is an 11.6-cubic-foot storage passage between openings on both sides of the truck that would be great for long objects like golf bags.
And, obviously, the R1T has a 4.5-foot cargo bed in the back. It holds 29.2 cubic feet of gear beneath its power-operated tonneau cover (that’s a rigid cover) that retracts like the roof of a sports stadium into a roll that packages above the Gear Tunnel at the front of the bed. The truck’s full-size spare tire stows in a bin beneath the bed. This is more convenient for retrieval than a tire that hangs underneath the truck as long as the bed is empty. Its retrieval gets more complicated with each item that is in the bed at the time it is needed, since you would have to move anything piled on top of the access door to the spot where the spare is housed.
The infotainment display is predictably glitzy, with impressive animations and the ability to control a multitude of functions. It is, however, overwhelming for someone with only a day or two behind the wheel, so buyers can expect to spend some time learning their way around its menus.
But we’re here for the electric drive, not the display screen. The R1T has four electric motors, with one dedicated to each wheel. This lets the truck’s various control systems provide much more precise control of the speed and traction of each wheel than is possible when employing locking differentials for a combustion drivetrain.
Between the truck’s frame rails lies the 135-kilowatt-hour long-range battery pack that provides the EPA-rated range of 314 miles on a charge. An available Max Pack will provide more than 400 miles of driving range, but no details are available yet on that one.
During a day of clambering up mountains on rock-strewn trails, followed by numerous passes through the switchbacks of Colorado’s famed 11,900-foot Loveland Pass, we burned energy at a prodigious rate that in no way represents normal use. While doing so, we saw our truck decline from a 74 percent battery charge to a 26 percent state of charge while traveling a total of 87 miles. At the end of the day, the computer estimated that we had 49 miles of range remaining, but of course if we had put the truck on Interstate 70 with the adaptive cruise control set at the speed limit, we’d have gone much farther than that.
What is more impressive is how the R1T deploys its electrical power. On the off-road trail, the truck slithered through and over situations that are within the capability of properly outfitted Jeep Wranglers and Ford Broncos. However, the Rivian passed through these challenges with much less drama than those combustion vehicles would have generated in the process.
It is also rated to wade through three feet of water, which is deeper than either the Wrangler or the Bronco. One thing that requires a mental adjustment is the absence of vulnerable differentials beneath the truck that make straddling rocks or other obstacles a no-worry action.
As we have experienced with the Jeep Wrangler 4xe while off-roading in electric-only mode, off-road EVing is also a more relaxing experience than when an engine is making noise and its waste heat is welling up from beneath the truck. While the Rivian R1T does not have removable doors and roof like the Jeep and the Ford have, the company says that it is working on a removable version of the large glass skylight in the cab, so that drivers will be able to enjoy a more open-air experience on future versions of the truck.
The drivetrain and suspension’s tuning is selected by choosing a drive mode, and within the Off-Road selection there are Auto, Rock Crawl, and Rally settings that further zero in on exactly what kind of response is best for the situation. This raises the air suspension for more ground clearance, optimizes traction control for slippery surfaces, and adjusts throttle response and power steering assist.
The All-Purpose setting is meant as the set-and-forget setting for comfortable on-road driving with some off-road capability. Sport mode optimizes the suspension, steering, and drivetrain for sports car-like on-road dynamics, with a lowered ride height, stiffer spring rate, and less steering assist. To our surprise, the All-Purpose setting is so capable even in aggressively sporting driving on sinuous mountain highways, that the harsher ride of the Sport mode seems like an unnecessary trade-off.
Shredding the switchbacks of Loveland Pass reveals perfect control of body roll and pitch while turning, accelerating, and braking, and the drivetrain emphasizes the aircraft-carrier catapult launch-like ability of EVs to shorten the straight sections between curves.
The stability control systems permit the driver to toss the R1T into curves as if it were a sports car, and the all-wheel-drive meters out power with its torque vectoring capability to help the truck get around the turn even as it accelerates toward the exit. Steering is accurate and well-weighted, making it easy to point the truck at the exit of turns.
Still more improbably, it does all of this while rolling on the same Pirelli Scorpion All-Terrain Plus tires as we used off road, with only an air pressure change from 28 psi in the dirt to 45 psi on the pavement. The tires provide unexpected grip, with predictable traction limits and surprisingly little tire squeal. Astounding. They accomplish this while also having the strong construction needed to withstand the abundant weight of a battery-powered full-size pickup truck.
A Conserve mode dials back the power to help the R1T tiptoe its way to the nearest charger when the battery pack is running low, and Tow mode sets the truck’s stability and control settings to be ready to handle a trailer as heavy as 11,000 lbs. An electric truck can generate impressive trailer-towing power, but using that power will quickly sap the batteries, so the R1T would not be ideal for long-distance camper-towing trips.
So, the cost: The R1T’s price starts at $67,500 and our test truck was a $73,000 model. This may seem like a lot of money, but according to Kelley Blue Book, the average transaction price of a full-size pickup truck has topped $55,600, and there are tax incentives to reduce the cost of the Rivian purchase.
There’s a cool optional three-person tent available for another $2,650. You may have seen those on other off-roaders. What you haven’t seen on any other vehicle is the R1T’s optional $5,000 camp kitchen. This is an inductive electric cooktop that stows in the Gear Tunnel and then pops out onto the side of the truck for cooking meals using the R1T’s battery for power.
The purchase price is especially reasonable when compared to the cost of a high-performance sports car, so the R1T has that in its favor too. There’s no word on whether Rivian might eventually get around to building a low-slung two-seat sports car, but there is an SUV version of the R1T, called the R1S, headed our way soon. Judging from the R1T, expect it to arrive in a hurry!