Test Drive: The 2022 Rivian R1T electric pickup is a game-changing truck

·9 min read

Pop car quiz: What do Ford, General Motors, Ram and Tesla have in common? Aside from building things with four wheels, of course.

Answer: None of them will go down in history as the American brand that put the first mass-market electric pickup into production.

That distinction will now and forever belong to startup automaker Rivian, which has begun manufacturing the R1T pickup at its factory in Normal, Ill., and shipping them to customers less than three years after revealing the first prototype.

It’s a remarkable feat. Launching a new car company is hard, doubly so in the middle of a pandemic that’s been making semiconductor chips hard to come by and slowing supply chains across various industries.

The truck is pretty remarkable, too. I call it a "truck" with confidence in the face of sticklers because the midsize R1T features a body attached to a frame in the traditional sense of the word, even if it’s far from traditional.

In this case, the frame houses a 135-kilowatt-hour battery pack that’s good for 314 miles of range; four electric motors with a combined output of more than 800 horsepower that let the R1T accelerate to 60 mph in three seconds and tow 11,000 pounds; and a fully independent air suspension that can raise or lower it to provide from eight to 14 inches of ground clearance, give or take.

The first R1Ts off the line are the limited Launch Edition trim, which was priced at $73,000, but is already sold out. Latecomers to the party can order the similarly outfitted and priced Adventure or the entry-level Explore that starts at $67,500, with earliest deliveries scheduled for January. All qualify the full federal tax credit of $7,500, which knocks the base price down to $60,000. Models with a larger Max Pack battery expected to be rated at over 400 miles per charge will be available next year for an extra $10,000. Sales of the vehicle are direct from Rivian, which plans to have just a small number of showrooms and a nationwide network mobile service technicians that can come to your house to handle most repairs.

The R1T is roughly the same size as a Jeep Gladiator, so it’s large for a midsize pickup and has a roomier cabin than a Ford Ranger or Toyota Tacoma that’s impeccably dressed more along the line of a Land Rover. The interior of the Launch Edition is trimmed with reclaimed wood inserts, top shelf vegan leather and houses a digital instrument cluster and large touchscreen display that controls just about everything.

The skateboard-style layout of the R1T’s platform leaves room for a front trunk or "frunk" under its power-opening hood as well as compartment under the bed that’s large enough for a full-size spare tire, and the Launch Edition’s all-terrains are a very large 34-inches tall.

The bed itself is a compact 4.5 feet long, but the tailgate has a gooseneck hinge that extends the composite floor to 6.9 feet when it’s down and it’s wide enough between the wheel wells to accommodate the benchmark 4x8 sheet of plywood. A built-in roll-top cover is included on the Explore and powered on Adventure and Launch Edition models, but the R1T’s most unique storage feature is found further below.

It’s called the Gear Tunnel and runs straight through the middle of the truck between the cabin and the bed. It has 11.6 cubic feet of storage space and its fold-down doors are strong enough to stand or sit on. There’s a power outlet and lights inside and it can be ordered with either an optional $1,500 sliding rack to make it easier to load and unload things, or a pull-out $5,000 electric camp kitchen with a sink and an induction stove that runs off of the battery, plus custom cookware and a dining service. Both can be rolled into the R1T’s financing and Rivian said that orders for the kitchen are far outweighing expected demand.

Among other clever touches that leverage R1Ts electric power are a set of four 110-volt outlets, a built-in air compressor, a removable and rechargeable speaker that stores in the center console between the front seats and a flashlight that pops out of the driver’s side door jamb that brings the total number of Samsung-supplied battery cells in the R1T to a neat 7,777.

Rivian chose the mountains outside Breckenridge, Colo., to show off the R1Ts on-road and off-road abilities, not to mention one big advantage electric vehicles have over their internal combustion engine counterparts. Since they don’t need oxygen, there’s no power loss at altitude. That’s more than I can say about the rental car I drove in to get there, which was working as hard as I was to cope with the thin air.

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The R1T pulls away with all of the strength you’d expect from over 800 horses backed by more than 900 lb-ft of torque and you’d never guess the aluminum-bodied vehicle weighs nearly 7,000 pounds. Batteries are a burden, but the R1T carries it well.

Sitting low in Sport mode, the R1T carved its way up and down the winding Loveland Pass more like a sports car than a pickup in the sort of silence you expect from an electric vehicle, despite the quartet of motors at work, and there wasn’t a squeak or rattle to be heard.

The regenerative braking system, which turns those motors into generators to slow it down as they recharge the batteries, has three settings and the strongest is effective enough to make the disc brakes an afterthought most of the time.

Choosing one of the off-road modes through the touchscreen lifts the truck and adjusts the traction control and throttle response for rough surfaces. The maximum ground clearance is more than a Jeep Wrangler’s and the R1T can wade through over three feet of water. Unlike in a conventional 4x4, there’s no need to shift a transfer case into low range, the electric motors are always prepared to give you full grunt.

Using the screen on the move can be tricky as your finger bounces around, however, and the R1T relies heavily on it. Its only physical controls are the window switches, turn signal and transmission stalks, and a pair of toggles and scroll wheels on the steering wheel hub that are used for a variety of functions you have to first call up on the display, including adjusting the mirrors and the wheel itself. Changing the direction of the air vents, on the other hand, is entirely handled on the screen, which I only learned after trying to move one manually.

The infotainment system offers Amazon Alexa voice controls for some features. It doesn’t have Android Auto or Apple CarPlay smartphone integration, but Rivian’s unique user interface is comprehensive and reacts quickly to inputs. It can also accommodate over the air updates, so additional features will be added over time.

That applies to the electronic driver aids, too. The R1T initially ships with adaptive cruise control and a lane centering feature, but comes with the cameras, sensors and facial recognition equipment necessary to enable a future hands-free capability like GM’s Super Cruise when the software is ready.

Rivian’s engineers are also taking advantage of having four unconnected electric motors to play with by developing a Tank Turn feature that will allow the R1T to spin in place on loose surfaces, which they will release when they’re satisfied that it will only work under safe conditions. It doesn’t need anyone trying to do this for the Gram in a school parking lot.

Driven in a straighter line, the R1T proved its mettle climbing the steep trails leading to the top of Wise Mountain as easily as the goats who barely gave us a second look as we silently cruised by them. It may be putting in the effort, but it sure doesn’t sound like it is, which is a wonderful way to enjoy the great outdoors.

The route we took was tougher than you’d want to attempt in all but the most extreme off-road factory truck models, but the R1T trudged along without missing a step. It shrugged off rocky scrambles and 30-degree slopes as the computer controlled suspension soaked it all in and its 360-degree camera system helped guide the way through the tricky stuff.

The perfectly flat bottom did take a couple of hits, but its metal and composite armor plating was designed to withstand 15-inch drops onto sharp rocks without breaking and I couldn’t find a dent when we took a rest on the summit. Nevertheless, Rivian doesn’t encourage jumping the R1T the way the similarly powerful Ram 1500 TRX is often depicted,

On the way down, the regenerative braking added 10 miles of range to use on the way back to base. The system operates at a maximum rate of 150 kilowatts, which is just shy of the R1T’s top 200-kilowatt rate when you plug it into a DC fast-charging station.

Rivian is building out an exclusive network of those, much like Tesla did, to ensure its owners a consistent experience that they can count on to deliver 140 miles of range in 20 minutes. Public stations often operate at lower than their top advertised rate, which can add unexpected hours onto a long trip.

You’ll want to take plenty of those in the R1T, which is an absolute game-changer that will put other automakers on notice as they begin their transitions to electric power. It does just about anything and does it all better than anything like it. Sure, it’ll be years before we’ll known how reliable it is, but it sure makes an incredible first impression. I suggest you don't bother test driving it if you can't afford it, because you'll never look at a pickup the same way again.

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