PLYMOUTH, Michigan – Standing before us, some nine years in the making, is Rivian’s first production model, the Rivian R1T, a high-riding, full-sized, electric, twin cab, all-wheel-drive pickup with a claimed 0 to 60 mph time of less than 3 seconds, the ability to ford streams and excel off-road, with a claimed range between charges as high as 400 miles, though presumably not when towing to its maximum, 10,000-pound capability.
Rivian’s truck is not set to deliver until late next year at the earliest, but it is here today for us to inspect, reflect upon and pore over, in all its ginormous, aluminum, steel, and carbon fiber glory. At its official reveal at this week’s 2018 Los Angeles Auto Show, it will be joined by an SUV, the R1S, a Suburban, if you will, to the fraternal twin R1T’s Silverado.
Rivian is taking $1,000 deposits now, but test-drives are still in the offing, as is verification of its staggering acceleration and range claims. The RT1 will be marketed at three levels of range, with prices announced to start at $61,500 for an entry-level, 250-mile-range model after deduction of the Fed’s $7,500 electric vehicle tax credit—assuming it’s still around.
Though much remains to be known, we’re feeling strangely optimistic about Rivian. The RT1 could be just the thing for someone looking for something like a Tesla pickup truck. Far from damning it, in this case, Rivian’s long gestation period was fortuitous, speaking most probably to the methodical thinking and seriousness of purpose company founder R.J. Scaringe brought to the table, and, most critically, his venture’s ability to persuade investors that they aren’t throwing good money after bad.
The Rivian name is a mashup of Florida’s “Indian River,” alongside of which Scarginge grew up. The company, he openly recalls, was initially launched with the intention of building an electric sports car. Prototypes were developed. But the space was crowded and the competition—combustion and electric—was formidable. Daring to rethink the plan, Scaringe, an MIT graduate and exceptionally smooth talker, scrapped the sports car gambit, concluding the wide-open field for a fully electric pickup/SUV was a better bet. Rivian was reimagined as a brand built on superior all-wheel-drive vehicles that would combine capability, luxury, practicality, and general hoseout-ability with the wonders of electric motors and big battery packs, plus price tags closer to base versions of Tesla’s Model S than cheapo examples of Ford’s F-150.
All that took time. But the revised plan, usefully refined through Scaringe’s ongoing association with MIT and its incubator culture, ultimately enticed investment nearing some half a billion dollars from Abdul Latif Jameel, a conglomerate whose vast holdings include the Toyota distributorship in Saudi Arabia, and the American arm of Japan’s Sumitomo Bank.
Today, much of that investment is here for us to see—gracious and spacious digs in Plymouth, (there’s an office in Silicon Valley, too,) an army of veteran engineers, (some of whom we recognize from their McLaren days,) stylists and manufacturing folk, experienced and knowledgeable corporate directors (like Chrysler’s Tom Gale) plus a ready for production prototype that looks more than real enough, ready to take to market. Seeing it helps us make sense of the company’s recent announcement that it has purchased—for a fire sale $16 million—the $2 billion-plus Diamond Star plant in Normal, Illinois, named after the long-deceased Mitsubishi-Chrysler alliance that built it. Rivian has begun to hire workers to build out the factory to suit its needs, with deliveries of RT1 and RS1 slated to begin in late 2020 if all goes according to plan.
Of course, there’s much more to say about the RT1 and how it works. On paper it looks formidable. And even imagining $100,000 examples, it’s not bad value on its face. But what about that style?
The company made the point that its primary goal beyond an aerodynamically optimized pickup shape was to create a look for Rivian that would front all its models, be instantly recognizable and appealing, one that was at once distinctive, friendly, and tough. And the Rivian does have a striking visage, framed by two, upright oval LED headlamps, set far apart, with a slim, lighted bar connecting them. In the dark, the lit shape reminds me less of the Marlboro man, it must be said, and more of the friendly, blinking countenance of the Michelin man, with his tall, oval eyes and matching oblong eyeglasses. An approachable face, more whimsical or mildly amusing than funny, is style-wise about as far as the weirdness goes with Rivian, however.
In this way it’s quite unlike the Bollinger Motors electric SUV, a funky bus that’s been teased for a while and which seems like a natural competitor. Bollinger’s B1 model, for which it is also now taking deposits for 2020 delivery, is much more spartan than Rivian’s RT1, heading into sales duty with more unabashedly flat panels than an old Land Rover and an International Scout combined. By contrast, the Rivian plays the style card down the middle of the modern American road, inherently brutal because of its size, but basically anodyne standard truck.
Gazing upon it, there is the overwhelming sense that RT1 is like the trucks the market has known and loved recently, a little more design-y in its details and with materials chosen for their compatibility with intended rugged use, plus it’s a little cleverer in its layout. There’s a large front storage trunk made possible by the lack of a gas engine. A neat, enclosed crosswise storage space is accessed from low down at the side of the bed, behind the passenger seats, for long objects like skis. In another clever touch, the electrically-operated tonneau that covers the large pickup bed disappears at the press of a button. Cool stuff. But make no mistake RT1 does not reinvent the wheel aesthetically.
It solitary unique appearance cue is important, though, because frankly, without it, no one would be surprised in the slightest to be told this was the new full-sized Nissan or Toyota pickup. Rivian didn’t disclose numbers and we didn’t bring our mobile wind tunnel with us, so we couldn’t test for coefficient of drag. But several details they pointed out, the way the hood and tailgate were chamfered for the wind, suggested a level of sophistication that seemed hopeful.
Then of course never let us not forget the fact that the RT1 is built on an electric skateboard chassis. Or that it is blindingly fast with 800-plus horsepower, a big range, and a sophisticated suspension breathed upon by ex-McLaren engineers. Beneath the bland exterior, a super truck lurks. And it’s electric, a style statement all by itself. It looks a bit too much like every other big truck, but who cares—the RT1 is like no pickup truck you’ve ever driven.