Why I'm Rooting for EV Pickup and SUV Maker Rivian

It's likely that its products will be like no other trucks you've ever driven.

Let's talk about design as it pertains to the car launch, uh, prelaunch we attended at the Plymouth, Michigan, headquarters of Rivian—an electric vehicle startup founded in 2009. In other words, so long ago. But now, some 10 years on, there finally standing before us was Rivian's first production model, the R1T, a high-riding, full-sized, electric, crew-cab, all-wheel-drive pickup with a claimed zero-to-60-mph time of less than three seconds, the ability to ford streams and excel off-road, and 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 2019 at the earliest, but it's here today for us to inspect, reflect upon, and pore over in all its ginormous aluminum, steel, and carbon-fiber glory. During its official reveal at the 2018 Los Angeles Auto Show, it was 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 the R1T's staggering acceleration and range claims. The R1T will be marketed at three levels of range, with prices to start at $61,500 for an entry-level, 250-mile-range model after deduction of the federal electric vehicle tax credit—assuming that's still around.

Although much remains to be known, we're feeling strangely optimistic about Rivian. The R1T 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 RJ 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, near which Scaringe, 35, 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—both 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 hose-out-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 of 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 R1T and R1S slated to begin in late 2020 if all goes according to plan.

Of course, there's much more to say about the R1T and how it works. On paper it looks formidable. And even imagining $100,000 examples, it's not a 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 R1T does have a striking visage, framed by two upright oval LED headlamps, set far apart, with a slim light bar connecting them. In the dark, the lit shape reminds me less of the Marlboro Man and more of the friendly, blinking countenance of the Michelin Man, with his tall, oval eyes. 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 the Rivian models are quite unlike the Bollinger Motors electric B1 SUV, a funky bus that's been teased for a while and which seems like a natural competitor. Bollinger's B2 pickup truck, for which it is also now taking deposits for 2020 delivery, is much more spartan than the R1T, 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 an anodyne, standard truck.

There is the overwhelming sense that the R1T 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 behind the passenger seats is accessible from low down at the side of the bed, for long objects. And the electrically operated tonneau that covers the large bed disappears at the press of a button. Cool stuff. But make no mistake, the R1T does not reinvent the wheel aesthetically.

Its one unique appearance cue is important, though, because frankly, without it, no one would be surprised to be told this was the new full-size 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 Rivian pointed out—the way the hood and tailgate are chamfered, for example—suggest a level of sophistication that seemed hopeful.

Then of course let us not forget that the R1T is built on an electric skateboard chassis. Or that it is blindingly fast with as much as 800-plus horsepower, a big range, and a sophisticated suspension breathed upon by ex-McLaren engineers. Beneath the bland exterior, a supertruck 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 R1T is like no pickup truck you've ever driven.

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