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Rivian’s electric truck is a cutie and a beast

 

By Lawrence Ulrich

© The New York Times Co.

The redoubtable Rivian R1T, the first crusher in a coming wave of electric pickups, can soar unscathed over gnarly boulders, hitch an 11,000-pound load and scorch 60 mph in about 3.5 seconds. The truck brings everything and the kitchen sink, with outdoorsy options such as a rooftop tent and a track-mounted Camp Kitchen, which lets owners whip up a trail-side omelet and wash up afterward. And after its hot-starting initial public offering, Rivian has been valued at nearly $100 billion, more than such behemoths as Ford Motor and General Motors.

All good so far, for the company’s fingers-crossed shareholders, stakeholders (including Amazon and Ford) and 9,500 employees. Some consumers may still have a question: What in the world is a Rivian?

The R1T, now emerging from a former Mitsubishi factory in Illinois, must navigate that awkward getting-to-know-you stage, just as a then-obscure Tesla did with its Roadster in 2008 and Model S in 2012. Unlike Tesla, which created the electric vehicle market and once had it mostly to itself, Rivian faces immediate competition from GM’s 1,000-horsepower GMC Hummer EV pickup, and from a Ford F-150 Lightning — based on America’s bestselling vehicle for 39 straight years — set to arrive in spring. Tesla has pushed Texas production of its outré Cybertruck to sometime in 2022.

Rivian, based in Irvine, Calif., took 12 years to get to market, but its timing appears ideal. Pickup trucks continued to strong-arm market share as the pandemic hammered sales of traditional cars. A residential flight from big cities, such as New York’s exodus upstate, may have played a role. (Home project, meet pickup truck.) One in five vehicles sold in America is now a full- or midsize pickup, or well more than 3 million sales in a normal year.

Where Ford’s Lightning appears to be a more conventional, task-oriented truck, the 16-inchshorter Rivian is a born adventurer. A pioneer, too, proof that an electric four-wheel-drive vehicle can tackle the most forbidding backcountry. This summer, an R1T successfully navigated the TransAmerica Trail, a 5,000-mile crucible from North Carolina to the Oregon coast. If most buyers are content with only a dirt road to a cabin or campground, they can always dream.

Starting at $68,575, the Rivian becomes the market’s first EV to integrate four independent electric motors, each spinning at up to 18,500 rpm. That allows all manner of “torque vectoring” tricks, apportioning real-time power to any of four wheels to maximize performance. All while barely making a sound. “Tread lightly” is the mantra of any conscientious off-roader, and the Rivian eliminates a noisy internal combustion engine and its tailpipe spew.

“You can hear the stream trickling when you come down the trail — and the birds,” said Brian Gase, Rivian’s director of special projects.

Yet little will stand in the way of the R1T or its sport utility offshoot, the R1S. An adjustable air suspension and four off-road modes — Auto, Rock, Rally and Drift — allow up to 15 inches of ground clearance. That’s a stunning 4.2 inches more than a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, a touchstone of overland ability.

Move to city-slicker surfaces and this 835-horsepower beast will outrun or dance around any petroleum pickup I’ve tested, claiming a 3.0-second dash to 60 mph. That’s despite a curb weight of nearly 7,150 pounds, about a ton more than a typical full-size gasoline pickup. This truck doesn’t defy physics so much as stage an open revolt.

The Rivian never feels quite that quick, and auto publications are finding 3.5 seconds to 60 mph is more like it. Even that is ridiculous acceleration for any bona fide 4x4, let alone one that weighs as much as two BMW 330i sedans and could tow three Bimmers at highway speed. Like most whispery EVs, the Rivian plays tricks with one’s somatic system. Without aural cues and frenzied pistons, a more-reliable calculus for forward progress is to watch small cars turn to smaller specks in the mirror.

On hilly roads girdling New York’s reservoirs, the Rivian carved up those BMWs and Benzes as if they were holiday turkeys, its clever hydraulic anti-roll system keeping the truck’s body as flat as a platter. A 135-kilowatthour battery pack, shielded by composite underbody armor, provides up to 314 miles of range, as rated by the Environmental Protection Agency — reasonable, considering all that mass and drag. Switching into Conserve mode lowers the ride height and operates front-axle motors alone to save juice.

For an extra $10,000, a 180-kilowatt-hour battery extends range past 400 miles. That bests the $112,595 Hummer EV, which should manage about 350 miles with its 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 230-mile range.

The R1T’s brake pedal feels a bit squishy for my firmer tastes, but there’s no denying the truck’s awesome ability to shed speed. In objective testing, Edmunds.com found the Rivian set lofty new pickup records for stopping distance, acceleration and roadholding grip. Less-hurried owners can drive for hours or even days without ever brushing that brake pedal: A smartly chosen, driveradjustable regenerative function allows effortless “one-pedal” driving to smoothly halt the truck by lifting off the accelerator.

For all its crushing strength, the Rivian is a cutie. Today’s pickup vogue, embodied by the Hummer or Cybertruck, is to resemble a Mechagodzilla, all stomping, firebreathing menace. The Rivian’s oval, translucent LED eyes, clean lines and cheerful mien are more Iron Giant: rated for all ages, genders and personalities, not just Costco cosplayers in trucker hats.

The interior takes a safe path with the Apple-esque minimalism that is in vogue for EVs. A mite longer than midsize trucks, much shorter than full-sizers, the R1T offers a back seat comfortable for two or three adults.

Now all Rivian needs to do is cook up sales.

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