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Rivian R1T first drive: Without a question, the best pickup truck I've ever driven, both off and on the road

Rivian R1T first drive: Without a question, the best pickup truck I've ever driven, both off and on the road

Rivian R1T first drive: Without a question, the best pickup truck I've ever driven, both off and on the road

Rivian surprised us at the 2018 Los Angeles Auto Show by showing a fully functional R1T electric pickup prototype. At the time, Fred said:

The features here surprise me. We're talking about an all-electric pickup truck's best-case scenario. It looks that these designers have found out how to use an electric power train to get excellent performance in a pickup truck design.

After a three-year wait, which included a pandemic and a basically delay, we're finally able to take one for a test drive.

For this review, Rivian flew us out to Colorado, put us up in a Real estate motel, and fed us direct from the rollout "camp kitchen."

I'm not a big pickup driver in the first place. When I was in high school, I had a Chevy S-10 that I used for mowing lawns and clearing snow, and it was little. During my college years, I drove an old Nissan Pathfinder and then changed to cars and crossovers as my daily drivers.

The Rivian R1T looks similar to the prototypes Rivian showed off in 2018, suggesting that the company was well into its development process when it was introduced in Los Angeles. Rivian has spent the nearly three years since improving and, most important, mass-producing the all-electric pickup truck.

The R1T was expected to go on sale at the end of 2020, so last week's first customer vehicle is about a year late – but that's not good when compared to other automakers adjusting to the reality of the pandemic and the unknowns of electric gear boxes.

Rivian still managed to beat out behemoths Ford, Chevy, and EV expert Tesla to production, and is currently the only car producing electric pickups, even if only in small numbers. If you order now for $67,500 before incentives, you may expect delivery in late 2022 at the earliest.

Since 2018, the automobile has remain beautiful with very minor changes. Those once suspicious front lights have won me over! Here are a few of the more modest improvements I've noticed:

  • Around the margins, Trunk space is flatter and smoother.
  • The charging bay door is now operated by a motor.
  • The maximum charging power is roughly 220kW+ (vs. 160kW promised)
  • The doorknobs are flat.

This is a good thing. After viewing the Rivian for the first time, my colleague Fred Lambert made an R1T reservation. I was a little more hesitant (and the R1S SUV model fits my family better). After driving the R1T for the first time, would I be able to keep my money in my pocket? 

First views on Rivian R1T

The motel was about a two-hour drive west of Denver airport, at the base of Breckenridge, and it was already chilly at night, with snow touching the surrounding mountains' upper reaches. We were picked up in an R1T from the airport hotel, and it was my first time inside a "production identical" vehicle.



The seats were really comfortable, and the inside design was the perfect combination of sporty-spartan and rough luxury. Quinn Nelson of the Snazzy Labs YouTube channel was driving the van with me, and it was great to meet a fellow geeky at the show. I feel car sick sometimes, so I stayed in the front, but his 6'4′′ body had plenty of room thanks to the glass roof and large cabin in the back. Our bags and equipment fit perfectly in the front trunk, which measures 25.4 inches by 54.8 inches and has a depth of 22.7 inches.

Rivian R1T Center Stack

I'm always impressed when startups (like Tesla in 2012) are able to build an entire operating system from the ground up (compare to legacy automakers which often outsource to QNX and now often Google). Rivian's OS isn't quite as clean as Tesla's, but it shares the same goals: Rivian wants to entirely control the experience. There's no Car Play or Android Auto here, though I'm informed the hardware exists and might be added in the future. However, after speaking with CEO RJ Scaring, I didn't get the impression that this would ever happen. Rivian, he said, wanted to own the entire experience, which included not only music and audio but also mapping and other features found on smartphone projection screens.

Currently, the company uses open-source Map Box, but you can expect them to create their own maps in the future. The trucks are equipped with various of cameras and super-accurate (within inches) GPS, and I believe the plan is for Rivian to use its fleet to create off-road trail maps that Google and Apple will not have access to. Rivian drivers creating and talking about the intricacies of trails, charging, and off-road life, a Strava-like social network with Rivian drivers forming and talking about the intricacies of trails, charging, and off-road life, according to the way Rivian talks about its community.

Currently, just one third-party app, Spotify + Tune-in, is available, which Rivian utilised to create a car listening playlist of everyone's favorite music. The Meridian sound system is crisp and immersive, with four above titanium speakers. More apps, including Amazon Alexa speech recognition, will be added in future OTA updates. That money from Jeff Bezos isn't free.

R1T Drive Modes

The rest of the user interface is rather straightforward. You may select from several driving modes, and instead of the subtle alterations found in most vehicles, the modes on the Rivian completely transform the vehicle. Most drivers, I believe, will spend most of their time in "Sport" Mode, which feels like a jacked up 6000lb Tesla. With slower acceleration and higher suspension, “All-purpose mode” feels more like a regular pickup. If you need to extend the life of a charge, select "Conserve mode," which only uses the front motors and restricts acceleration to a minimum. The suspension is jacked up in “Rock Climb mode,” and the speed is kept low for what was to follow.

 

While the center stack is amazing, I believe Rivian needs to focus on this the most. The maps are slow to respond to finger swipes, and the driving mode isn't switchable on several occasions. This is all software, so I believe it is doable, but there is still work to be done. I'd also like to see CarPlay/Android Auto as an option, but I understand that's quite unlikely. If you absolutely must have Apple or Android in your vehicle, how about an iPad mount and an AUX cable?

Level 3 autonomy, which will make use of both the 12 camera array and the built-in lidar, is also on the way. When we asked about other companies' vision-only approaches, we were advised that more sensors are preferable, especially off road, which is difficult to argue.

The autopilot system is now a simpler traffic-aware cruise control system with lane assist that works effectively on interstates.

We arrived at a camp-out in the evening to find food and drinks prepared in, on, and around the R1T "Camp Kitchen." RJ Scaring, the CEO, introduced all of the staff and spoke about the long road that led up to this week's debut. Over the course of the three days of traveling, the people we worked with developed a strong bond. Employees from all across the United States and from all walks of life appear to be tremendously invested, and it was difficult not to sense their enthusiasm for the product. Being surrounded by advocates was a wonderful departure from being led by an outsourced PR staff or personnel who had never driven an EV before.

Even more impressive is the large number of Rivian cars available in a wide range of colors, from standard white/black/silver to red and yellow, as well as my personal favorite, blue and hunter green.

We were ready for our first trip at 7:30 a.m. the next day, and man, I wasn't expecting to climb a whole frigging' mountain. Typically, these media drives take place on a controlled course at the corporate headquarters or another generic “proving ground.” To put it gently, this was an adventure. Two of the previous group's journalists had developed altitude sickness, with one requiring an airlift. When I was rushing around snapping pictures at the breaks, I drank a lot of water and puffed a lot of air and was OK.

We went from the hotel to 13,000 feet up a very steep, rocky, and narrow path. We passed through some September snow and then the tree line, but no stock vehicles were seen along the road. The majority of the cars out here are dune buggies and heavily modified Toyota Land Cruiser-type vehicles huffing through the ultra-thin air.

One of the many advantages of electric trucks is that they do not lose power at high altitudes like diesel engines do, which rely on the ever-thinning oxygen in the air to combust. So, if the R1T teaches the ICE competition at sea level (which it does), the whooping will be even worse at these higher altitudes.

The hills we were climbing, the angle of attack, and the careful manner in which all four wheels maintained traction even while doing gymnastics over every obstacle surprised me. Every wheel having its own motor kills the traditional ICE 1-motor model in this area. The R1T cars wanted to go quicker, but our lead vehicle, led by a local trail guide who also worked in Rivian's financial department, kept us on track.

Things started to calm out once we reached the tree line. We were allowed to free up the vehicles a little more and do some little drifts, but we were not allowed to travel from the trail for fear of destroying the fragile ecosystem.

We returned down the mountain after a snack and “bio” break for another lunch made in the Camp Kitchen. The Camp Kitchen isn't cheap at $5,000, but it more than pays for itself when you can enjoy peaceful home-cooked meals in settings like these:

We actually gained a few miles of range regen-ing down the mountain – maybe around 20 – which was satisfying, especially riding over the same huge stones and small roads.

We were then allowed to go at “safe speeds” on mountain highways, through high-altitude passes and down into a nearby town with an Electrify America station at Walmart. Even with off-road tyres, the vehicle approaches the three-second 0-60 time in sport mode. Going from 50 to 80 mph on a freeway feels nearly instantaneous. This will be a completely new world for most pickup drivers.

We plugged into the EA 350kW charging station and began charging nearly quickly, with no need for an app or a key card. Yes, the Rivian will come standard with Plug and Charge, making it the third vehicle after the Porsche Taycan and Mustang Mach-E to do so. Again, it's amazing that a startup can achieve things that major automakers can't.

We were using 145kW of electricity at around 50 % state of charge, which was impossible just a few years ago. After some software updates and using Rivian's own efficient charging network, I was shown that these same stations would put out about 225kW when down around 15% state of charge, and Rivian expected to put up numbers approaching 250kW after some software updates and using its own optimised charging network. You can go up to 200 miles in under 30 minutes with a 240+kW station. The batteries in the trucks we were driving have a capacity of 135 kWh.

Given that Rivian only promised 160kW at launch, that real-world charging speed is particularly impressive. Rivian uses Samsung cells and manufactures its own packs in Normal, Illinois. They aim to use domestic cells in the future, but for now, they must depend on Samsung plants in Korea.