Sunday, January 11, 2015

One Week on ICE

Unlike spring break, there were no excuses this time. No doctor appointments, no baseball practice, and the plant was shut down for the holidays. Come hell or high water, we were driving 500 miles to Flagstaff, Arizona to visit my wife's son and his family. It's their first winter since moving there, so we needed to make sure they're staying warm. Thaw them out if need be.

So, what to drive...  a thousand miles round-trip, two adults, two big kids, two duffle bags for me and the boys, one humungous suitcase for the wife, and a cardboard box filled with presents for the grandkids. Well, with a fleet made up of two short-range BEVs, a PHEV with only 10 cu ft of cargo space, and a thirsty V-8 pickup, the choice was obvious, at least to me: rent. The leading candidate was a Prius V, which on paper has about as much cargo capacity as our RAV4 EV. Unfortunately, the local Toyota dealer was no longer renting one out. So I jumped online and reserved an "Intermediate SUV" with Enterprise.  A RAV4 or similar, as described and depicted it on their web site. That surprised me, since I've always thought of the RAV4 as a "Compact SUV", aka cute-ute. Perhaps the latest evolution of the RAV4 is even bigger than the last, catapulting into a larger class of SUV.

I've always liked Toyota's RAV4, from its original mid-nineties incarnation to its current iteration. Never did get a first-generation RAV4, the breakthrough cute-ute that created the market segment. As a childless couple we simply had no need for a SUV or otherwise wagon-like vehicle. We did get a second-generation RAV4 when my wife was pregnant, in anticipation of our growing family, but we had to ditch it after the twins were born. After several months it was clear that with two babies we needed something much bigger, at least through the infant years, when carting around twin strollers and portable playpens everywhere we went seemed to be a necessity. So we traded it for a proper mothership (aka minivan). Fast forward eleven years to the present, we now have a fully electric version of the Gen 3 RAV4, which has evolved from the previous generation in size as well as from a drivetrain and refinement perspective.

I called the local Enterprise office the day before to ask them to pick me up as soon as they open in the morning, but they said to call back the next day since the pickup service can only be requested on the day of the rental. So I did, and an hour and a half later their driver finally swung by in a new Ram 1500 Hemi to pick me up (nice truck!). The delay foiled my plan to get to Flagstaff before sundown, but at least I got a ride in a truck I had my eye on for a few months... without a reasonably priced PHEV pickup entering the market in the near future, the 25mpg Ram 1500 Quad Cab diesel is currently the leading candidate for eventually replacing my aging '07 Ram 1500 Hemi.

As we pulled into the Enterprise facility, I crossed my fingers and hoped for a RAV4.  So when I spotted a blue fourth-generation RAV4 on the lot, I simply had to have it. How can I make it mine? One thought was that maybe if I bitched incessantly about how long it took them to send a car out to pick me up (well over an hour) and how long I've been standing in line (20 minutes, at least), they'd feel obliged to assign me the car of my choice. But that's not me. In the end, when I finally reached the counter, I chose the high road.

"You doing alright? Pretty busy in  here today," I sympathized. It was only 10am or so, but I swear the guy already had a 5 o'clock shadow and seemed a bit stressed.

"Yeah, looks like a lot of folks reserved last night. We're sold out now," he said, typing frantically at his terminal as I pulled out my driver's license and credit card.

"Wow, glad I reserved with you guys weeks ago. So is that my RAV4 out there?" I asked, facing the window for a moment.. He quickly glanced out at the lot, then turned his focus back to the terminal.

"Probably," he responded. "Let me look at something," he added, cracking a smile.

In a few minutes we were strolling toward the metallic blue RAV4. During the ding and scratch inspection, I spotted an AWD badge on the rear door. "Oh cool, that'll be handy in Flagstaff," I muttered. He heard me, and asked why I was renting. I told him we have three EVs and a guzzling V-8 truck, neither of which were ideal for the trip. He asked if I had a 500e and if I was using my free rental days. I said no, but that I thought that providing the rental program is a brilliant move by Fiat. After declining to take their additional insurance coverage or their gas at $2.50 a gallon, we chatted briefly about EVs (he was curious about the RAV4 EV and Volt), then bade each other farewell, and I started my week on ICE.

After a whole year of driving EVs almost exclusively, save for occasional in-town trips with the pickup, it's become a bit unsatisfying to drive a car powered exclusively by a 4-cylinder internal combustion engine. Fully laden with four humans and cargo to the ceiling, the ICE RAV4 protested with incredible rasp when asked to accelerate to freeway speeds, then aimlessly hunted for the right gear (it had six to choose from) when maintaining 75mph on a long uphill grade. In stark contrast, our RAV4 EV moves with extreme urgency in utter silence when beckoned, no matter how heavy the load is. And it never hunts for the right gear because, well, there is only one. Fifteen minutes into a seven-hour drive and I was already experiencing separation anxiety from our beloved collection of electrics.

My wife was disgusted. "This is the new RAV4? It seems so cheap. I like mine much more," she said. I was ready to argue at first, because I thought that the fit and finish of our rental was comparable to, if not better than her RAV4 EV. But I grunted in agreement instead, and figured she was turned off by the low-tech analog instrumentation and influenced unknowingly by the intrusive egg-beater sound of the 4-cylinder and aggravated by the transmission's seemingly nonstop, jerky gear-hunting. The silence of the electric drivetrain she has grown accustomed to goes a long way in boosting the perceived quality of the vehicle it's powering.

My frustration with the ICE drivetrain escalated as our altitude increased; it became harder and harder to keep up with the 90mph traffic as we traveled east on I-40. I had forgotten how much an ICE is affected by thin air. Not a problem with an electric, not even in the Volt, in my experience. My disappointment in Toyota's decision to exit the BEV market at this time amplified every time I floored the throttle.

After a couple of days in Flagstaff, I got over it and started liking the car. The current RAV4, especially in AWD form, is a nice package. It's great for hauling four people comfortably in inclement weather, gets an honest 28mpg on the highway, and it fits a lot of stuff in the way-back, even more than our third-gen RAV4 EV, which holds more than the first-gen Highlander Hybrid we once had, and is nearly as spacious back there as the current-generation Honda Pilot it replaced. As a bonus, thanks to AWD, the RAV4 rental was a blast when doing donuts and figure-eights on an icy parking lot. Just shut off the traction control, punch the Sport Mode button, and have at it.

By the time we were headed home from the five-day trek, I was hooked, and wished I could find a reason to keep one of these things. But we would only need to use it on family trips that are beyond the RAV4 EV's reach, which is at most several times a year. So to console myself I kept it for two more days; ended up driving around town a bit and took the boys up to the mountains to play in fresh snow on New Year's day.

In the end, the one-week rental totaled $258 including tax and fees. With side trips that included the Grand Canyon south rim and the meteor crater near Winslow, we traveled 1400 miles in 7 days, averaged 26mpg (most of the trip involved keeping up with traffic at 80+ mph), and spent $140 on gas. If we took the truck instead of renting the RAV4, the gas bill would be double that, so the weekly rental was at a net cost of $120, which in my mind was well worth it. A small price to pay to drive the heck out of someone else's car.

This got me thinking... is it possible to make the trek in a Tesla Model X? Doing a quick search on the Tesla forum and plugshare indicates that it is possible in an 85kWh Model S, but only by way of Vegas, or by impeding traffic for a good stretch of I-40 since the only supercharger between Barstow and Flagstaff is in Kingman. That would add at least a couple of hours of travel time to a drive that is already more than long enough to start with. So for me, ditching the Volt and the Focus Electric in favor of a Model X is not in the cards. Trading the Volt for a 2016 Volvo XC90 PHEV? Now that's plausible. We'll see... for now, we'll just keep calling Enterprise whenever we visit our family in Arizona.