The RAV4 EV is based on the original body style of the gasoline RAV4 SUV. First introduced into the fleet market, the vehicle evolved through several versions - first with conductive charging ports, then the large-paddle inductive port, and finally the small-paddle inductive port. What we got was the "late" model version which uses the small paddle inductive charger.
The RAV4 uses 24x12V NiMH batteries for a total energy storage capacity of ~27 KWH, charged by an inductive paddle system originally designed by GM/Hughes. The batteries are tucked away under the car body and inaccessible. The batteries and battery propulsion electronics seem to be well-managed, having given us over 85,000 trouble-free miles. We've had no breakdowns or sudden failure of the batteries. The batteries are, of course, wearing out with age, but in a very gradual manner. This is showing up as a loss in total range as well as lower available acceleration.
In addition to the 24 "traction" batteries, there is an additional small 12V lead-acid battery mounted up front in the engine compartment. This acts like the battery in a normal car. It supplies power to things like accessories in the car, serves to start up the rest of the system, and is charged up by the main batteries during operation. If it dies, the car can't start up even though the main batteries may be fully charged. In this respect, it's just like a gasoline car.
The total charging system concept (wall charger & internal car electronics) is not designed well, in my opinion, and is detailed in the "Charging the RAV4 EV" page. The charger itself (manufactured by Toyota) seems to be working reliably, but the same can't be said for the charge port interface of the car. Back in September 2008, this subsystem failed, causing the charging cycle to abort after a minute or so. This was replaced at the dealer (at substantial cost!), and it appears that as I write this (5/2009), the charge port has failed again!
As a whole, the RAV4 EV operates reliably, but has a few annoying points. First of all, it is designed using the RAV4 SUV body, which is poor for freeway driving from the aerodynamic standpoint. While I can understand that it is easier to tuck the batteries away in a large, high vehicle, and the car was targeted towards fleets such as Southern California Edison, it is not so good for someone intending to use it for commuting to work on the freeway. In California we're able to drive in the carpool lanes, so we can take advantage of bypassing the normal rush-hour congestion for the most part, but at free-flow speeds, the RAV4 EV's range suffers noticeably. As a car for short-range hops around town on surface streets, it works fine and its large luggage capacity is an advantage.
Another annoyance of the RAV4 EV is its performance at low speed (<5 mph). At these speeds the vehicle shudders, making it difficult to start or stop smoothly. The brakes are not the problem here, but rather the power applied to the motor. And speaking of brakes, the (friction) brakes have always screeched horribly and no amount of adjustment by the dealer seems to do much. I'm told the brakes are different from the gasoline RAV4.
Regenerative braking is another area which needs improvement. There are two modes - "EB" (engine braking) which provides a light amount of
braking when releasing the accelerator, and "B" which adds a heavy amount of regen braking when taking your foot off the accelerator. While the EB mode works fine, the B mode regen cuts in too suddenly, causing a fair jerk when your foot comes off the accelerator. In practice, it works better for to first take your foot off the accelerator, and then switch to B mode, which is done using the shift lever. Obviously, that is not a very convenient thing to do all the time, though one does get use to it. However, we've had passengers comment that it looked like we were driving a manual transmission car!
And finally, the little stuff — the build quality of Toyota has always seemed to us to be a little inferior to Honda, which is why we have mostly owned Honda cars after both starting out with Toyotas. The RAV4 EV seems to confirm this view. In addition to numerous squeaks in the body after 85,000 miles, the rear door has always had a problem closing properly. This is made worse by having windows up when closing the door, but even when the windows are all open, the rear door has a tendency to not close properly and leave the door light on.