The moment I knew the Rivian R1T was a true contender in the now-exploding electric truck market came while bracing myself in the passenger seat while a fellow journalist guided the e-beast up a treacherously rocky, narrow 30-degree grade near Breckinridge, Colorado—all with shocking ease and comfort. There was none of the violent jostling you get in traditional four-wheelers scrambling to solve a technical trail. There was little-to-no slippage from the four all-terrain-tire shod wheels. And the best part was the silence—all you could hear while this 7,000-pound pickup deftly darted up, up, up was the sound of tires crunching over rocks, and our own joy-filled hollering.
But before we get into the nitty gritty of why the Rivian is so confident and comfy on routes that should offer a robust challenge to most of the best-equipped internal combustion engine-powered rigs out there, here’s a bit of background on the upstart e-vehicle company.
Tracing the origins of Rivian
Rivian was founded in 2009 by engineer Robert “RJ” Scaringe in Florida. The initial goal was to make autonomous vehicles. Then the company pivoted toward hybrid sports cars and changed tack again, landing on electric adventure vehicles. Its first model was the R1T, which had its first Launch Edition production units roll off the line in an old Mitsubishi plant in Normal, Illinois on September 14th. An SUV version, the R1S, of the pickup can be ordered now for delivery in January 2022 with most of the same features and capabilities, just a slightly shorter wheelbase.
Which brings us to the present—where after much delay, lots of speculation, numerous claims of “vaporware,” and legions of disgruntled and disillusioned e-truck enthusiasts sounding off hourly in online forums—the Rivian R1T is finally here and it’s legit.
It’s the first e-truck on the market, beating out Ford’s utility-focused F-150 Lightning and the monster mashing GMC Hummer EVs, whose launch edition pickup should be coming to customers before the end of the year. (We should also mention the over-styled Cybertruck, but that seems to be slipping further into flop territory as more concrete vehicles emerge from the e-haze.)
Anatomy of a Rivian
To understand why the R1T is such an amazing off-roader (and brilliant at tearing up the tarmac, which we’ll get to in a bit), you have to start with the underlying structure and drivetrain. It’s configured in the “skateboard” design that’s preferred by most e-vehicle makers, where the battery pack sits low and flat in between the front and rear wheels. This gives it a low center of gravity and lots of room in the passenger cabin.
The battery is integrated into the frame, a hybrid of a traditional ladder-type truck frame with modern unibody construction. It can be fast-charged at up to 200kW and is EPA-rated to 314 miles of range (that can jump up to 15 percent depending on wheel and tire combo) or 70 MPGe (miles per gallon equivalent) combined.
A robust brake regenerative system puts energy back into the pack as you drive. I found I used the brake only around 5 percent of the time during our off-road outing (mostly on loose rocks on a sharp downhill) and during the on-road portion (usually when coming up too fast on a mountain turn). After all day of adventuring, when we returned to home base, the battery life indicator said we had 119 miles of range left over. Rivain warranties the battery pack to 8 years or 175,000 miles, and also covers the retention of 70 percent or more of the battery capacity.
But what really makes the Rivian shine is what that battery is powering: the quad motors, air suspension, and electro-hydraulic roll control system. All of those work together to make for a vehicle that can take on some of the toughest tracks and conditions in the wild or around town.
Whether scrambling up a sandy, scree-filled slope on the side of a mountain, or blasting around the twisties on your favorite road, the combo of the motor units (two up front have 415 hp and 413 ft. lbs of torque, while the back axle has 420 hp and 495 ft. lbs for a total of 835 hp and 908 torque) with the adjustable on-the-fly suspension (14.9 inches clearance in off-road, 9.7 in sport, and 8.7 in kneel mode) makes for a formidable vehicle, no matter the terrain.
What blew my mind after experiencing the synergy of systems, is that it’s all available to you almost instantly and effortlessly. There’s no need for a locking differential. With the quad motors, you can control power at each wheel for insanely precise torque control, on- and off-road, while slip can also be actively managed at each wheel for increased control in off-road situations or while driving through treacherous on-road conditions. Off-road mode gives you four options: Auto, for all-around general performance; Rock Crawl, for max traction, suspension height, and suspension softness; Rally, for a slightly lowered suspension and more aggressive power; and Drift, which puts about 80 percent of the power to the back wheels (better to get the ass out around curves).
The air suspension is also a wonder, marrying generous suspension height settings and active dampening—adjusting to user input every 5 milliseconds—with the roll control system to bring almost luxury car-like manners to the roughest trails, while giving you the stance and stiffness to take on tight corners on asphalt with confidence and control.
There’s no cooler feeling than taking a Rivian off a gnarly trail (embarrassing a few hardcore rigs in the process), then putting the truck into Sport mode to merge onto a highway. You can feel the truck hunker down, suspension getting taut, motors releasing the reins to allow sports car-like performance to be unleashed whenever your right foot gets the urge. Those off-road thrills at low speeds are promptly replaced by on-road delights as power from the electric motors comes on strong and linear.
For other times, when you don’t feel like romping on the gas, err accelerator pedal, like when towing or trying for max range, there are a few other modes. All-Purpose is for general driving with the truck in a more conservative, relaxed state; Conserve mechanically disengages the front and rear axle to allow only the front two motors to pull you along, while lowering the truck for maximum aerodynamics; and Towing adjusts settings to put everything into safely lugging up to an astounding 11,000 pounds.
Inside an electric adventure vehicle
The units Rivian provided for testing were pre-production vehicles not available for purchase, but they were extremely close to production trucks. These R1Ts were well-built, with tight and consistent panel gaps and high-quality finishes in the interior. We experienced few hiccups, mostly related to software glitches that can easily be updated over the air (OTA) like a slightly wonky driver’s side window switch, electric tonneau cover problems, and intermittent user interface bugs.
The interior of the four-door e-truck is well thought out for the most part, with vegan leather seats; a recycled microfiber headliner; and homey, unvarnished ash wood used for accents on the wraparound dash offset by matte aluminum trim. There are loads of USB C charge points peppered throughout, plus a household 12 volt plug located in the back of the center console for rear passengers to use.
Back seats on the pre-production vehicles were a bit on the firm side with a back rest angle that was a little too upright for me. Extended time in the back got uncomfortable for my 6’3″ frame, though engineers said the final foam density was still being tweaked.
Another niggle was the size of the sill—the space between the door opening and the seat was rather wide, and made it a little tough and awkward to get in or out of the truck, mostly when in the higher suspension modes. An auto kneel while in off-road mode may be made available OTA along with hand holds to grab onto when entering and exiting. At the moment there’s just one grab handle directly above the seat, which is hard to access from the outside when getting in.
Other standouts in the interior include the full panoramic glass roof, which is treated to block over 99.9 percent of UV light. It also made for a great viewing window for back seat passengers when going up long mountain roads or steep trails. The 1,000 lumen LED flashlight integrated into the driver’s door panel was another nice touch, as was the portable Bluetooth speaker/lantern that slides under the front center console—both get recharged when docked. A 1,200 watt sound system by Meridian keeps the tunes flowing loud and clear throughout the cabin on any type of trip, though the immersive experience is heightened by not having to compete with engine noise.
For all of your interfacing needs, there’s a 16-inch center touchscreen display, along with a smaller display for the driver that shows speed, gear selection (accessed through a touch-sensitive drive stalk on the right), warning lights, and smart cruise control/advanced driver-assistance system (ADAS). Other input can be controlled through the steering wheel, which has two multi-functional thumb controls; the stalk on the lefthand side controls lighting.
Using all of the interface options was slightly confusing at first, but after fiddling with most of them, it came pretty naturally. Using the touchscreen while actively off-roading though, can be a challenge. That’s one time when physical buttons are much appreciated, but the engineers on hand suggested an Alexa-based voice control may be added soon OTA (Amazon initially invested $700 million into the company in 2019).
Outfitting the exterior
This is billed as an electric adventure vehicle. It’s not made for hauling plywood back from Home Depot, or working on a muddy construction site (though it can handle both scenarios with ease). It’s a truck made for fast charging through the great outdoors. And for that purpose, Rivian’s added a bunch of cool accessories to make your time more efficient and enjoyable.
The most hyped feature is the Gear Tunnel, a 65-inch passage that lies behind the rear passengers and in front of the 29.2 cu. ft. truck bed (83.6 inches long with the tailgate down). It’s fully enclosed with two swing-down doors on either end that act as steps (or seats) that can hold up to 300 lbs and have hidden storage spots for first aid kits or other accessories. Rivian also did a collab with Japanese outdoor leisure gear stalwart Snow Peak and produced a slide-away kitchen that fits in the tunnel. The $5,000 add-on has a two-burner induction stovetop, along with a sink and drawers that hold cork cutouts for a full Snow Peak outdoor kitchen load out (titanium sporks not included).
Other awesome outdoor accessories include a Yakima branded rooftop tent that rests on the Yakima co-developed adjustable roof racks, which are extremely easy to unlatch and relocate as both the bed rails and the roof have four hook-in points for the racks. Rivian has plans to roll out even more outdoor-focused accessories as production gets up and rolling over the years.
The bed includes a 150 psi digital on-board air compressor (separate from the air suspension) and 20-foot air hose for touch ups post-off-roading. That unit also includes two points for attaching an 8-foot locking cable that can reach bikes mounted on the roof. Other features in the bed include two LED side lights, two 12 volt household outlets, an electric tonneau cover that can be operated on the fly, and storage (14.3 cu. ft.) under the bed that can hold a full-size spare. Other storage options include the front trunk at 11 cu. ft. which has features like a powered lid, cargo net, and another 12 volt outlet.
After years of waiting, with supply chains hobbled by the pandemic, the Rivian R1T is here, beating out all other electric trucks. In my two-day test drive, it proved to be powerful, extremely capable, superbly composed on challenging mountain pass roads, and packed with features to make you want to spend more time in the remote wilderness.
The Rivian R1T starts at $67,500 and is available for delivery in January 2022.
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