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With a Jolt From Tesla, a More Electrifying Utility

THE top speed of a vehicle usually doesn’t mean much — until, that is, you’re running late for a flight, as I was in Los Angeles a few Saturdays ago.
I punched the Sport button on the all-electric Toyota RAV4 EV that I had been driving for two days and slammed the accelerator to the floor. The burst of power — in a blink it kicked me past the 75 m.p.h. traffic in the fast lanes — was not what I expected from a small battery-powered crossover.
The electric surge was transformational. Still gaining speed at a good clip, I could easily have zoomed to the 100 m.p.h. top speed listed in Toyota’s specifications. (For the record, the top speed in Normal mode is 85.)
The electric drivetrain from Tesla Motors, maker of the rollicking two-seat Roadster that has helped overhaul the spinster image of electric cars, turned a sedate Toyota utility wagon into a high-riding 4,032-pound electric beast. I made it to the airport with time to spare.
The story of the 2012 RAV4 EV, which goes on sale this month at about 60 Toyota dealerships in California, represents the melding of two disparate corporate cultures — one a staid but successful Japanese behemoth, the other a disruptive California start-up — into a single machine.
The May 2010 ceremony that announced their partnership was equal parts Hollywood, Marvel and anime. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former Mr. Universe who was California’s governor at the time, presided. Elon Musk — Tesla’s chief executive, a practicing rocket scientist and the inspiration for the billionaire Tony Stark character in the “Iron Man” films — shook hands with Akio Toyoda, Toyota’s chief. Mr. Toyoda, heroic in his own way, had three months earlier offered a self-effacing, apologetic bow before the Japanese people for his company’s gas-pedal safety gaffe.
The governor pointed to Toyota’s quintessentially nerdy hybrid. “The Prius is an extraordinary car that goes more than 50 miles per gallon,” he said. “That was revolutionary.”
He then pointed to a Tesla Roadster, built on the chassis of a Lotus sports car, and said, “You can do something that is very sexy-looking, that goes from zero to 60 in less than 3.9 seconds.”
With an actor’s timing, he turned to the crowd and said, “Both of those forces now come together.”
Two years later, here I was, driving the embodiment of that union, a joining of the efficient-but-tepid Prius with the screaming-fast Roadster.
The choice of the RAV4 as the platform for a Toyota-Tesla venture was far from certain when engineers from the companies first met. The Tesla group, mostly unfamiliar with Toyota’s full model line, boned up by visiting a showroom.
“O.K., here are all the Toyota cars,” J B Straubel, Tesla’s chief technical officer, said to his team. “What can we make into an E.V.?”
When Mr. Straubel first met Greg Bernas, Toyota’s chief engineer for the project, Mr. Bernas was leafing through a newly purchased technical primer for electric vehicles, noting that his team members were thinking about E.V.’s for the first time in their careers.
The RAV4 platform was chosen, in part, because it could carry a battery pack large enough for a reasonable range. It also met a requirement set by Mr. Toyoda: that it be built in North America. The RAV4 also had an E.V. pedigree: in 1997-2003, Toyota produced some 1,500 electric RAV4s.



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