Car of the wild
Not everyone who buys Rivian’s R1T electric pickup truck will drive it over basketball-sized rocks two miles above sea level. But that experience can be had on the North Fork Swan River trail in Breckenridge, Colorado, which is where the buzzy Amazon and Ford-backed startup gave The Verge and other media outlets one of the first chances to experience the R1T — a sleek, $67,500 luxury four-by-four for affluent-but-still-outdoorsy types that is finally shipping to customers after multiple delays.
For those casually keeping up with the boom in electric vehicles, the R1T may ring a bell: it’s the truck that was announced to much fanfare at the 2018 LA Auto Show by Rivian, which had previously been operating in stealth mode since 2009. The company has since pounced on the excitement and anticipation for its “electric adventure vehicles” (which include the pickup and an SUV) and turned it into major financial backing from Ford and Amazon, including a deal to create a fleet of delivery vans for the e-commerce giant.
Two days with the R1T isn’t enough to say if this incredible effort will succeed or fail, but a whirlwind adventure up into the mountains with the first EV pickup to market did give me the sense that Rivian is aiming for a very specific type of person, and that it has a very clear (and opinionated) picture of what this new type of electric vehicle should be.
While the trail took up the majority of driving time, I’ll start with what it was like to drive the R1T on paved roads since that’s where most trucks are driven. I got to experience a wide range of conditions, from zooming up winding mountain passes to sitting in slow-moving construction traffic.
Rivian’s truck weighs around 6,000 pounds but is faster and more nimble than any car I’ve driven. The R1T has four motors — one for each wheel — that can easily pin your head to the headrest if you really floor it. It’s a lot of fun (even for someone like me who’s been accused of driving like a grandma), but it also serves a practical purpose; it’s a breeze to shoot up on-ramps or pass combustion-powered cars on the highway. That’s extra true in the Colorado mountains, where ICE cars can be starved for air due to the elevation. I’d press the Rivian’s pedal and just take off, all without the roar of an engine — or the 3-second delay I’m used to as my 2008 Subaru Outback puzzles over what gear it should be in.
It’s also comfortable and simple, without being spartan like a Honda Element or old Jeep Wrangler. The R1T’s interior makes heavy use of an easy-to-clean (according to Rivian) vegan leather that feels like the real deal. The instrument cluster shows you all the most relevant information, like speed, drive mode, location, and range, but manages to not be distracting while you’re actually driving. Even the 16-inch center screen didn’t get in the way of paying attention to the road, and the lack of physical controls left plenty of room for storage space, including a large mat where you can throw something like a camera or your keys and a gull-winged center console compartment.
It’s easy to imagine having a blast road-tripping in the R1T. The seats, including the back row, are comfortable, and you won’t have to worry about access to power for phones and computers. The truck is packed with USB-C and 12V ports and even has a few standard 120V outlets (Rivian hasn’t really said whether the truck will be able to power a whole house in an emergency situation, a feature Ford says the F-150 Lightning will have). Plus, there’s tons of dry and lockable storage, from the frunk and gear tunnel to a cubby underneath the rear seat.
Oh yes, the gear tunnel: it’s a compartment that spans the width of the truck, where you can throw your bags, skis, and paddles (or really anything else you can think of). It’s big enough for a human to squeeze into — an opportunity that I just couldn’t pass up. You can also access at least some of it from a hatch in the back seat of the R1T’s cab.
The truck also comes with adaptive cruise control, which can make long drives and stop-and-go traffic more bearable, and a suite of driver assistance features called Driver Plus. On pre-mapped stretches of highway, the truck can take over steering duties, keeping you in the center of the lane and even attempting to follow curves. In my (very brief) testing, it handled fine going around curves, but a message did pop up on the screen warning me that I could have to take over at any time. It does, however, still require that you keep your hands on the wheel. If it has to warn you three times to pay attention, Driver Plus mode will turn off, and you won’t be able to turn it on again until you put the truck in park.
The weight of the R1T’s 135kWh battery pack is spread out along the entire length of the truck, helping it avoid some traditional truck problems. I didn’t experience any of the fishtails that I used to deal with when I owned a Chevy S10 or when I drove a mid-2000s Ford Ranger. That weight also keeps the Rivian planted when going into curves, without the body roll that sometimes comes with bigger cars. Despite the R1T’s quickness and high-tech features, it still drives like a truck. The high carriage means you ride pretty high up, and you have to be aware of the amount of space you’re taking up on the road. While the R1T is no Escalade or Tundra, it still towers over all but the largest sedans.
Like it or not, the R1T will probably become the standard point of comparison when it comes to talking about electric trucks because it’s the first one to make its way into customers’ hands. That doesn’t mean that it won’t have to compete against trucks from Ford, Tesla, and others, but it does mean that its concept of an EV truck being something for well-to-do outdoor enthusiasts is probably going to be one that sticks in the minds of consumers. If an electric truck comes out that can’t do 0-60 in close to three seconds, that’ll almost certainly get brought up in reviews because the R1T can do it. Up until this point, the experience and characteristics of an EV with a truck bed have mostly been theoretical, which made expectations more fluid. After driving the R1T, though, I can say it was exactly what I imagined an electric truck feeling like given what I know about EV cars and regular trucks.
Unfortunately, the one thing I have to keep imagining is the charging experience, as I never got to plug in the truck. Rivian’s excuse for this was that trips to a gas station wouldn’t be part of a press drive of a new gas car. I would (and did) argue that if you were driving a gas car for three days you probably would fill its tank at some point, but as far as I’m aware none of us got to experience charging the car outside of the handful of miles we gained from regenerative braking. Each night, Rivian whisked the trucks away to be cleaned and charged up for the next day’s adventures.
All I can speak to is what it’s like to open and close the door to the standard CCS1 charging port. Like the hood, gear tunnel doors, and tailgate, it can be opened either with a physical button, or using the touchscreen. (The hood and charge port door can be closed using the touchscreen as well.) Rivian also told me that if you start driving with the charge door open, it’ll close automatically. That feels like an incredible luxury to me. I always forget to close the charging door on my plug-in hybrid Ford Fusion.
Since Rivian charged the trucks for us overnight, I never had any range anxiety with the R1T, even while we were off-roading. Our test model was capable of going 314 miles on a full charge, but I don’t think I ever saw it dip below 90 miles, even after a full day of driving.
Beyond offering ample range, Rivian is accommodating adventurous drivers with five drive modes, which you can freely switch between: there’s All Purpose for paved and dirt road driving, Off-Road for when things get rocky, Sport if you’re looking for speed, and the aptly named Conserve and Towing modes. The Off-Road mode also has profiles like rock crawl, rally, and auto that change various things, like the ride height (which can go from 7.9 inches to 14.4 inches using the air suspension), braking behavior, suspension stiffness, and more.
In 2019, Rivian announced that the truck would have a “tank turn” feature, letting it basically do donuts while staying in one place. That feature has since been delayed, so I didn’t get to try it out (a shame, as it would’ve helped me avoid a four point turnaround).
I’m the type of person that Rivian seems to be targeting with it’s adventure-focused marketing; I spend almost every weekend hiking, biking, or kayaking when I can. So I was extremely excited when I was told that we’d be doing some “serious off-roading.” I did also wonder how serious it would really be — this was a press event after all, would Rivian really be throwing us at hardcore trails, potentially risking their trucks? (Not that losing a truck would be devastating to a company that’s raised $10 billion dollars in funding.)
Apparently, yes. I don’t want to pretend like we were doing hardcore rock crawling, but we certainly got to see how the truck handled steep, loose climbs, water crossings, and situations where we were driving at an extreme angle over very uneven ground (though I don’t think we ever lifted more than one wheel off the ground). And the R1T handled all those things beautifully.
Something that I thought a lot throughout the day was “this feels like it should require skill.” Instead of worrying about keeping the engine at the right RPM so I’d have enough torque to clear the next obstacle, I just pressed the accelerator and we went forward. There were many times that, had I been driving a gas truck, I likely would’ve had to back up to get a little momentum going, which I never had to do in the R1T. The Rivian was tall enough that it could drive over most of the rocks we encountered — and that was in its “high” ride height setting of 13.1 inches, not even the “max” setting of 14.4 inches.
With that said, there were moments that I (a person who only occasionally off-roads) was nervous: some of the aforementioned intense angles left me gripping the colloquially named “oh shit” handles, which backseat passengers also have access to, and did their job well. Also, I always hate it when the sky’s the only thing you can see out of the windshield. But the truck never felt like it was breaking a sweat, especially when going downhill — I just kept my foot off the pedal and let the regen braking keep me at around 4mph. It was much easier than the engine braking I’m used to, where you have to decide between going 10 in second gear, and 35 in third.
One of the quietly impressive moments for me was near the beginning of the trail; it was relatively steep and, as I discovered, absolutely iced out. We stopped the truck to switch drivers, and when I got out to let the other journalist I was driving with take the wheel, I found out just how slippery the trail was in a hilarious fashion.
I thought that, since we were starting from a dead stop on an intense grade, the R1T’s front wheels would at least slip on the ice a bit before it found its footing, much like I did (especially since a Rivian engineer told me that it sends more power to the front wheels than the rear in rock crawling mode). Instead, it just drove right over the slippery surface like it wasn’t there.
Of course, the truck isn’t magic, and there is still some level of skill required if you’re going to be doing difficult trails. We managed to rip a hole in the sidewall of our tire, and had to do a very dusty spare swap. Thankfully, the truck is able to hold a full-size spare, tucked away in the bed (adding one is an $800 option for the 20-inch all-terrain tires we were using during the test drive), so we were able to get right back to driving pretty quickly. Apparently the rock we hit was problematic; the Rivian folks said they’d gotten flats there before with a previous group. There was also a reasonably technical climb where we had a spotter helping us out, because the front and side facing cameras the truck is equipped with could only do so much.
The R1T can handle unpaved terrain, but Rivian also says it wants the truck to look at home in the woods. I’m not really the right person to say whether it achieves that or not — in my opinion new and shiny things look out of place in nature (honestly, anything made by humans is stretching it). I think it fits in with nature far better than, say, the stainless-steel, trapezoidal Cybertruck, though the mountain goats we saw on the journey didn’t seem to love seeing six or seven Rivians in a row, as they quickly made themselves scarce.
Like Patagonia (a comparison Rivian’s CEO has made before), I can see the R1T’s design and driving experience appealing both to those who prefer the city and to people who are only slightly joking by calling themselves hiker trash. Though it’s certainly not going to be a vehicle designed for those looking to adventure on a budget given its starting price of $67,500. Even factoring in the possible $7,500 federal EV tax credit, that’s an expensive vehicle for most people, especially those who are more interested in spending time outdoors than being traditionally employed. Higher-end gas trucks can reach similar prices, but you can get into them much cheaper: Ford recently announced it’s Maverick pickup truck, which is significantly less luxurious than the R1T, but also comes with a hybrid drivetrain and starts at around $20,000.
There are a few nitpicks I had with the R1T. The lack of CarPlay or Android Auto is a bummer, though it would be somewhat mitigated by the truck’s built-in navigation and Spotify app. The build-it-yourself approach has worked for Tesla, so Rivian could be fine if it really nails the UX.
Some heating and cooling buttons would also be much appreciated though. As it stands, the climate controls live solely in software. The screen is also not laggy, per se, but it could be more responsive. It’s worth noting, though, that it was running pre-production software, and that Rivian can always make improvements with over-the-air updates. Rivian will have to hurry on those updates if they want them done before trucks start making their way to customers, as production R1Ts are currently being built. A Rivian representative told me that the truck’s computer has “supercomputer” levels of power, which wasn’t evident through the UI (like it is with Tesla’s ability to play AAA games), though the Driver Plus system likely pushes the hardware harder.
I also found that the lack of a traditional step-up truck bumper made it a bit difficult to just jump up into the bed and grab something, though when I mentioned this to a Rivian employee they said that they’d been using the gear tunnel door for that purpose. While that definitely works, having to open the door and then close it again is a bit more of a pain than just grabbing onto the tailgate and hoisting yourself up.
So, after going on what was basically the best test drive ever, who do I think the R1T is for? It seems like a good choice for those who like to go off-roading, as my experience shows that it’s capable of some pretty extreme stuff. That’ll also make it a good choice for campers, especially those who take less-traveled roads to get to wherever they’re staying. Rivian obviously has those folks in mind — the truck’s storage is good for those who like to bring a lot of luxury items with them to the outdoors, and the company has even teamed up with Yakima to create a rooftop tent for the R1T. Plus, with the R1T being a truck, it’ll be good for those who just want a bed for hauling oversized items, bikes, or things that would be a lot of work to clean out of a car like potting soil or Christmas trees.
As for those who constantly tow things, the R1T might be a mixed bag. While it’s rated for 11,000 pounds, Rivian says that actually pulling that much weight will cut your range in half. Even with the $10,000 max battery pack option, which Rivian predicts will get you “400 plus” miles, that’s not a ton of range. The truck may not be a great fit if you often carry long objects, like tandem kayaks or construction materials; with the tailgate closed, you’re only looking at a 4.5-foot bed, and even the clever tailgate extension mechanism only gets you 7 feet of floor space. And, again, there will probably be a lot of people that the R1T appeals to who simply can’t afford it.
It may not be a great option for people yearning for the small trucks of yesteryear either, as many of my family and friends do. I got to talk to the Rivian’s CEO, RJ Scaringe, at a campfire-side dinner, and after getting our introductions out of the way I told him about my clan’s pleas for a single-cab, 6-foot bed truck. He basically told me that he heard me, but that the company is currently trying to make things that appeal to a lot of people. He told me the same thing when I asked about whether the truck could be towed flat behind something like an RV — the current model can’t, but it’d be possible to make one. It would just depend on whether there were enough people interested in that sort of thing to make it worthwhile.
Speaking of that dinner, all the meals we ate were cooked on the $5,000 camp stove that stows away in the gear tunnel, (which does mean you’re down one storage compartment). The camp stove is fancier than the classic green Coleman stove: it gets electricity from sockets built into the sled that it rolls out on, and uses induction burners instead of gas. It also comes with a set of Snow Peak dishes, silverware, cookware, and coffee gear. While I didn’t get to cook on it, I can say that Rivian’s chefs were able to make some pretty great food using the system, though I’d chalk a lot of that up to their skill rather than equipment.
Despite that, Rivian may struggle to get traction with truck enthusiasts. It’s a market with a lot of brand loyalty (there’s a class of truck owners who are so proud of their chosen brand that they buy bumper stickers making fun of anyone unlucky enough to drive something else), and the R1T doesn’t have the sort of macho-rugged looks of some of the other mid-size trucks. Despite being around the same size, it didn’t look particularly aggressive or commanding next to a two-door Tacoma, and that’ll be even more true when comparing it against, say, a lifted F-250. While those types of trucks don’t appeal to me, they’re obviously popular: dual-cab, short-bed trucks are some of the top-selling vehicles in America, and electrification doesn’t necessarily line up with the image those vehicles project. The R1T is compelling to drive, but that’ll only help if people are willing to give it a chance.
Rivian doesn’t think this is an insurmountable problem. Some of the folks I talked to thought the company would be able to win over people who wouldn’t have necessarily considered a truck before, and were comfortable with not capturing the entire truck market (and thus not having to convert the hardcore truck people). Plus, they think some of the creature comforts could be appealing: Rivian says that the truck is designed to fit in the average American garage, something that a lot of modern trucks can’t do. In other words, Rivian is going after the types of people who buy Subarus and Land Rovers, rather than Power Wagons.
In fact, when I pressed Rivian about whether it expected really outdoorsy people to be drawn to its trucks, the company admitted that very few R1T owners were likely to take their trucks on the type of trails we went on — though it suspected that more Rivian owners would take it on bumpy, slightly rocky dirt roads that ended up at a campsite than, say, the type of person who bought an H2. Rivian also suspects that its customers will be a self-selecting group — the people who buy Rivian’s branding and ethos will be the type of people who want to spend a lot of time outdoors, according to the company.
I actually saw this first hand — a park ranger from White River National Forest joined our off-road group, and by the end she said she was convinced and was at least considering buying an R1T. The event, which felt like a camp (or maybe glamp) getaway more than a media event, convinced me that a lot of people at Rivian loved the outdoors like I do — most of the employees I talked to had at least one hobby that involved spending time in nature.
Now those employees have to prove that there are more people like them that are willing to buy their vehicles. That might be easier if potential customers got to have the same experience I did; every part of it, from driving on mountain pathways, to chatting with Rivan’s CEO around a campfire, to crawling through the truck’s gear tunnel, was certainly an adventure. But, as with most adventures, it’s hard to imagine it being my everyday life — and that’s a little how I ended up feeling about the R1T itself.