Curbside Review: Rivian R1T Electric Pickup Truck

As  someone who’s registered an interest in the Rivian R1T electric pickup with the company, I recently received an invitation for a test drive at their local Service Center, which is about 50 miles from my home.

The Service Center was a fairly modest building in an industrial area near San Francisco airport. There were quite a few R1T pickups, and a handful of R1S SUV’s parked around, some obviously new awaiting delivery, some with permanent California metal license plates, road grime, and even one with a laundry list of pretty serious issues penned on the windshield glass.

First, some background on the company and the truck itself. The company that became Rivian was started in 2009 by a mechanical engineer with a new PhD from MIT. By 2015, investment from outside was sizable, and a few years later Rivian purchased the former Chrysler/Mitsubishi DiamondStar factory in Normal, Illinois, to go along with R&D centers in California and Michigan. Over the period from 2017 to 2019, Rivian got big chunks of money from Ford and Amazon, and announced three products, all fully electric: the R1T pickup, the similar but shorter R1S SUV, and a commercial van optimized for Amazon curbside delivery. Rivian and Ford also announced plans to co-develop other electric vehicles.

The van exists and is being used by Amazon on a limited basis in some areas, but I’ve never seen one. Plans are for 100,000 to be built and deployed by 2030. We’ll see …

The pickup started shipping in late 2021, just around the time Rivian stock became publicly traded and just before Ford mostly split away from Rivian. Rivian has hired some pretty experienced auto industry veterans, and recently announced a partnership with Mercedes Benz for electric vans.

The first Rivian I saw, January of 2021

In January of this year, I saw my first Rivian, with real license plates, parked in my home town. It was real! I was impressed. The styling may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I like it a lot compared to the overly-chromed and big-grilled norm for modern pickups. The size is slightly larger than my double cab short bed Tacoma; though with its even shorter 52” bed (1.3 m) it may not be very useful for a working carpenter, it seems just right for  “lifestyle” use. And the fit and finish and detailing on this early example looked great.


Back to my test drive, ten months after that initial sighting. I thought it might be a group event, but was surprised to see the office and customer parking areas of the Service Center quiet. Upon checking in, I learned that this was a one-on-one appointment, though there was another test drive scheduled after mine. So I got about 20 minutes to go through the truck with the Rivian guy, 30 minutes to drive it on a rather dull preset course with a mix of freeway and industrial streets on both sides of Hwy 101 just south of San Francisco, with a short section with curves in the hills, and then a brief wrap-up back at the shop.

A few notes about the truck. Four motors, 135 kWh battery with 7,776 Samsung 2170 cells, all-wheel drive, fully independent suspension and adjustable ride height (9.9 to 15.4″, 252 to 392 mm) air suspension, 835 horsepower (!). Initially launched in a few configurations of drivetrain and battery capacity, but currently only available in the “Adventure” configuration with the quad motors and a plus or minus 310 mile range (500 km), depending on wheel and tire choice. Two colors, silver and white, are offered standard; a handful of other colors are available at extra cost.

I’ve driven a few Tesla Model 3’s, as well as a Nissan Leaf, a BMW i3 – and a Corbin Sparrow (look it up), so I expected smooth pickup, strong acceleration, and a few minutes to get used to regenerative braking. No surprises in the first mile. The large center touchscreen was pretty overwhelming, more on that later, so the Rivian employee who rode shotgun took care of most settings and I asked him to dial back regen from high to standard. After a few stops I adapted quickly and he set it back to high which started feeling good. It’s definitely one pedal driving. And wow, that one pedal! I merged onto Hwy 101 ahead of a Model 3. My co-pilot engaged Sport mode, which lowers the truck 2”, stiffens the suspension and reduces stability control a bit. I floored that right pedal and the Tesla just disappeared in the rear view mirror. Motor Trend got 0-60 mph in 3.1 seconds and the 1/4 mile in 11.6 seconds. I don’t know if it felt quite that fast, but my friend in the backseat who wasn’t expecting it, said the thrust threw his whole body back violently.

A lot has been written about the sports car feel of the steering, suspension and general handling of the Rivian. Don’t believe it. It’s still a truck, or at least a large 7100 lb (3220 kg) vehicle. I drove up to the event in our 2015 VW Golf. Even with its peppy 1.8T motor and 5 speed, our non-GTI Golf obviously has much less acceleration, and with its 185/60-15 all season tires, perhaps less ultimate skid pad stick. But the VW still felt much sportier and more fun to drive, as I confirmed on my way home taking a detour through the Santa Cruz Mountains. On the other hand, both I and my friend, who took the wheel of the R1T for a few minutes and who owns a 2wd Tundra and a 4wd F150, agreed that the R1T felt pretty amazing for a pickup.

There is also a “Conserve” mode, which lowers the suspension for reduced frontal area and drag, and inactivates the rear motors. When switched to this mode on the highway, the remaining indicated range and battery capacity immediately went up about 10%.

In many ways, the R1T also felt too fancy for what I would want in a truck, though I also felt that way about my Tacoma when I bought it 6 years ago. Certainly, some aspects of the design are very clever and functional, and should be very useful for my kind of usage.

Built in air compressor and locks for an included security cable, great for airing up tires or inflatable watercraft, and for securing bikes or tools, respectively. The cable locks, behind the vertical ports under the compressor controls, are electrically actuated; just insert the cable ends and they lock, push and pull to unlock (only when the vehicle is unlocked); hopefully they work reliably.

A pass-through gear tunnel, accessible from either side and from the back seat, though the latter access is through a pretty small port. The fold down doors make good steps, or seats. There’s no access to the gear tunnel from the bed, nor does the rear window slide. So unlike my Tacoma, where I can slide a few long pieces of lumber or PVC pipe through the back window all the way up to the windshield if needed, the Rivian is not set up to haul anything much longer than 5’ with the tailgate up, except on the optional roof rack. But maybe I’m being too practical. I mean, a little load capacity isn’t important if you can outdrag a Ram TRX out of the Home Depot parking lot. Just buy shorter stock and butt it together. I’m not a golfer, but I expect many gear tunnels will store a set of clubs. It’s too short for my cross country skis (as is the bed,even diagonally) but I prefer snowshoeing anyway. With a tailgate pad it could easily haul four or five mountain bikes.

Photo from thedrive.com

The bed design does try to make up for its short length, with an articulating tailgate and pivoting filler panel that extend the length to about 7′ (2.1 m) when opened. Width between wheelwells is wide enough for a US-standard sheet of plywood or drywall. A full-size spare (optional) fits in a cavity under the bed floor; inconvenient if you have get a flat with a bed full of dirt, but flats aren’t that common anymore, and you’d be unlikely to have a bed full of dirt if you cut a sidewall offroad. If you opt not to carry a spare, the bed cavity provides another several cubic feet of waterproof storage. By the way, despite the adjustable suspension design, there is no Citroen DS-like mode to pull a wheel up off the ground to change it.

Like most other EV’s designed from scratch (and the F150 Lightning) the front trunk, or frunk, is very spacious. Perhaps not as big as the Ford’s but between the frunk and the gear tunnel, I think one could store a lot of camping gear and food, or tools, securely and free from dust, and safe from bears.

There’s also an optional powered tonneau cover, though it’s described as troublesome on the Rivian forums and the Rivian rep proactively told me that it’s been redesigned. I didn’t get a picture. But I love the headlights. A few nights before my test drive a Rivian approached me from behind on the freeway, and I knew right away what it was. And speaking of seeing Rivians, there are already a handful in my smallish home town and every time I get out of town I see one or two on the road.

Standard all season tires on 21” rims. 20” AT’s (see below) are optional, as are 22” sport tires

So what did I not like? It’s not a specific Rivian thing, but despite being reasonably tech savvy, and owning three late-model cars (2015, 2016 and 2020), I struggle with the software controlled via touch screen configuration and operation of so many features. And I suspect the Rivian may better than some modern cars. There are a few real switches and stalks on the steering wheel and column, window switches on the doors, and dedicated soft buttons below the center display as shortcuts to the screens for HVAC features, music, drive modes etc. So at least there are no (or few) deeply layered menus, the bane of a good user experience. The user manual, despite being 240 pages, is pretty sparse on some of the detail behind the features. Not unlike our 2020 Ford Transit, it often tells you HOW to activate something, but not actually WHAT the feature does, at least not with any useful technical info.

Other concerns, if I were to buy one? Well, it’s only 5” (125 mm) shorter than my garage, and longer than my driveway without protruding into the sidewalk, so to fit it inside for charging would require careful positioning and that still wouldn’t allow walking around the truck without opening the garage door; maybe not even access to the frunk. While that would be true of any pickup, the need for regular charging would inhibit parking it out on the street like I do with our two large vehicles.

Optional all terrain tires on 20” rims

The direct to consumer sales model is great, but the fact that the nearest Service Center is two or three counties away could be a hassle, especially given the number of teething problems that are documented. Also, although Rivian touts their own charging network, there are only four Rivian fast DC chargers in California, and five nation-wide. But there are always risks for early adopters, and in my opinion the Lightning is just too big, and Cybertruck availability is nowhere imminent. Not to mention perhaps even bigger than the Lightning.

R1S SUV

There’s also the R1S SUV. A bit shorter so a better garage fit, not to mention a bit more maneuverable off road. I’m used to trucks, and would think that I use my truck as a truck, so I didn’t pay too much attention to the R1S.

I do use my truck as a truck, occasionally. And with the frunk and gear tunnel I wouldn’t need the top box.

Full disclosure: I did put a (fully refundable) deposit down as a “pre-order”, but I was told that the fact that I was invited for a test drive doesn’t mean my order will be ready anytime soon, although it’s been 13 months and they’ve shipped over 10,000 trucks. And while to date there has been no schedule, Rivian did recently inform pre-order holders that we’ll get updated by the end of the month. I also have refundable deposits on the Ford Lightning and Tesla Cybertruck but have basically heard nothing from Ford or Tesla. I did really like the R1T, but 48 hours later, I can’t say the experience blew me away either. Rivian has some good funding and a distinctive appealing product, which is definitely real, so it’s not a Faraday Future, nor is it likely to become another Fisker, but could it be the next Saab? Stay tuned …