“Oh my, is that one in the flesh?”
Joe, an older guy with an aging electric Hyundai Kona, is approximately the 40th person to ask me about the pick-up truck I’ve just plugged into a charging station in Bakersfield, California. We’re 8,000 feet below the Sierras’ rugged southern spine, where we put the new truck through its paces, and I’m getting used to the attention. Joggers on suburban streets, SUV drivers at stoplights, transients down by the Kern river—everybody wants to talk about this truck.
“Is that thing all electric?” someone yells out from behind us. “What’s it called?”
“It’s a Rivian,” I say to a man improbably dressed in full Hare Krishna attire, “and yeah, all electric, 300-mile range.”
“God bless you,” the sarong-ed man says to us, bowing as he walks away.
Clearly, Rivian Motor’s new electric truck, the R1T, is one of the most anticipated vehicles in years. When the first R1Ts rolled off the line in late 2021, early reviews were rapturous. The phrase “game changer” was bandied about a lot. Motor Trend named it truck of the year. Rivian, a new manufacturer, can’t run the production lines fast enough to keep up with its 90,000-plus pre-orders.
The excitement makes sense. The R1T is a mid-size, all-electric pick-up at a time when gas prices are punishing. It’s got stylish, traditional lines when some competing EVs are taking design cues from Blade Runner. It’s a luxury truck tailor-made for off-road adventures, complete with absurd bells and whistles like a built-in kitchen, a masterful four-wheel drive unlike any you’ve heard of, and mind-boggling storage capacity—all without wrecking the climate and ruining the natural spaces you want to explore.
It is a lot of hype to live up to.
So, when Rivian offered Outside the truck for a long weekend, I did not hesitate. I’m no auto journalist, just a guy who enjoys camping and off-roading. So we decided to put the R1T through all the paces any normal weekend warrior could imagine. I rounded up an eclectic cast of motorheads—friends and friends of friends with off-road vehicles who love to explore and push their gas-guzzling rigs hard—and planned a route that would challenge the truck and its moderate range and contrast it with some of the best gas off-roaders available. We would have two new Bronco owners, a Land Rover Defender driver, a work truck owner who drives muscle cars on the weekends, a jeep guy who rides motocross, and a pair of Tacoma owners. More than a few were skeptical of an EV off-roader, but everybody was on board for the plan: caravan a new Bronco, a Defender, and the R1T across two mountain ranges and a desert, and hit some technically difficult terrain along the way.
As the trip loomed, I fretted over range and routes, pouring over Gaia maps and cross-checking EV charging apps. But I also wondered if the R1T could win hearts and minds. Could a near-silent vehicle appeal to serious off-roaders and the kind of petrolheads who read the roar of an engine like sheet music?
A lot is riding on the electrification of your daily driver. I’m not going to say the fate of the world depends on it, but the government’s Energy Information Agency said last year that if America is to have a snow ball’s chance in hell of reaching its emission reduction targets by 2050—and, you know, avoiding catastrophic climate change—a full 60 percent of all new vehicles sold in the U.S. will need to be electric by 2030
Right now, EVs account for just 5 percent of new cars in the country. That may sound puny, but the numbers are trending up. Electric vehicle registrations increased 60 percent in the first quarter of 2022, even as overall new car registrations dropped 18 percent. Bloomberg analysts think we may be at a tipping point, like the moment where we all ditched our Nokia bricks for smartphones. In some places, it’s already happening: over 86 percent of all new vehicles purchased in Norway this winter were electric.
Of course, it won’t be easy. While California just passed a law banning gas-powered vehicle sales after 2035, the governor of Virginia, a state that typically follows California’s lead on air regulations, vowed the Old Dominion would not mimic the “ludicrous” ban. Electrical vehicles, like everything else, are part of the culture wars. They are the ride of choice for limousine lefties, aging hippies, and Elon Musk, a man who needs attention the way my old Tacoma needs motor oil.
If anything is going to win over Americans, though, it’s the pick-up truck, the vehicle class that has led U.S. sales for decades. Automakers are well aware of this trendline. Ford’s electric take on the ever-popular F-150, the F-150 Lightning, hit dealerships this summer and is already all but unobtainable. A pick-up Hummer EV (seriously) is newly available, too. Also on the way: an electric Chevy Silverado, a GMC e-Sierra, Tesla’s Cybertruck, the Toyota Tacoma electric, and more.
Rivian, a start-up with initial backing from Amazon and Ford, beat ‘em all to market. Its demographic is more Subaru-driver-who-longs-for-a-five-foot-bed-but-feels-bad-about-their-carbon-footprint than cowboy cosplay: an off-roader the “upper class granola munching” target demo can feel good about. And behind the wheel, it’s a hell of a lot more exciting than a hay bale hauler.
“This is the most fun I’ve ever had in a car!” Louis Werbe screamed, as the R1T powerslid around a hulking granite boulder. We were up the San Bernardino mountains, 100 miles east of Los Angeles, and we had just discovered the R1T’s “Off Road Rally” drive mode. For Louis, a Rivian skeptic who drives a Ford F-150 for work and a ‘67 Mustang on the weekends, the dirt trail was turning into a Road to Damascus.
“WOOOOO” he yelled.
Our day started 6,000 feet lower, in Los Angeles, in what Rivian calls “All Purpose” drive mode. The R1T isn’t like any other truck you’ve driven before, Rivian’s reps had assured me. It comes with four motors, each of which delivers power to a wheel as the on-board computer sees fit. There are no differentials to lock or 4×4 button to engage as you drive—the truck just does its computations and, depending on which of the nine drive modes you select from the responsive touch screen, your vehicle becomes either a sporty street racer, an aggressive four-wheeler, or a work horse capable of towing 11,000 pounds.
In All Purpose mode, the Rivian became our dutiful daily driver: The drive height (aka ground clearance) lowered to 11.9 inches and the suspension softened. The inordinately smooth ride and luxurious interior, complete with supple leather, panoramic glass roof, and a generous backseat, kept all the passengers content. The electric engine’s 835 horsepower and instant torque also kept the driver engaged. On the 100 miles of freeway between Rivian’s hip Venice, California, outpost and the mountains, the R1T passed other cars in a way no truck should—its zero-to sixty time is a sphincter-clenching three seconds—and cornered with surprising authority. Even at 18 feet long, the R1T was somehow more Miata than Subaru Outback-
Once we hit dirt, though, the R1T began to really show off. We aired the tires down—the R1T comes with an onboard air compressor, located in the bed, which works well and is the ultimate flex over your off-roading buddies—and mashed the “Off Road Auto” button. The truck’s ride height climbed to 13.5 inches (not its highest setting, mind you), the suspension loosened, and the torque was split evenly between front and back wheels. Shallow water crossings and mid-size rocks were nothing to the R1T. The trail we’d chosen to take up the mountain was rated “moderate” for a few off-camber spots, but almost no technical skill was required of us—we just pointed the vehicle at an obstacle and the high clearance (15 inches on “Off Road Rock Crawl” mode) and the four electric motors did the rest. Obstacles that would have halted most stock pick-ups passed almost without notice. Thanks to the truck’s unparalleled clearance, breakover angle and departure angle, we giddily climbed 6,000 feet in luxury.
“This is the most fun I’ve ever had in a car!”
This bit of off-road hand-holding is probably wise. Most of the R1T’s reservation holders—up to 70 percent, Rivian’s senior product designer Matt Gaskin told me—have never owned an off-road vehicle before. For these drivers, the easy confidence the R1T inspires on dirt will be appreciated. The newbies are also in for a startlingly comfortable off-road experience, since the R1T’s suspension system automatically adjusts ride height, changes damping rates, and minimizes body roll on the fly. Add a near silent engine and our time on the trail was almost peaceful.
At 6,000 feet the trail opened up into a wide, beckoning fire road. Cautiously, we selected “Off Road Rally” mode. The height dipped to 11.9 inches, pedal sensitivity increased, and traction control was reduced. What followed was a revelation. A 7,000-pound truck hitting 60 miles per hour on a dirt road in under five seconds is an impressive thing, sure. But entering a power slide around a towering pine with gleeful abandon until, just as the panic begins to well in the pit of your stomach, all four tires dial-in and seize the earth simultaneously and you and the truck are propelled out of the uncontrolled slide with the precision and ferocity of a bullet train? Now that’s impressive.
A few more corners and we were all delirious. Louis, our ‘67 Mustang driver, was converted. “This is the Porsche 911 of off-roaders,” Aria Miran, our Land Rover Defender owner declared. “The suspension inspires so much confidence, it just sucks up whatever you throw at it—but somehow it still feels planted,” he marveled, giving the truck’s suspension higher marks than his Defender. John Rajaee, a new Bronco owner, asked how he could get an R1T for himself.
This, unfortunately, is where the euphoria bursts. For John to get an R1T, he’ll have to plonk a reservation down and wait at least 12 months. Rivian, thanks to global supply issues, is many months behind on its preorders. But the wait will be the least painful part. After a recent price increase, the R1T we drove costs around $93,000. The base truck, which will come with just two motors, 260 miles of range and none of the off-road goodies, now starts at $73,000.
In the new world of EV trucks, these eye-watering numbers aren’t unique. J.D. Power figured last month that the average EV costs $19,000 more than the average gas-powered car. Ford’s new electric F-150 Lightning starts at $47,000 and has 230 miles of range, but the upgraded version with 300 miles of range will run you at least $85,000. The first edition of the EV Hummer starts at $110,000. These prices put EV trucks out of reach of most Americans. Though it’s worth noting that pickups aren’t exactly cheap anymore: the average price of a new mid-size truck in August was $41,872 and Ford’s gas-powered off-road ready F-150 Raptor starts at about $69,000.
Still, could an EV truck possibly be worth the cost of a down payment on a home?
Of course not.
But, if you have the money to spare?
The hardest part of our Rivian journey, it turns out, came before we even hit the road.
If day one had been a test of the truck’s off-road capabilities, day two was an effort to see how the R1T—or any electric vehicle, really—can handle wilderness camping, far from any electrical outlets. Up until this point, charging the truck had been easy: we charged at the base of the mountain, just off a major freeway, and at the top of the mountain, in the town of Big Bear Lake. But today we planned to cover about 300 miles, at least 60 of them off-road.
This part of the journey required serious advanced planning. Our R1T came with a 300-mile battery, though the company says bigger and smaller battery packs will be on offer soon. In normal usage, this is more than enough. Plug into a 220v outlet, like the one your dryer uses, and the truck charges fully overnight in your garage. But road tripping isn’t quite as simple. While it may seem like EV chargers are popping up at every mall in America, most public chargers aren’t powerful enough for use on long trips—they’d take about ten hours to fill your battery. Instead, road-trippers are reliant on a paltry network of “fast-chargers,” mostly operated by Electrify America. (Tesla, it should be noted, manages a much more robust proprietary Supercharger network; the company says that it will allow competitors to use its network in the near future.) Although EA’s fast chargers only take 30 to 45 minutes to fill up the battery, stations are few and far between and broken chargers are infuriatingly common. A drive on the Interstate between major cities is easy enough—the truck’s navigation plans charging stops and range anxiety is minimal. But heading deep into the wilderness off road, where Motor Trend estimates the R1T can travel 160-190 miles, isn’t so simple.
Routes deep into the high desert were scrapped early. Though we wanted to explore some high plains hot springs that appeared just within the truck’s reach, fretting the whole return route didn’t seem worth the stress. So instead we did what any EV off-roader will have to do—we compromised. Fast charger locations would dictate our route. We would cross the southern Sierra, a line that would take us off road for about 70 miles and on pavement for another 80. Although the mileage was low, I still couldn’t help but worry.
There are no differentials to lock or 4×4 button to engage as you drive—the truck just does its computations and your vehicle becomes either a sporty street racer, an aggressive four-wheeler, or a work horse capable of towing 11,000 pounds.
We powered down the San Bernardino mountains (drive mode: Sport. 10.5-inch ride height, stiff suspension, reduced traction; like driving a Porsche Macan with a bed) and across the Mojave, on both highway and salt flats (Drive mode: Off Road Drift. 11.9-inch ride height, stiff suspension, no traction control; donuts galore). We tried out Driver+, the R1T’s version of hands-free driver assist, which kept distance well and handled turns easy enough, but decided it didn’t inspire as much confidence as Tesla’s leading Autopilot feature. (It also only worked for me on large, divided highways.) We ate a leisurely breakfast in the town of Mojave while the truck charged for 45 minutes, then hit Jawbone canyon.
The dirt route up the eastern side of the Sierras was beautiful and generous. “This is so crazy, this is so crazy,” Cleber Bonato, our photographer, kept muttering. He’d been riding in a 2021 Ford Bronco most of the trip, an undeniably fun vehicle but one that lets you know when you’re off road. As high desert yielded to oak forest, the Rivian felt like it was gliding down a highway. The speed and maneuverability on dirt felt closer to riding a sport bike, Cleber marveled. As the foliage turned to pine forest and rain turned to hail, we found the heated steering wheel feature. “Everyone should have this,” Louis said. “Healthcare and this truck.”
At some point around 8,000 feet, thanks to a jagged rock and some very inexact driving, we got to test out the R1T’s tire change kit and full-size spare, which was stored under the bed. The change also gave us a chance to use what we’d dubbed the “recovery frunk.” Like other EVs, the R1T doesn’t have an engine up front. Instead, it has a massive storage compartment under the hood or “frunk.” In ours, we easily fit a shovel, traction boards, jumpers, jacks, a tow rope, tarps and towels, with plenty of room to spare. (Thanks to drains at the bottom, the frunk can double as a very Instagram-able cooler.)
As we crossed the PCT and crested the Sierra, our range anxiety, like most anxiety, turned out to be a waste of mental energy. The R1T’s range indicator is dynamic and changes based on your driving. We still had 172 miles in the tank—not bad since we’d gone about 65 miles since charging, and most of them had been driven off road and maniacally. Rather than camp in the snow and hail, we cruised down the range and actually gained mileage as the regenerative breaking created and stored energy. We parked on a patch of Sequoia National Forest land overlooking the upper Kern River to set up camp.
At the time, I reparked and maneuvered the truck several times to find a level plot of land. But if I were taking the trip today, I wouldn’t have to. Since lending us the truck, Rivian has released a “camp mode” which uses the hydraulics to level out the vehicle perfectly. The new mode was released for free “over the air”—one of Rivian’s periodic updates and upgrades, which, like Tesla’s, are downloaded via WiFi, right in your garage. (Similarly, our R1T had eight different drive modes included when I borrowed it, but it now has nine; the new “Sand mode” would have been very welcome during our donuts in the Lucerne Valley.)
At the campsite, the R1T’s storage capacity came in handy. The truck includes a “gear tunnel,” a 65 inch-long, 11 cubic foot storage space that runs behind the backseat. It is something of a wonder. Things that fit during my testing: a snowboard and a set of women’s skis; brooms and landscaping gear; and, on this trip, my enormous Gazelle pop-up tent plus three sleeping bags, a Big Agnes backpacking tent, four pads, two folding chairs, pillows, and several duffel bags. If you don’t need the space, for a cool $6,750, Rivian will drop a whole camp kitchen into the tunnel, induction range and kitchen sink included.
As darkness set in, we grudgingly conceded that two of Rivian’s most ridiculous extras—a powerful flashlight hidden inside the driver door and a removable Bluetooth speaker and lantern that lives beneath the center console—are actually quite useful. We also learned that the gear tunnel’s door, which can support up to 250 pounds, makes an ideal seat for a beer.
Around the campfire, it became clear that after 500 miles of dirt, scree, sand, and crumbling California highway, the R1T had overperformed in almost every setting. Our drivers were all blown away; two threatened to pre-order R1Ts or its sister SUV, the R1S. Were it not for its range limitations—and the jumbo price tag—it would be hard to find a fault in this truck.
With the adrenaline from the day depleted, the other drivers zipped up their tents or cowboy camped around the fire, and I clambered up into my co-branded Yakima-Rivian rooftop tent (available for just $3,100) and slept like a baby.