Car Reviews

2021 Rivian R1S EV First Look: The Electric SUV

Model X Meets Range Rover in Rivian's Debut SUV

Model X Meets Range Rover in Rivian's Debut SUV

Ten years ago, I drove a prototype electric Jeep Wrangler Unlimited around the Rose Bowl parking lot as wide-eyed Chrysler (they were still just Chrysler then) engineers talked excitedly about a future where individual electric motors would drive each wheel independently, allowing unheard-of control off-road. It was a far cry from that crudely built, rear-drive mule, which featured an electric motor roughly where the transfer case used to be, a battery ahead of that, and just 40 miles (64 km) of range. A theoretical production model, they said, would be four-wheel drive and have a small gasoline engine running a generator to give it over 400 miles (643 km) of hybrid range.

That project took a long nap as the bankruptcy and merger hit, only recently being roused for implementation in 2020. Around the same time, though, Jeep will have a very serious all-electric competitor on its hands: the Rivian R1S.

“Would it be fair to characterize it as a cross between a Tesla Model X and a Range Rover?” I asked.

“Yeah, that’s a good way to put it,” Rivian founder and CEO RJ Scaringe replied.

The way he sees it, most high-powered, high-dollar SUVs these days prioritize form over function. Sure, they all go off-road to some degree, but even Range Rovers put more emphasis on luxury than rock crawling. The green ones make even more compromises, giving up capability (Model X) or performance (Range Rover PHEV) for efficiency and packaging. The R1S instead gives up a bit of luxury but keeps both the speed and the ground clearance.

Like many EVs, the R1S is built around a “skateboard” architecture proposed by the GM Autonomy concept in 2002 and adapted most successfully by Tesla in 2010. GM envisioned a common platform with interchangeable bodies mounted on top, not unlike the body on frame construction still used in pickup trucks and certain large SUVs. Indeed, the three-row R1S is a foot shorter than a Chevrolet Suburban in length but has a 6-inch-longer wheelbase. While Tesla integrates its skateboard into a more common unibody design, Rivian has skewed closer to GM’s idea and bolted the R1S’s body onto the skateboard.

Like the others, the skateboard houses a massive lithium-ion battery pack between the frame rails. The largest MegaPack features a dozen 15-kW-hr modules of 864 cylindrical 21700-type cells each for 180 kW-hr and “410-plus” miles (“660-plus” km) of range. Two smaller packs featuring nine and seven modules each boast 135 and 105 kW-hr, good for “310-plus” and “240-plus” miles (“500-plus” and “380-plus” km) of range. (Tesla’s largest battery is currently 100 kW-hr.) Splitting the battery into modules allows it to keep functioning even if a module fails, and you can replace the modules individually rather than having to replace the whole battery.

Charging happens through an SAE CCS–type fast-charging plug behind a panel on the driver’s-side front fascia. Rivian says the battery can handle up to 160-kW charging (400 amps at 400 volts), whenever that becomes commercially available, which will provide an 80-percent state of charge in 50 minutes on the MegaPack and add 200 miles (322 km) of range in 30 minutes. The battery-control computer will watch how you typically charge (Level 2 at home every night, once a week at the DC Fast charger, etc.) and adjust charging to maximize battery life. Like all EVs, charging will slow down once it reaches 80 percent to protect the battery. The battery case, on the other hand, is protected by a multilayer ballistic shield good for both road and trail hazards.

At either end of the battery are the suspension and powertrain. Control arms are employed up front, and a five-link setup is found in the rear, with standard air suspension and a Tenneco Kinetic interlinked hydraulic damper system that negates the need for anti-roll bars. There are four electric motors and four single-speed gearboxes, two of each in front and rear. The motors and their transmissions are mounted sideways in the chassis, with the motors pointing inward and the transmissions sharing a common case but no moving parts. The front motors and transmissions sit behind the front axle, and the rear motors and transmissions sit ahead of the rear axle to keep the weight as central as possible.

The motors themselves are off-the-shelf permanent-magnet types, each rated at 197 peak hp, but at the system level their combined output ratings are 402, 754, or 700 hp with the 105,- 135,- and 180-kW-hr packs. Torque ranges from 413 lb-ft for the smallest battery to 826 lb-ft with the two larger batteries. With a curb weight of under 5,900 pounds (2,670 kg) with the MegaPack battery, Rivian claims the R1S can hit 60 mph in just 3.0 seconds with the medium-sized battery and 3.2 seconds with the large battery. With the small battery, it’s more like 5.0 seconds, though you can have the torque increased temporarily or permanently via an over-the-air upgrade. It can also tow 7,700 pounds (3,493 kg), though max towing will slow you down and cut your range in half.

An individual motor at each wheel allows for 100-percent torque vectoring, where each wheel’s power can be adjusted independently. This should give the R1S unparalleled traction control both on-road and off-road. Putting the transmissions’ outputs at the center of the vehicle allowed Rivian to utilize long halfhafts and suspension links for greater articulation off-road, and the air suspension gives the R1S ground clearance ranging from 8.1 to 14.4 inches. With its hermetically sealed battery and motors, Rivian claims a fording depth of 39.4 inches, after which point the company says the copious interior volume will cause it to float. A Range Rover’s clearance, by contrast, goes from 8.7 inches to 11.7 inches, and Land Rover claims a fording depth of 35.4 inches.

Rivian pushed the R1S’ wheels out to the corners to improve the approach and departure angles, as well as free up interior space. Rivian claims substantially better approach, departure, and breakover angles of 34, 30, and 29 degrees, respectively, to the Range Rover’s 24, 23.5, and 27.6 degrees. The R1S’ capabilities are all the more impressive when you consider it’s roughly the size of a short-wheelbase Ford Expedition. The 22-inch wheels with slim Pirelli tires are a compromise between modern aesthetics and off-road functionality, and they hide six-piston brakes up front.

The big wheels aren’t the only feature the R1S shares with its peers. Like the Model X, the R1S has a “frunk” under the hood, though Rivian claims its is bigger at 11.7 cubic feet. There’s also a rear tub if you take the full-size spare tire out, giving you another 6.4 cubic feet. Like a Land Rover Discovery, the R1S has a two-piece tailgate, split just below the Rivian badge. The lower gate drops down to create a seat or loading platform.

Moving forward, Rivian claims to offer as much third-row passenger space as the second row of a Chrysler 300 sedan. Both the second- and third-row bench seats fold flat and are raised and lowered electrically. The second row also reclines. Second -ow passengers can control the climate settings with a touchscreen mounted to the rear of the first row’s center armrest.

You won’t find any buttons up front, either, where everything is controlled from a 12.3-inch central touchscreen. The instrument cluster is a 15.3-inch screen as well, naturally. Like Tesla, Rivian will collect data from its customers’ cars and push over-the-air software updates based on what it learns. The speakers in the rear doors, meanwhile, pop out so you can have tunes at your campfire, and LED flashlights are stored in the doors.

All three rows receive copious natural light from a panoramic sunroof over the first two rows and a smaller one over the third. At night, ambient lighting is hidden throughout the interior. The seats are finished in Super Fabric, which is said to repel almost any stain and still look high-end. The wood trim, meanwhile, is made from sustainable sources and the floor mats are made of Chilewich, a woven extruded synthetic yarn that’s both durable and hose-off washable.

As you might expect, all the latest and greatest active and passive safety will be offered, along with the necessary cameras, radar, and lidar necessary for Level 3 semiautonomous driving.

The R1S you see here is “92 percent” production-ready, per Rivian, with the remaining work to be done on the “topper.” The skateboard is ready to go. Rivian plans to put the R1S on sale in 2021, with the MegaPack battery leading the charge and the smaller batteries coming the year after. MegaPack models will start just under $90,000 USD with the smallest-battery model starting in the high $60,000 USD range. All Rivians and their batteries will be built in Normal, Illinois, at a former Mitsubishi factory that closed up shop in 2015 and was purchased by Rivian last year. The company hopes to hit 20,000 total sales of its two debut models, the R1S SUV and R1T pickup, in the first year and 50,000 the second, which per Tesla’s example won’t be easy. The company is predicting the R1S SUV will account for 45 percent of its sales and the R1T pickup 55 percent, but we think it’ll be the other way around if not more heavily favoring the SUV.

Rivian has been working very quietly since its founding 2009, surfacing earlier this year with promises of a pickup and an SUV that will deliver “the acceleration of a Ferrari with the off-road capability of a Rover or Jeep.” The company has been doing extensive testing on-road and off, including serious rock crawling, with a fleet of Ford F-150-bodied prototypes. Rivian has four more vehicles slated to debut by the end of the 2020s and will also build a limited number of its own branded charging stations in places like national parks where truck and SUV buyers might want to go but aren’t currently served by other charging networks as they’re too far off the beaten path. The company is privately funded, its biggest investor being a Saudi conglomerate called Abdul Latif Jameel Company Ltd., which owns a number of renewable energy businesses globally and also distributes Toyota and Lexus vehicles in several countries.

2021 RIVIAN R1S
BASE PRICE $69,000-$89,000 (est)
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front- and rear-motor, AWD, 5-7-pass, 4-door SUV
MOTORS 4 x 101-hp/103-lb-ft AC electric, 402 hp/413 lb-ft comb; 4 x 175-hp/207-lb-ft AC electric, 700 hp/826 lb-ft comb; 4 x 188-hp/207-lb-ft AC electric, 754 hp/826 lb-ft comb
TRANSMISSIONS 4 x 1-speeed automatic
CURB WEIGHT 5,200-5,900 lbs (est)
WHEELBASE 121.1 in
LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT 198.4 x 79.3 x 71.5 in
0-60 MPH 3.0-5.0 sec (mfr est)
EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON Not Yet Rated
ON SALE IN U.S. 2021