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The Rivian R1T starts the electric pickup races

<i>Peter Valdes-Dapena/CNN</i><br/>The Rivian R1T is a far friendlier looking truck than most.
Peter Valdes-Dapena/CNN
The Rivian R1T is a far friendlier looking truck than most.

By Peter Valdes-Dapena, CNN Business

Whenever traffic slowed, which happens a lot when you’re heading out of New York City on a Friday afternoon, people wanted to look at the bright blue pickup I was driving. Some wanted to ask questions. Fortunately, an engineer who helped design the truck was riding with me, and rolled down the window to answer them while I concentrated on maneuvering through traffic.

The Rivian R1T has recently become the first of an expected mini-stampede of electric trucks to hit the market. It has already carved out a niche for itself as a stylish — but rather high-priced — piece of outdoor equipment, sort of like a Tesla in flannel and hiking boots. I had been looking forward to my first chance to try it and was eager to get it out of the big city.

Besides its eye-catching color, the Rivian R1T looks like no other pickup on the road. It’s not as radical as the Tesla Cybertruck but, really, the Cybertruck just follows a general industry trend in pickup design. It’s scary. Angular and pointy, it looks intimidating and dangerous. Most gasoline- and diesel-powered pickups aim for similar levels of dread with massive grills and headlights that look like squinty eyes gauging your potential as a snack.

The Rivian R1T, on the other hand, just looks like it wants to borrow your teddy bear. Its eyes are big ovals. There’s only the slightest visible grill, like a friendly half-smile. A band of soft light runs like a unibrow across the tops of those gentle “eyes.” You don’t want to run from this truck. You want to pet it.

In the event that you’ve been living in a hole so deep even this 800-horsepower four-motored electric truck couldn’t pull you out, maybe you haven’t heard of Rivian. The company has received a lot of attention as a startup electric vehicle maker with major corporate backing. It has received financing from Amazon and Ford and has an initial public offering coming up soon. Besides the R1T truck, Rivian plans to make an SUV called the R1S and, perhaps most importantly to Rivian, has a contract to make 100,000 electric delivery vans for Amazon.

Amazon has a bit more clout with Rivian than most pickup buyers since it owns 20% of the company, as revealed in recent financial filings.

The R1T differs from other electric pickups such as the Cybertruck, the F-150 Lightning and the GMC Hummer EV, in another critical way. It’s in production now. Pickup manufacturing has started slowly at Rivian’s plant in Normal, Illinois while others are months away at best.

Cost is one challenge the R1T will face, though. Prices start at $67,500, or about $60,000 once a $7,500 tax credit is factored in. That’s hardly an unheard-of price for a truck these days, but it puts the R1T firmly in the “luxury truck” category. That makes for tough comparisons with bigger, more richly equipped gasoline powered pickups that are roomier and even more capable.

For those who really just want an electric truck to get stuff done, the Ford F-150 Lightning and its $40,000 starting price, not even including tax incentives, has to be considered. The smaller R1T, with its 4.5-foot bed, falls into the midsize category where it also competes against gas-powered models like the Ford Ranger and the newly redesigned, and very good, Nissan Frontier. Neither is as stylishly appointed as the R1T, a genuine luxury product, and they have gasoline engines, but they perform basically the same roles and cost half as much.

What it’s like to drive

We weren’t able to take the R1T off-road which is kind of a shame. It would have been fun. With its four electric motors, one powering each wheel, clamoring through muddy, rock-strewn trails and over sand dunes is supposed to be part of the truck’s core skill set. Given how good it’s supposed to be off-road — Rivian says it can drive through three feet of water and climb a 45 degree slope — its performance on pavement was especially impressive. The tires look aggressive and knobby but provided a smooth and quiet ride.

Beyond that, the R1T provides a genuinely “car-like” driving experience. It doesn’t feel like a big, lumbering truck. That’s not going to please everyone. A lot of traditional truck buyers appreciate feeling like they’re driving a proper rig, not a crossover SUV. But the R1T, with its adjustable air suspension and hydraulic controls to minimize body lean in corners, feels like a tall luxury sedan. Also, it’s fast. When merging onto the highway — Rivian claims zero to 60 mile per hour times of about 3 seconds are possible, comparable to a high-end Porsche — R1T drivers need to pay at least as much attention to vehicles ahead as those coming up from behind.

The Rivian R1T’s interior design follows Tesla’s minimalist esthetic but with a more pleasing design and nicer materials. The dashboard and parts of the steering wheel are covered in “reclaimed” wood. The seats are also covered in faux leather, and an optional glass roof gives the car an airy feel.

Functionally, the R1T suffers from the same knob-phobic design found in many electric vehicles. Even things like adjusting the mirrors and the direction of the air vents is done through the truck’s big central touch screen. Automakers always say, as Rivian does, that many customers prefer this. Maybe some customers don’t mind it, but it’s hard to believe anyone would actually prefer poking through menus to adjust the steering wheel instead of just doing it with one lever.

The Rivian’s real claim to functional ingenuity lies between the passenger compartment and the bed. Rivan calls it the “Gear Tunnel.” It’s a big hole through the middle of the truck with a door on each end. The doors are strong enough to be used as steps when tying down or retrieving gear from the roof. A long platform can slide out and be propped on a folding leg to make a bench. Rivian offers an electric “camp stove” for about $5,000 that rides in and out on that platform. It even has drawers to hold pots, pans and silverware.

There’s also storage space under the Rivian’s big, square hood. It’s not as big or as useful as the F-150 Lightning’s underhood space, which can be used as a work surface, but it provides good lockable storage. The bed also has specially designed tie-downs that work with nifty cables that lock when the truck is locked securing your gear.

It does seem, though, that the R1T could use more, and more easily accessible, traditional tie-downs. Also, the truck’s back bumper is, annoyingly, nearly flush with the tailgate. In most trucks, the rear bumper sticks out and provides an easy step to climb in and out of the bed. Not in the R1T, though.

Finally, the R1T doesn’t offer Apple CarPlay or Android Auto because, Rivian insists, its interface is better. Based on experience, Rivian’s navigation was nearly not as good as Google Maps when it came to finding a way out of city traffic. Rivian may be better at some things, but not that.

Beyond those few relatively minor annoyances, the R1T probably makes up in performance and personality what it lacks as a work tool.

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Article Topic Follows: cnn-business-consumer

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