The electric Rivian R1T pickup truck has been one of the world’s most eagerly anticipated vehicles since it was revealed to the public at the L.A. Auto Show in late 2018. Promising eye-popping specs, a minimum range of 300 miles, and a spirit based on adventure, Rivian and its truck seemed to represent the equal and opposite of potential offerings from Tesla and Ford. Its lines were luxurious and novel, its on-paper performance legit, its accessories and features designed for those who favor human-powered endeavors.

Skeptics said Rivian would never bring the $69,000 truck to market, let alone sell any, and when pandemic-related supply chain issues twice delayed production, that added to the doubts. But Rivian kept at it and on September 14 founder RJ Scaringe drove the first customer-ready truck off the assembly line in Normal, Illinois. He was wearing a t-shirt that said Keep the World Adventurous Forever.

Two days later, in Breckenridge, Colorado, I was one of the first people outside Rivian to drive the truck, and I can tell you this: The R1T is the most amazing vehicle I’ve ever driven, car or truck, gas or electric. It exceeded my already high expectations and it wasn’t just me: Of the 10 automotive journalists assembled in Breck, their reactions ranged from “impressed” to “super impressed” to “mind blown.” There were plenty of small critiques, but the overall sense? It’s a whole new world.

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To understand why, you need to know two things. First, the R1T is a computer on wheels. Yes, today’s internal combustion engine vehicles have more chips than a Super Bowl party. But software and programming are so embedded in how the truck drives, it feels like an extension of Rivian’s engineers, always ready to be improved or tweaked with an operating system update sent from the cloud to the truck’s LTE cellular receiver. Case in point: When engineer Ryan Kalb was testing an early prototype in West Texas and things went sideways, he didn’t crawl under the truck, he opened his laptop and rewrote the code. That makes the R1T’s performance malleable and future-proofed, rather than locked into inert sheet metal and rubber. Another example: Rivian has a program that will offer member-only drive modes, delivered, of course, wirelessly over the air; the truck that rolls off the line is only the start.

Second, Rivian set extremely high bars for performance on road and off—aiming for two best-of-class personalities in one rig. Max Koff, who was the third employee at the company and now is the director of vehicle dynamics, told me the off-road benchmark was the Land Rover Discovery and the on-road benchmark was the Porsche Cayenne Turbo. Sound crazy to have such disparate capabilities in one rig? Not when your hardware will do almost anything your software tells it to.

Let’s dive in.

OFF-ROAD PERFORMANCE

My very first impression was that the Rivian was shorter and a little wider than expected. At 217 inches, it’s about the length of a 2020 Toyota Tacoma and more than two feet longer than my 2007 Lexus GX470. With mirrors in, it’s about eight inches wider than both; with mirrors out, it’s about a foot and a half wider. It’s a big truck, yes, but smaller than the Ford F-150.

Once behind the wheel, the initial sensation was of smoothness. We pulled away from the LOGE Camp parking lot in Breck in a caravan of nine R1Ts, heading toward the North Fork of the Swan River, and the truck offered the same experience I’ve come to expect from my Tesla Model 3, instant acceleration and quietude, but with the added feeling of damping (the Tesla relays every tiny bump through the seat of your pants). At 30 mph on a two-lane road, it felt EV familiar, though much larger and less subject to every ripple in the pavement. (Around six thousand pounds, the R1T, like all battery electric vehicles, is girded by its power supply, which dramatically lowers the center of gravity.) It’s a heavy truck that doesn’t feel too heavy, thanks to its impressive power train and highly tuned suspension. The silent propulsion also frames your perception of weight, too—gunning a gasoline V8 to crawl over an obstacle sounds like you’ve harnessed 200 years of industrial age. While lots of people enjoy the growl of an ICE engine, it’s woefully inefficient: Internal combustion vehicles only convert 12 percent to 30 percent of the energy stored in gas to the wheels. Electric, by contrast, use 77 percent of their available energy.

When we got to the first rocks a mile up the rubbled and wet North Fork trail, I kept thinking how passengers would enjoy the ride so much more than in a typical off-roader. It was buttery. Jolts were lessened, bumps were softened. And yet, I still felt well-connected to the trail through the throttle and steering wheel. The Pirelli tires went exactly where I aimed them and when I needed a quick direction change in the really rough stuff, the truck responded as hoped.

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This is an EV, remember, and the only noise it carries is the sound of wheels on dirt and rocks.

In short order, we were scrambling over softballs, bowling balls, marbles, and small boulders. Conditioned to worry about my oil pan, differential, and other sensitive underparts, I flinched as hazards rolled beneath us, but three of the R1T’s 11 cameras (one facing front, one on each side) showed that we could move forward with confidence, and Lilly Macaruso, a special vehicle engineer riding backseat shotgun, encouraged me to goose it. Unlike an internal combustion truck, the bottom of the Rivian is flat, with no hanging doohickies to catch or fragile elements to break. That alone should open up more terrain and build confidence, but the Adventure trim package comes with armor for extra protection.

Soon we came to some gnar, where Rivian had positioned spotters, and then a gully so tight we had to fold in the mirrors. At every step, the truck motored through without the slightest complaint. Once or twice I didn’t maintain enough speed to carry over an obstacle and the truck came to a stop, but giving more throttle popped us past it no problem. I was shocked at the burliness Rivian laid out before us, but never once did it seem like we were near the truck’s limits.

The R1T’s power specifications are astounding. It has more than 800 horsepower spread between its two dual-motor assemblies, and together the quad motors deliver more than 900 foot-pounds of torque. It’s a beast. There are four off-road driving modes, selected from the large touchscreen in the center of the dash. We drove mostly in Off-Road Auto, though it also offers Rock Crawl, Rally, and Drift (yew!). Each of these modes also offers two suspension settings, stiff and less-stiff. I mostly drove in the softer mode and found it to be exquisite. You still have fantastic trail feel through the steering wheel and suspension, but a cushier ride overall and none of the boaty sensation you might expect in a “softer” setting. This is thanks to Rivian controlling vehicle sway with hydraulics, variable-rate shocks, and a computer that’s constantly analyzing driver style, speed, and terrain. It’s like having an infinitely adjustable and removable anti-sway bar—except there’s no bar at all.

The R1T rides on air suspension with a range of 6.2 inches. At its lowest, ground clearance is 8.7 inches (roughly the same as a Subaru Outback); at tallest, it’s 14.9 inches. You can manually change the height, but the vehicle is smart enough to optimize it based on driving mode. Water fording depth is more than three feet—42 inches—and the max grade it will climb is 100 percent, or a 45-degree pitch. Approach angle is 34 degrees, breakover is 25.7 degrees, and exit angle is 29.3 degrees. There are vehicles with better angles, but none with overall specs this good, and of course no snorkel is required.

Another benefit is the absolute silence you bring to the backcountry. This is an EV, remember, and the only noise it carries is the sound of wheels on dirt and rocks. When you’re sitting at home reading these words on a screen, that might not seem like a big deal, but when you’re in a beautiful Douglas fir forest and raptors are flying overhead, it’s huge. Birds were the only wildlife we saw, but the Rivian folks shared stories of driving past deer and mountain goats that barely blinked as the trucks rolled by. Our nine rigs together barely cast a sound, while the one ATV we encountered could be heard miles before it came into sight. It’s an element that has to be experienced.

ON-ROAD PERFORMANCE

I spent an hour and a half driving in traffic from the mountains to Denver’s airport and another hour on rural roads and on Loveland Pass. The hood looked wide from the driver’s perspective, but the truck, for all its length, was not ungainly. Acceleration is instant at any speed and, frankly, freaking addictive. Rivian claims 0-60 in 3.0 seconds (depending on configuration). We didn’t bust out a stopwatch, but my driving partner Adam Bible stomped it coming off Loveland Pass and we were doing 99 before I could blink. And it felt like 70, such was the stability.

Speaking of stability, our Rivian chaperones encouraged us to stress the rig at every available opportunity, and I launched it into the first few uphill turns at Loveland well over the speed limit (no other cars were in sight). My GX would have swayed and drifted into the other lane, or maybe even rolled, but the R1T’s Pirelli-Rivian all-terrain tires stuck to the pavement like glue and body sway was next to nothing. I’ve never driven a Cayenne Turbo, but it’s a safe bet the Rivian handles more like a sports car than any truck yet invented. I don’t know if it’s enough to satisfy Max, who races Indy cars, but I was blown away.

As with off-road driving, on-road the vehicle is nearly silent. The tires are remarkably quiet—we heard those of other trucks but not our own—and the rush of air is low.

INTERIOR

When I was shopping for an EV sedan in 2019, I considered the Leaf but was turned off by the sense Nissan simply grafted battery technology into an internal combustion body. It felt like the brand was living in the past. The Rivian, by contrast, is like stepping into the future. The cabin is clean and elegant, the natural wood in the dash adds a homey touch, and there are two driver screens, rather than just one as in the Model 3. Two screens let the R1T show speed and driving directions straight through the steering wheel, with the less critical information on the larger screen in the center of the dash—it’s much safer and easier to use than Tesla’s single offset unit.

Some have complained that the Rivian has no switches to flip or dials to spin (aside some controls on the wheel). I get that, and truth be told, it’s not easy to change driving modes or HVAC on the fly because you have to navigate on the center screen. On the other hand, the cockpit is minimal and lovely and someday soon you’ll be able to activate those controls through Alexa and voice commands.

The front seats are clad in vegan leather and are comfortable for long stretches. Over two days, I spent about 12 hours in them and had zero complaints. I used their heating and cooling elements and enjoyed both. The back seats got less acclaim—I only spent a few minutes back there, but most folks thought they were too upright for long comfort.

STORAGE

There are 68 cubic feet throughout. The 54- by 51-inch bed offers 29 cubic feet under the tonneau, 14 cubic feet under the bed (where you stash the optional full-size spare), 11.6 feet in the tunnel, and another 11 cubic feet in the frunk. There’s storage under the rear seats, in the doors, and in the capacious center console. There is no glove compartment.

ACCESSORIES AND THAT EVER SO SEXY CAMP KITCHEN

Rivian is hanging its hat on adventure and you can see that embodied in the gear tunnel, which runs between the cab and bed and at 65 inches wide will store skis or snowboards and a pile of other gear. It’s also the home of the slide-out Camp Kitchen, a $5,000 option that comes with a two-burner electric induction stove, 30-piece Snow Peak utensil and place settings set, collapsible sink, and four-gallon water storage with spray nozzle. It’s as clever and sleek as videos show—and removable and modular, too. Power consumption is low: Cooking on both burners for an hour consumes just one mile of range. (Power draw from external devices like fridges is nearly inconsequential.)

The Camp Kitchen is beautiful, functional, utilitarian—and it points to other options for the gear tunnel. What about a slide-in range extender? How about a cot that slides out and unfolds origami-style? A launch point for a slip and slide? A sensory deprivation chamber?

Other accessories include a three-person rooftop tent and crossbars ($2,650), crossbars alone ($450), bike mount ($250), ski/board mount ($310), and kayak mount ($200).

ELEMENTS I LOVED

• Regenerative braking is a key part of recharging your battery on the fly, but in the R1T it also serves as an amazing hill descent control. We drove it on max regen and never felt like it impeded momentum. Indeed, all my hours in the Rivian were “one-pedal” driving, except once on the freeway when I had to stop short and needed to use the brake pedal.

• The built-in air compressor is a game changer. Well, the whole dang truck is a game changer. But the compressor is rad. Air up your tires, inflate your SUP or mattress, or thrown on an impact wrench in case of a flat tire. The port is tucked behind a cover in the bed and comes with a digital pressure screen. The hose and compressor are standard in all models.

• There’s a 1,000-lumen flashlight tucked into a spring-loaded tube in the driver’s side door.

• The Gear Guard feature is personified by a cute, scruffy yeti wearing a headband, who pops up on the screen to let you know it’s recording a would-be thief with some of its 11 cameras. Nylon braided cables with steel cores loop through your gear and snap into receivers in the bed. If you yank on them when locked, you will be recorded in all your glory and an alarm will go off. Some of the Rivian folks want the alarm to play Ride of the Valkyries. Epic.

• As a semi-pro outdoor napper, I appreciate the gear tunnel as an alternative sleeping platform. It’s not long enough for a six-footer to fit fully, but with a pillow on the tunnel door it’s a surprisingly good option for zzzs.

• So, for that matter, is the frunk. Lay down sideways with your head on one side and feet out the other—not only is it highly snoozable, the lid serves as a shade awning.

• Speaking of the tunnel door, it holds 300 pounds and makes for an excellent seat, step, or photographer’s platform. Also, a place to make coffee. Or work on a laptop. Or play dominos.

• The locking roof rack, built by Yakima with design by Rivian, clips into brackets inset above the cab and bed. Unlock with the key, flip a lever, and remove the rack. It’s the simplest, fastest rack setup I’ve seen.

• Ever gone for a trail run or surf and have no place to stash your keys? The Rivian comes with a near-field communication bracelet that will open the truck. You can also access it with a fob, key card, or phone app.

• There’s an LTE wi-fi hotspot for you and your passengers. It runs on the AT&T network and is LTE, but still: pretty cool.

• 1,200-watt, 18-speaker sound system? Yes, please.

• Towing capacity is 11,000 pounds. Towing will cut your range roughly in half, though it should be noted that towing hammers gas mileage in ICE trucks, too.

• There are two glow-in-the-dark door releases in the likely event I accidentally lock myself in the gear tunnel.

• How about a self-leveling function using the air suspension? At lunch, Rivian set up the rooftop tent, but the ground was at a sharp angle and would have made for uncomfortable sleeping. I joked that the truck should level itself and one of the engineers said that function will be coming soon, hopefully in an early over-the-air (OTA) software update.

• A 400-mile range battery pack for the R1T is available for pre-order. Cost is an additional $10,000 (don’t love that part).

ELEMENTS I DIDN’T LOVE

Rivian provided us with pre-production vehicles, which, like all pre-pro products, had a few glitches, such as screens freezing or a low-resolution camera feed. These minor problems have been resolved in the production units, so I’ve left them out.

• The biggest issue was the ingress to the driver and passenger seats, especially when near the top of the suspension height: The door sill is wider than most and the seat located quite far in-bound. That makes for a long step and skooch to get your butt into the seat and one I never got used to. Compounding the problem is that the A-pillar holds the airbag, so there’s no grab handle where you’d expect it (it’s actually above the side window). I don’t know that they could narrow the sill, but widening the seat wings would help.

• Changing anything on the screen while driving off-road is nearly impossible for the driver and challenging for the passenger, as despite the smoother ride you’re still jostling around. Perhaps there’s a software fix—in off-road modes, make the activation buttons bigger. Or accelerate the arrival of Alexa and voice commands.

• Gear tunnel doors are a little funky to open—they don’t pop out quite far enough.

SO…WHAT ABOUT RANGE?

The biggest question I had about the R1T, the biggest question most people have, is what happens if you run out of power in the backcountry? The short answer is don’t do that. The Rivian “large pack” comes with an EPA-estimated 314 miles of range, though that’s with the 22-inch wheels and road performance tires. Our off-road 20s, rocking 34-inch Pirellis, will get closer to 275. Either way, the truck will alert you of low range when you have 60 miles left and it will (figuratively) shake you by the shoulders when you’re down to 40 miles. Rivian promises 3,500 fast charging stations and 10,000 overall by 2023, most located in adventure-oriented destinations. You also can charge at any public charging setup, of which there are 50,000 nationwide. Many RV parks are offering charging for a nominal fee, too. So, while chargers aren’t as ubiquitous as gas stations, and while you have to plan, there are plenty of options to stay topped off, and the network is only going to grow.

That said, if the worst happens, you can get a charge from another Rivian or you can get a tow. Rivian has kicked around the idea of selling an external battery styled like a jerry can, who knows if it’ll ever happen (“It’s just an idea,” a Rivianite? Rivianer? told me). If you’re thinking, but what about solar panels? don’t bother: They might gain you only an additional mile per day.

Having driven the 240-mile-range Tesla Model 3 on road trips, I can attest that planning your charges is essential and you will spend more time on-boarding electrons than you would getting gas. On the other hand, you never have to worry about the battery dying deep on the Arizona Strip, or the fuel pump going, or the radiator overheating, or the oil pan springing a leak. Nor do you have to hand over $80 or $100 to fossil fuel companies every time you want to get farther down the road. And you can run the HVAC system while waiting. And surf via the wi-fi hotspot. And cook a quesadilla. And nap.

FINAL THOUGHTS

The media made much of the fact that Rivian “beat” Ford and Tesla by delivering the first electric pickup in mid-September. This of course misses the point. What good is being first if it’s a Pontiac Aztec? What matters is the quality of the vehicle you’ve created. Tesla’s Cybertruck may or may not ever come to market, but if it does it’s sure to be polarizing. Ford’s F-150 Lightning might very well be the vehicle that electrifies the masses, but it’s aiming at a different market. Rivian is building its vehicles for outdoor lovers, performance junkies, environmentalists, design nerds, car campers, mountain bikers, families. And not only has it created a truck of quality, it’s reinvented the category. The T’s performance range is both high and wide—it will climb 45 degrees, race like a rally car, and cling to mountain curves like nobody’s business. Rivian has redefined what a truck can and should be, and the R1T is the standard by which all new pickups should be judged.

There are, of course, concerns. $67,000 is the starting price. As tested, our truck was the Adventure version with Off-Road Package upgrade and cost $76,800. I’d argue it’s an astounding value, but that’s almost twice what I’ve ever paid for a car. Electric vehicle batteries rely on rare earth metals, which come with a host of environmental and ethical issues. The battery is guaranteed to hold 70 percent of initial range for eight years or 175,000 miles; what happens after that isn’t clear. Rivian plans to reuse “exhausted” batteries for solar power storage and could install a new one in the truck for a fee, but nothing official has been announced.

Still, we have about a decade to wean ourselves from fossil fuels or we’ll cross unimaginable climate thresholds. The more we act with tangible steps, from consumers to business to our representatives, the better. Charging our Tesla at home with our solar panels feels like liberation, like a thumb in the eye of the jackals who soil the earth with their greed. Fueling my GX with petroleum, the best rig I’ve ever had, burdens my heart. Although Rivian is tight-lipped about future plans, it has trademarked “R1X” and “R1V” and has also patented a sliding door mechanism for a van. To me, X suggests a crossover, perhaps something smaller than the coming R1S ute, and the V of course hints at a van. Fingers crossed that either or both of these, if they see the light of day, are reachable for more people’s budgets.

Meanwhile, Toyota’s long-anticipated new Tundra was revealed and what was actually revealed is that Toyota has jumped the shark. I didn’t think Tundras could get any uglier, but never underestimate the depths of a bottomless pit. The big news, I suppose, is that the 2022 Tundra has a hybrid engine…which gets 22 miles per gallon. Wait, what? A hybrid that gets only 22 mpg? At first I thought that was a typo, but no: Unlike Ford, this is a brand that fought higher MPG standards in the US.

The future lies not with half-measures like the Toyota, but all-in efforts like the Rivian. And I promise, if you drive it, the R1T will rock your world. Even if you don’t care about the environment (though I know you do), even if you haven’t heard that Rivian is partnering with the Nature Conservancy to put chargers at trailheads, even if you don’t know it’s installing chargers in all the state parks in Colorado and Tennessee, even if the adventure baked into Rivian’s DNA matters not, you will surely find the R1T to be the highest performance, widest-ranging, condition-adaptable vehicle yet made.

When I sat down to write this review, I worried about sounding like a fanboy, and reading it back, I still do. (And I certainly didn’t plan on writing 4,000 words, LOL.) But then I reflect on how the truck drives and what it means for the future of vehicles and the climate and I think I might not be gushing enough. The R1T changes everything, and this is only the beginning.

Photos by Elliot Ross/Rivian


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