“The most remarkable pickup truck we’ve ever driven.” That’s how we’ve previously described the 2022 Rivian R1T, and now it can claim even higher praise as the 2022 MotorTrend Truck of the Year.
Ever since Tesla redefined what an electric car could be with the Car of the Year-winning 2013 Model S, we’ve waited, wondering about the inevitable application of the EV formula to America’s best-selling vehicle class four decades running: the pickup truck. Initially that was a question of time, but as of late, it’s been a question of who. In the past few years, credible challengers have arisen, enough of them with sufficient financial backing and technical expertise that we realized we would soon have an answer to both questions.
The Rivian R1T would win praise if it were merely a credible pickup truck that is also an electric vehicle, but it’s far more. Not content to simply mount an electric motor or two under the hood or box of a traditional pickup, Rivian used the opportunity to re-examine what a modern pickup truck could be.
Long gone are the days when pickups were simply tools. Today they are, and for the better part of this century have been, family cars, luxury vehicles, off-roaders, lifestyle vehicles, and performance cars of all stripes. Each of these new use cases challenged us to reconsider the definition of “pickup truck,” but mostly in ways that broadened our understanding, not ones that fundamentally challenged it.
By rethinking how a pickup truck can be built, how it can be propelled, how it can drive, how its spaces might be used, how we could interact with it, and how to expand its target demographic, Rivian has forced both the industry and the market to reassess expectations. The R1T, however, is not just an intellectual exercise; it is at its core a good truck by traditional definitions, too. Being both is what makes it our 2022 Truck of the Year.
Advancement in Design
Proper proportions play a key role in balancing the R1T’s innovative design with traditional sensibilities. Take away the de rigueur EV light bars front and rear, and the R1T looks like a pickup truck, not a science fiction movie prop. But with those bars and particularly its “stadium” headlights, it’s immediately identifiable as both an EV and as a Rivian.
Rather than scream in your face, though, Rivian’s designers chose simple elements—those lights—to telegraph everything you need to know about the truck. The result also skillfully demonstrates that enormous grilles aren’t a necessary element of good truck design.
Inside, Rivian delicately balances the modern, minimalist EV aesthetic with the quality of materials its price demands and the functional requirements of a “true” pickup truck. Although we disagree on principle with the abdication of nearly all essential functions to a touchscreen interface, we recognize it’s a popular trend. Rivian executed it well.
Entirely integrating the trailer brake controller into the screens and steering wheel buttons is a particularly clever bit of new thinking that doesn’t impede functionality. Likewise for packaging a portable Bluetooth speaker and lantern without sacrificing essential interior cargo space and for providing access to the innovative gear tunnel via the cab.
Above it all is a thoroughly modern and measured use of color and texture on the dash, doors, and seats, which reveals refreshing attention to detail. Sitting inside an R1T feels like being in a $70,000 vehicle regardless of what powers it, who builds it, or what body style it has.
The “skateboard” layout that locates the batteries and electric motors in the frame between the wheels was pioneered two decades ago, but the R1T is the first truck to seriously explore the possibilities such construction offers.
Effectively body-on-frame like traditional pickups, Rivian could’ve taken the easy way out and bolted a traditional cab and box on top. Instead, the company engineered a unitized cab and pickup box that opens up new design opportunities. Doing so allowed Rivian to incorporate clever storage solutions like the transverse gear tunnel and the integrated tonneau cover while giving up a relatively small amount of bed space. More than that, designers were able to incorporate both features while maintaining classic pickup proportions and still providing a convenient seat or step on either side of the truck with those small access doors.
Similarly, Rivian went further in exploring the technical possibilities offered by its electric drivetrain. Many companies have talked about individual motors for each wheel and the traction and stability advantages they could provide. But Rivian is the first production vehicle to bring the concept to market, and it knocked it out of the park.
Direct, granular control over each wheel allows the R1T to exploit every bit of friction available regardless of surface. On a winding road, the truck’s instantaneous torque vectoring makes it handle better than any other pickup on the market and more like a high-performance luxury SUV. Off-road, it digs through sand, sloshes through mud, and climbs over rocks like a Jeep Gladiator Rubicon, but with better ground clearance, breakover angle, and departure angle.
A fully independent suspension with air springs, active dampers, and novel cross-linked hydraulic anti-roll bars facilitates much of that capability. The fact it can vary all aspects of wheel travel in real time allows the R1T to go from handling like a Ranger Rover Sport SVR to crawling like a Jeep with the push of a digital button.
What’s truly remarkable, though, is that although Rivian clearly designed the R1T for play, at no point did its engineers skimp on the truck’s ability to work: 1,760 pounds of payload falls directly between the best midsize truck and entry-level full-size truck, just like the R1T’s dimensions. Its 11,000-pound towing capacity, though, is on par with full-size trucks, and its stability, acceleration, and braking while towing up to 9,000 pounds in our testing (the most we asked of it) are unimpeachable.
None of this would matter, of course, if it didn’t have the range to get the job done. Rivian’s 135-kWh battery (133 usable) provides 314 miles of range, far more than enough for most road trips and off-road adventures. Its ability to charge at 190 kW now, the promised over-the-air upgrade to 300-kW charging, and Rivian’s ongoing efforts to install chargers at trailheads, campsites, and parks mean range is no real concern.
Simply by virtue of being fully electric, the R1T is the most energy-efficient pickup truck on the market. Electric motors are simply better at translating electrical energy into work than the best combustion engines are in turning chemical energy (gasoline, diesel, natural gas) into the same. With the R1T’s 74/66/70 mpg-e EPA rating, there isn’t a gas, diesel, or hybrid truck that comes anywhere close.
Other electric vehicles are even more efficient, but it’s important to consider what they are capable of. There isn’t another EV on the market today that can tow or haul anywhere close to what the R1T can, nor does any other power as many motors or use those motors in the way this truck does. Doing more work requires more energy, and in this context, the R1T’s range and efficiency impress across the board.
Performance of Intended Function
Building any new electric vehicle from the ground up is a monumental challenge, and building an EV pickup is even more so because of the broader range of intended functions. A sedan must get you to your destination mostly on paved roads in reasonable weather. A truck must do that while also allowing you to haul heavy, bulky loads; pull large, heavy trailers; and go far off the paved road. What’s more, it must do all those things while offering the same range as an electric sedan. Given that, the R1T is indeed a remarkable achievement.
Although Rivian deliberately designed the R1T to appeal to a wealthier, active-lifestyle audience rather than the blue-collar crowd, the truck isn’t limited by this decision. As evidence: It can haul hay bales and pull horse trailers, and it can conquer Moab’s famous Hell’s Revenge trail. As a truck, it nails its intended function.
Likewise, as a $74,075 luxury vehicle, the quality of materials and construction is commensurate with the price, as is the design applied to them. The technology, from entertainment to active safety features and over-the-air software updates, is equal to that offered in similarly expensive sedans and SUVs. The driving experience is better than any truck made and as good as many sporty luxury SUVs.
It’s equally effective as the lifestyle vehicle Rivian markets it as. With the standard gear tunnel and power tonneau cover, it’s ready for any camping trip, but buyers can upfit it further from the factory with a pull-out camp kitchen and bed-top tent. A built-in air compressor and the removable speaker/lantern make setting up your campsite all that much easier. And once you hose off the Rivian, it’s ready to be valet-parked downtown, at the golf club, or at your favorite high-end restaurant.
No matter how you compare it, the R1T’s value stands up. Put it against the only other electric truck out there, the GMC Hummer EV pickup, and the Rivian hauls more, tows more, has a nicer interior, has more storage space, drives better, rides and handles better, is only slightly slower in a straight line, and costs tens of thousands of dollars less.
Stand it next to legacy pickup trucks at the same price point, and it’s equally competitive. We’ll belabor the point one more time: The quality of design, engineering, materials, and technology on offer are as good as or better than any other high-buck pickup truck you can buy today, not to mention the driving experience and the breadth of capability.
The R1T’s list of active and passive safety equipment, grouped under Driver+ nomenclature, is impressive. Even more noteworthy, every bit of it is standard. Many trucks don’t offer this amount of equipment at any price, and no others offer it all as standard.
With everything from the basics like forward collision warning and automatic emergency braking up to Autopilot-like highway driving assistance, the R1T will attempt to back you up at any speed, even while towing. The clear presentation of what the truck’s computer “sees” in front, behind, and to the sides reassures the driver it’s paying attention and prepared to assist. Rivian’s decision to include a driver-facing camera to ensure responsible usage of these aides and future full autonomy is likewise commendable.
Truck of the Year
The long-standing philosophy to frame truck design in the context of commercial work has restricted the freedom to radically redesign the look and layout of such a vehicle. No prior attempt, be it a Chevrolet El Camino or a Honda Ridgeline, has seen the kind of commercial success enjoyed by the traditional pickup design, nor have the innovations introduced by those and similar vehicles seen widespread adoption by the standard-bearers. Although its price point won’t support the former, the R1T is uniquely positioned to accomplish the latter in ways that will apply to every walk of truck.
Major truck makers were not prepared to mess with profit, reliability, and tradition to embrace these kinds of ideas on established gas- and diesel-powered, body-on-frame pickups. Easy to build, subject to fewer and less stringent regulations, and serving as massive profit centers, traditional pickups offered sufficient motivation to give the customer more profit-padding features but not to invest into any kind of costly rethink of how a truck is designed and built.
With so many automakers transitioning to skateboard-type EV platforms, though, the opportunity presents itself. Constraints on designers and engineers are suddenly different, granting freedom to try new things. Some won’t, at least not at first. As we’ve already seen from GMC and Ford, they’ll incorporate a frunk (front trunk) where the engine used to be and convert the rear suspension to independent, but otherwise it’s still the same a body-on-frame contraption. Others, though, will take inspiration from the R1T, and so, too, may the initial holdouts. The skateboard is a blank canvas, and Rivian has demonstrated how to seize the opportunity it provides without offending historic truck-buyer sensibilities.
The 2022 Rivian R1T shows the world a new way to build a pickup and new ways to think about truck design, engineering, and use case. And it gives up almost nothing in capability in the process. It shows us pickups can be for people who never wanted one. It shows us they can be more than leather-lined tools, that commercial applications are not the exclusive starting point in envisioning a new truck. Most important, it shows us they can be electric vehicles—and be better for it.
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