There's plenty of buzz around the all-new at the 2018 Los Angeles Auto Show, but the reveal in the Griffith Observatory in the hills above L.A. — one of the city's most iconic locations — reminded us of how challenging it can be to make good choices when designing a new vehicle for a well-established market.
Related: More 2018 L.A. Auto Show Coverage
The Rivian R1T is a dramatic pickup, and the company chose a sexy location and played sexy music during a debut featuring stylish finger food and several celebrities and athletes sprinkled across the hilltop. (I admit to becoming a little tongue-tied when meeting singer/actress Rihanna — she was in "Battleship" for crying out loud.) But to succeed, the R1T will have to stand on its own if it wants to move beyond adventure-minded, electric-first adopters into mainstream buyers.
After talking with several members of the Rivian engineering team, it was evident they will not fail for lack of enthusiasm and passion about their mission. They want the Rivian R1T to work like they want their kids to get into their alma maters.
The Rivian R1T's skateboard-like platform is full of small battery cells encased in large cooling suitcases. It is ridiculously complex but well thought out, with superstrong frame rails and cross-members for protection. But this unique structure creates a few oddities as well.
With no front engine (four motors control each wheel independently), it doesn't need a front grille to provide cooled air running through radiator fins. As nice as it is to have a sizable and lockable front trunk to protect gear from the elements and thieves, it seems a little strange to have to all that framework and hood with nothing underneath.
So, it probably makes sense to think of the Rivian R1T as more of a large-trunked SUV or crossover with a bed than a real pickup truck. Beyond the powertrain, this single-body shape (meaning no separation between bed and cabin) has a crew-cab body flowing into the bed, reminiscent of old Chevrolet El Camino or Ford Ranchero pickups. Still, the R1T offers around 1,700 pounds of payload, weighs close to 6,500 pounds, and Rivian claims it will tow 11,000 pounds with ease (mileage range with a load that large is still unknown). This structure allowed Rivian to create a storage tunnel complete with two outboard seats. As interesting and practical as that might be, we're not sure it's a good structural or safety idea.
Perhaps the most telling oddity is the placement of the spare tire. Because the R1T's entire underbody is packed with battery cells (surely providing an amazingly low center of gravity), there is no room to store anything under the rear of the bed — where spares are normally stowed. Rivian's well-meaning engineers decided to plant a full-size spare wheel and tire under the bed floor, a la the Honda Ridgeline. Certainly not great if you plan to load the bed with cargo.
Despite that, we're happy Rivian opted to provide a spare tire (so many manufacturers are skipping them to save weight), and we love the fact it's full size. But having it under the floor means that if you ever get a flat (which always happens at the worst possible time) with a bed full of junk, you've got some heavy lifting before you can swap the tires. But maybe that's the point and it speaks volumes about Rivian's expectations: To us it says that Rivian doesn't expect its buyers to use the bed often. And Rivian's assumptions might be right, but this design decision could cost the company buyers who need the extra workload.
Of course, we could be wrong, and there's plenty to like about the electric Rivian R1T pickup. It will likely be a while before the pricing and packaging of electric vehicles like the Rivian R1T become accessible to real-world pickup truck buyers. You know: no-nonsense, value-shopping consumers. But once this technology gets to that level, we're guessing there will be plenty of buyers looking for a problem-solver like the Rivian R1T. More to come after we get some seat time.
Cars.com photos by Mark Williams; manufacturer images