NEWPORT BEACH, CA – Toyota’s decision two years ago to resurrect the RAV4 electric vehicle seemed like a no-brainer.

The late-’90s first-generation model has a passionate following: Used units have sold for tens of thousands of dollars more than the original asking price. And the compact cross/utility vehicle segment only has gotten hotter in the 10-plus years since.

But when Toyota announced a price of $49,800, it gave EV lovers pause.

Many American car buyers already find it hard to swallow sticker prices of $35,000 and up, pre-federal or state tax credits, for the battery-electric Nissan Leaf or Ford Focus EV.

But the RAV4 EV’s excellent range, combined with the CUV’s passenger room and cargo capacity, make it worth the extra dough – for the most part.

At odds with the price point are the vehicle’s base-model-like bargain accoutrements: unappealing plastic trim on the instrument panel and door inners and fake-leather seating.

Developed jointly with Tesla, the new model goes on sale in California in late summer. Tesla contributed its laptop-grade lithium-ion battery pack, while Toyota took charge of the vehicle’s design and oversaw engineering of its human-machine interface, safety systems and ride and handling.

The RAV’s liquid-cooled pack has a capacity of 41.8 kWh, almost double that of other EVs.

Unique among mass-market EVs is the ability to charge the CUV’s battery to almost full (standard) or full (extended).

A standard charge helps preserve battery life and fills the pack to 35 kWh, suitable for the lower-speed, urban/suburban driving patterns of most Americans.

Thanks to a robust 10 kW onboard charger, fully charging in standard mode on a 240V line can take as little as five to six hours, beating the Leaf’s six to seven hours but more than the 4-hour turnaround for the Focus.

Unlike some EVs, the RAV4’s pack, located under the seats, doesn’t intrude into the cabin space, so the CUV’s volume from the front seatbacks rearward equals that of the gasoline-powered version. That gives the model double the room of the Leaf and Focus.

The AC induction motor generates 115 kW (154 hp) whether a driver chooses the Normal or Sport mode. But the latter offers more eager acceleration and 55 lb.-ft. (75 Nm) more torque, boosting output to 273 lb.-ft. (370 Nm). Top speed rises 15 mph (24 km/h) to 100 mph (161 km/h).

EV lovers want ever-more range, and the RAV4 shouldn’t disappoint.

While official Environmental Protection Agency figures are pending, Toyota estimates a range of 92 miles (148 km) in standard mode and 113 miles (182 km) in extended mode, thanks to the massive battery pack and power-preserving features such as light-emitting diodes, regenerative braking and improved aerodynamics over the current gasoline-powered RAV4.

In the EPA’s LA4 city driving cycle, Toyota says a range as high as 170 miles (274 km) can be realized, topping the Leaf’s 100 miles (161 km).

Our first tester’s range is 123 miles (198 km) at startup in Normal mode. But as we plan to travel inland, where temps are hotter, the Eco Hi air-conditioning mode is switched on, knocking that down by 30 miles (48 km).

Eco Hi “sacrifices comfort for driving range,” Toyota says. However, the blower still exhibits a strong velocity, so much so a lower fan speed is chosen to curb goose bumps.

A roundtrip journey from here to Anaheim using California Route 55 and Interstate-5 logs 40.4 miles (65 km), but only 37 miles (60 km) of battery range is lost. Highway speed averages 70 mph (113 km/h) give or take, and energy spent is an excellent 2.8 kWh.

In addition to Eco Hi there’s Eco Lo AC mode, which slightly reduces the blower level further. Normal AC mode makes the biggest dent in range.

The RAV4 EV performs like a regular car, and a sporty one at that. Toyota targeted an exhilarating driving experience, and the result doesn’t disappoint.

The neck-snapping torque characteristic of EVs is present, but range would suffer if the stated 0-60 mph (100 km/h) off-the-line time of 7 seconds –  akin to Toyota’s Scion FR-S sports car – were put to the test.

Toyota says the battery’s 129 kW of power is available instantly, for up to 30 seconds, in wide-open acceleration. But we don’t try that range-sapping maneuver on our test drive, either.

The RAV4 EV’s rack-and-pinion electric power steering has a heavy feel, even at low speeds. Some may find it cumbersome, though we see it as manageable.

The minimal brake-pedal travel takes getting used to, but the brakes do not grab. A change from earlier prototypes allows the vehicle to regenerate more on braking than accelerator liftoff.

The RAV4 EV’s large touchscreen also presents a learning curve, housing many functions not accessible via hard controls. There are buttons for the HVAC system but none for the radio, other than a couple on the steering wheel.

A “Home” button mimics smartphones, a touch that should appeal to the technophiles expected to buy the EV.

Touchscreen steps mostly are intuitive, although locating tune, found under a small musical-note symbol on the radio home screen, requires assistance.

Wind and road noise is minimal and the auxiliary noise so common in other electrics and hybrid-electrics is nonexistent in the RAV4 EV. The vehicle gets roof and front-fender insulation, both expected for the next-gen gasoline RAV4, to quell din.

Interior materials are the biggest disappointment in the near-$50,000 vehicle. Although low-gloss, plastic is hard. The SofTex faux leather, seen in smooth and matte form in Lexus models, is tacky to the touch in the RAV4. The shiny fabric inserts also read cheap.

With the price already high, the auto maker easily could upgrade the materials without having to worry about turning off the well-heeled folks expected to buy the vehicle.

Toyota expects to sell just 2,600 units in 2012-2014, via approved dealers in L.A.-Orange County, San Diego, San Francisco and Sacramento.

The restrictive marketing plan, similar to one in the works for the also-excellent Honda Fit EV, merits a second look, particularly given the RAV4’s class-leading range and roominess.

Toyota officials concede they’re considering expanding availability.

We say, “Just do it.”

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com

’12 Toyota RAV4 EV
Vehicle type Four-door, 5-passenger battery-powered cross/utility vehicle
Electric motor AC induction motor
Power (SAE net) 115 kW (154 hp)
Torque 273 lb.-ft. (370 Nm) in Sport drive mode
Transmission Fixed-gear automatic
Wheelbase 104.7 ins. (266 cm)
Overall length 180.1 ins. (457 cm)
Overall width 71.5 ins. (182 cm)
Overall height 66.3 ins. (168 cm)
Curb weight 4,032 lbs. (1,829 kg)
Base price $49,800, not incl. $810 shipping fee
Fuel economy TBD
Competition Nissan Leaf, Ford Focus EV, Mitsubishi i, Honda Fit EV, Chevy Volt
Pros Cons
Lots of content Not much spent on interior materials
Real-world range w/AC Still doesn’t match ICE range
Smartphone-style HMI Multi-step process for some functions