Imagine for a minute that you’re a well-to-do car buyer with an outdoorsy bent. You’ve got 90 grand burning a hole in your pocket, and you head to your local Toyota dealership to plunk down your hard-earned cash on a Land Cruiser. But the dealer gives you dire news — the Land Cruiser is dead in the U.S., and your only option is the far more ostentatious Lexus LX 600.
You’re despondent. All you wanted was a full-size luxury SUV to glide through your daily commute and tackle the weekend’s off-pavement adventures, all wrapped up in a stylishly under-the-radar design. You want three-row seating and the finest interior accoutrement, but you don’t want the comically oversized grille found on most luxury utility vehicles.
Lucky for you, that SUV still exists — in the form of the Rivian R1S.
Full Disclosure: Rivian shipped me out to the Catskills to drive the new R1S SUV on the best and worst of central New York state’s roads, as well as the soaking wet off-road trails at Monticello Motor Club. Rivian paid for my transit, lodging, and some of the best press-trip food I’ve ever eaten — prepared, of course, on the pull-out kitchen in the R1T’s pickup truck’s gear tunnel.
While the R1S shares much of its body and drivetrain with the company’s R1T pickup, the S is a brand-new vehicle. Not only does it have no predecessor, it’s arguably the progenitor of a completely new segment — but we’ll get to that later. For now, what’s new is, basically, everything.
The R1S is a three-row luxury SUV, riding on a short-wheelbase version of the platform that underpins the R1T pickup. From the B-pillar forward, the SUV is identical to the pickup, but the tail end is all new.
Eventually, two versions of the R1S will be available: one with two motors (one at each axle) and one with four, a motor at each wheel. Currently only the quad-motor version is being built, with a claimed 835 horsepower and 908 lb-ft of torque. That means this full-size SUV can do zero to 60 in three seconds flat — one second per row of seats.
As for range, Rivian claims 316 miles with the optional Large battery pack, though the company also says the SUV can beat that number in its most range-conserving drive mode. Curb weight is said to be “just under 7,000 lbs,” and the R1S is rated to tow 7,700 pounds.
For those looking to leave the road entirely, the R1S’s ride height is adjustable, from 9.5 inches of ground clearance all the way up to 15. That highest setting, though, will limit you to 25 mph.
Like Rivian’s pickup truck, the R1S is 81.8 inches wide with the mirrors folded, but the SUV is shorter in wheelbase and overall length. The S comes in at just under 201 inches long, with its 121-inch wheelbase just over a foot shorter than the T’s, and the SUV gives up just a bit of height — 77.3 inches to the truck’s 78.2-inch roofline. To compare to an internal-combustion mainstay, the R1S’s length is basically identical to the current Lexus LX 600 — but the American EV is three inches taller and four inches wider.
It looks good — boxy and slab-sided, but with attention to detail. There are no vast, boring expanses of unbroken body color — the ratios, the distance from the wheel to the fender, from the fender to the shoulder line, from the shoulder line to the roof, all just work perfectly together.
The R1S wears the classic Rivian face, distinctive but understated. The wide light bar and big oval eyes let onlookers know this is something new and different. It’s a luxury SUV with neither the ostentatious braggadocio of the Lexus LX nor the egg-future roundness of every other EV. And there’s no gimmicky battery-powered over styling here. It’s a good-looking SUV that just happens to be electric.
But despite that clean, understated exterior, the R1S is incapable of flying under the radar. Everywhere I drove, I was greeted by sidewalks full of gawking faces. People are desperate to understand this striking, silent SUV. Rivian employees who have spent months driving around in pre-production prototypes all told me it’s impossible to stop at a mall without getting a barrage of questions from curious onlookers, and I believe them.
As with the pickup truck, Rivian went to the trouble of selecting some fantastic paint colors for its new SUV — including bright blue, searing red, a fantastic turmeric yellow and two shades of green. Please, do not buy this rig in a boring gray. A restrained design like this can confidently wear a loud paint color, and Rivian knows it.
In a word: Quick. The quad-motor Rivian falls into the “Jesus Christ that’s fast” acceleration category, close to the border of “Is this really necessary?” Yes, it’s a big vehicle carrying lots of weight, but a brake-torqued launch makes those pounds disappear in an instant. You become one with the seatback, spine mashed into to the contours of the leather.
If getting going is a blast in the R1S, so is coming to a stop. The Rivian has two levels of regenerative braking, the stronger of which offers the most aggressive regen I’ve ever experienced in an EV. Charles Sanderson, chief engineer on both R1 models, went so far as to warn me about the regen, saying that the stronger setting offers more braking than some people like. I loved it. Across two days of driving the R1S, I touched the brake pedal twice: Once when a yellow light turned red in front of me, and once to disable cruise control on the highway. The rest of the time, regen handled everything.
As for the steering and suspension tuning, it was exactly what you’d expect of a vehicle this size and price. Do you feel every single rut in the pavement through the steering wheel, allowing you to perfectly place your inside tires on an apex? No, because that’s not what the R1S is for. But the steering is nicely weighted, rather numb but reasonably direct. In Sport mode, the suspension rivals the stiffness of a BMW M SUV, without the harshness of those over-damped crossovers. Clicked into Standard mode, the R1S glided over New York’s torn-up mountain roads in total comfort.
Despite its size, the Rivian SUV drives like a smaller machine on highways or backcountry two-lanes. In the confines of the city, however, you quickly realize how big this three-row hauler actually is — as wide as a Suburban and slightly taller.
Off-road, the R1S is a joy. I’m in the unique position of having only driven EVs off-road, and I’m grateful that my introduction to this world came without having to worry about the right gear, the right transfer case range, or whether the differentials were locked. On challenging, unforgiving terrain, an EV lets you focus on the fundamentals, plotting the proper line and focusing on maintaining traction. Off-roading an EV is taking the stairs into the pool, rather than doing a cannonball — it’s a gentler way to get acclimated.
It’s bright, airy, and open — just a nice place to be. Each row of seating has a ton of room, and I could comfortably plant myself in the third row without having to adjust the seat in front of me. The dashboard is low and largely flat, out of the way when you’re not paying attention to it. The R1S gives you an experience like sitting on a park bench — you focus on the view, not on where you’re sitting.
When you’re sitting in the driver’s seat, there’s a black panel by your right foot with the word RIVIAN embossed on it. Reach down and touch it, and you’ll find soft-touch rubber. Nowhere will you find cheap plastics in the front of the R1S cabin. Everything you can touch feels high quality; everything you can see looks worthy of the sticker price.
The back two rows fold completely flat, but even with seven passengers buckled in, the cargo area is spacious, more akin to a minivan than a conventional three-row utility vehicle.
Unfortunately, the interior also holds the Rivian’s biggest slip-up: The infotainment system. It’s perfectly usable — quick and responsive and loaded with useful features — but it has a few quirks that could put buyers off. For starters, there’s no CarPlay or Android Auto to be found. Rivian representatives told me the company doesn’t want to cede any ground to third-party engineering, preferring to maintain control over every aspect of the user experience. From the factory, every Rivian comes with Amazon Alexa voice-control capability — but if you don’t link your personal Alexa account, there’s no way to voice-control the Spotify-based music player, which makes Rivian’s argument against CarPlay and Android Auto feel a little less convincing.
Like so many “disruptor” EVs, the Rivian’s steering wheel has unlabeled, multi-purpose buttons on the steering wheel. Sometimes, the center screen tells you what these buttons will do, like when you’re using them to adjust the tilt/telescope steering wheel and the side-view mirrors. Other times, like most of the time you’re driving, the function of these buttons remains a mystery, unknowable until pressed.
It’s an interesting question, because right now, there isn’t much competition in the luxury-off-road-electric-utility-vehicle category. An R1T buyer might cross-shop the Ford F-150 Lightning (or GM’s soon-to-arrive competitor), but the person considering the R1S doesn’t want a truck. What else is out there?
When it comes to three-row electric SUVs, there’s exactly one: The Tesla Model X. The Tesla is smaller overall (nearly the same length, but narrower and nearly a foot shorter in height) and lighter, and boasts 34 more miles of battery range. Aesthetically, the two vehicles couldn’t be more different — the Tesla’s aerodynamic egg shape is a far cry from the Rivian’s squared-off corners. While a Model X Plaid may outsprint a Rivian in a drag race, the top Tesla commands $50,000 over a loaded R1S — and doesn’t have any off-road prowess to show for it.
Driving the R1S, the biggest thing I noticed is the attention to detail. Everything you touch or see has been thought through. I found no examples of corner-cutting, nothing done for the sake of tradition or manufacturing simplicity. After all, Rivian is a brand-new automaker, free to find unconventional approaches to everyday car-design questions.
The interior has one USB-C port for each passenger, plus an extra. The interior lamp on the liftgate makes a perfect reading light when you’re sitting in the cargo hold, like you’d do to consult a paper map on an off-road adventure away from cell service. The engineers were more than happy to tell me about the trick suspension, how the shocks allow for independent high- and low-speed adjustment for compression and rebound damping within milliseconds. The same amount of thoughtfulness went into the doors, which extend to the bottom of the rocker panel so you don’t get dirt or mud on your pant legs climbing in or out.
The Rivian R1S is what you’d design if you could fix every qualm or quibble you had with a conventional SUV. That doesn’t come cheap: A base-model R1S starts at $72,500, climbing to $90,000 for a top-spec, quad-motor, big-battery example. It’s easy to see where that money went, because this is a nearly perfect off-road luxury SUV. One that just happens to be electric.