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2023 Rivian R1S Launch Edition Review: Not Intuitive but Worth the Effort

Rivian R1S EV SUV review profile(Photo/Paul Eisenstein)
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We spent a wintry week in Detroit finding out what the 2023 Rivian R1S Launch Edition SUV is all about. Aside from a few flaws, we left understanding why the automaker can’t build these EVs fast enough.

While Tesla may dominate the U.S. EV market, it’s facing a growing list of serious alternatives. These include not only established brands like Ford, GM, Honda, and Hyundai but newcomers like Rivian as well.

The startup launched its first all-electric model, the R1T pickup, a year ago, and it’s followed up with a battery-powered SUV.

In short: The Rivian R1S (“S” is for SUV) is distinctively styled, sporty, and offers a variety of desirable features. With the touch of a button, it can be transformed into a serious off-roader. It lacks some expected features, like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and the tech it does have isn’t all that intuitive to use.

Rivian EVs

2023 Rivian R1S EV SUV review profile on muddy road
(Photo/Paul Eisenstein)

The ”EV revolution” is transforming the automotive world, among other things, by introducing a variety of new brand names to a long-closed industry. While it’s anyone’s guess who’ll survive long-term, there’s a good reason to bet on Rivian. The California startup has some deep-pocketed investors, including Ford Motor Co. and Amazon. The online retail giant has ordered 100,000 Rivian EV vans for its Prime delivery service.

On the retail side, Rivian made its debut with the well-reviewed R1T pickup. Now, it’s added a second product to the line-up — the big R1S SUV. Both share the same underlying chassis and key drive components, which is good when you consider what they’re capable of.

2023 Rivian R1S EV SUV review front view, on muddy trail
(Photo/Paul Eisenstein)

The initial R1S Launch Edition — which we tested here — produces 835 horsepower and about 900 pound-feet of torque. That’s enough to hit 60 mph in a neck-snapping 3 seconds.

With 128.9 kWh of usable battery capacity, the Rivian R1S can deliver a solid 316 miles per charge. And its 800V electrical architecture allows for reasonably quick recharging.

2023 Rivian R1S Launch Edition Review: A Few Reasons to Gripe

There are a variety of other appealing features, including a one-touch system that lets you instantly shift from high-performance to off-road mode. And that’s with as much as 15 inches of ground clearance.

There are a few reasons to gripe. For one, the digital control technology can be a handful to master, even for tech-savvy buyers.

But after spending a week behind the wheel of the Rivian R1S, I came to understand why the automaker is struggling to build them fast enough to meet demand.

R1S Proportions

Rivian R1S EV SUV review rear three-quarter
(Photo/Paul Eisenstein)

The Rivian R1S is roughly a foot shorter than the original R1T. That’s no surprise since it trades the pickup’s bed for a roomy cabin and plenty of covered cargo space.

Spot the two nose-on and you’ll have trouble telling them apart. Both share the same distinctive vertical oval headlamps that yield something of a manga comic book appearance. The broad light bar stretching across the front end adds to that look.

Rivian R1S EV SUV review frunk open

From the side, the R1S adopts a relatively traditional SUV profile, albeit with shorter overhangs and a more modest-sized hood. That’s because there’s no engine behind the sealed grille. Virtually all key powertrain components, including the utility vehicle’s big battery pack and four motors, are mounted below the load floor. Among the benefits: a reasonably usable 12-cubic-foot “frunk” (or front trunk) under the power-operated hood.

Rivian R1S EV SUV review interior second- and third-row seating

Another benefit is a flat load floor in a truly spacious cabin. My R1S Launch Edition had plenty of room for as many as seven adults, with a third-row bench that no longer needs to be described as a penalty box.

A True Luxury Vehicle

At a base price of $72,500 (the Launch Edition we drove jumping to $90,000), the Rivian R1S should definitely be considered a luxury vehicle. And it does a much better job at loading up on the upscale features than the more expensive Tesla Model X.

It’s almost Scandinavian in appearance, with an elegant simplicity that includes detailed wood accents and other refined materials. With its emphasis on sustainability, the SUV uses recycled materials for the headliner and its floor mats can be easily washed out after a day at work or on the trail.

Big Screens

Rivian R1S EV SUV review interior control screen
(Photo/Paul Eisenstein)

What’s most likely to catch the eye the first time you slip inside the R1S are the twin digital displays. One is the large reconfigurable gauge cluster visible through the steering wheel, and the second is a positively huge infotainment touch screen.

It needs to be that big considering it handles virtually every vehicle function, from seat heaters to driving mode, as well as the expected audio and navigation systems. Even mirror and steering wheel positioning requires the use of the touchscreen.

There are a few conventional controls, but those are limited to seat position and critical functions like windshield wipers, turn signals, and cruise control, with a pair of reconfigurable controls on the steering wheel.

Rivian Tech Talk

2023 Rivian R1S EV SUV review front three-quarter view
(Photo/Paul Eisenstein)

If you’re a tech-savvy soul, you’ll adore the R1S infotainment system. Even then, the learning curve can be steep.

I consider myself tech-savvy, but after a week of vehicle testing, I still struggled to get it all down in memory. The steering wheel-mounted multifunction controls added to the challenge, as they aren’t backlit at night.

A few other grumbles: the lack of both AM and Sirius/XM radio are at the top of my list, along with missing Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. But the R1S does include a WiFi hotspot, Qi wireless charging, and Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant.

The ute also relies on a fairly extensive array of external sensors for its advanced driver assistance technologies and the Rivian Driver+ system. That technology requires just a light grip of the steering wheel but eases the driving burden by maintaining your speed and place in your lane.

The good news is that the R1S can receive smartphone-style over-the-air (OTA) updates to address some — though not all — of those issues. OTA also can be used to fix faulty software, addressing recalls without sending you back to the dealer showroom.

The infotainment system does make it easy (once you get it down) to operate key vehicle functions, including performance, charging, and dynamic chassis settings. Considering all the things Rivian has designed into the R1S, that’s a definite plus.

R1S Performance

Rivian R1S EV SUV review front view on muddy trail
(Photo/Paul Eisenstein)

If you’ve already spent time in one of the latest-generation battery-electric vehicles, you’ve likely figured out that they can offer sports car levels of performance. The SUV’s four motors — two on each axle — combine to produce a peak 835 horsepower and about 900 pound-feet of torque in the Launch Edition.

In Sport Mode, the suspension hunkers down to just five inches off the ground and throttle response quickens. Mash the throttle and you’ll hit 60 in just over 3 seconds.

At the other extreme, you can put the truck into Off-Road Mode and it will change character dramatically, rising to as much as 15 inches off the ground. There’s only a single gear but the electronic control system digitally emulates the grippy off-road manners of an SUV with a low-range transfer case. And, with the optional off-road tires, the R1S can go just about anywhere a comparably sized Jeep or Land Rover might.

If you’re simply looking to haul a trailer, Rivian claims the electric SUV can manage up to a 7,700-pound trailer. It also claims a payload rating of 1,800 pounds, so you can haul quite a lot of adventure gear.

Rivian R1S Range & Charging

2023 Rivian R1S EV SUV review charging port plugged in

Naturally, you’ll lose range the heavier the load. But in the EPA test cycle, the 128.9kWh pack yielded 316 miles per charge. That’s two more than the R1T pickup. With my lead foot and the need for cabin heat in the cooler weather, I was getting approximately 260 miles per charge.

Looking forward, Rivian has promised to launch a lower-cost, shorter-range battery pack and the 400-mile “Max” pack in 2023.

As for charging, that’s always a tricky topic and depends on what you plug into and when. Under optimum conditions, Rivian claims you can get up to 140 miles of additional range when using a high-speed public charger of at least 150 kW in 20 minutes. A built-in 11.5kW 240V charger can top the pack up overnight, Rivian also said. The system adds an additional 16 miles of range per hour.

R1S SUV Driving Impressions

Rivian R1T EV SUV review and R1S driving in woods

My week with the 2023 Rivian R1S was spent flogging it across a variety of different road surfaces and conditions. We drove everything from smooth pavement to dirt and gravel, but I didn’t have the opportunity to get into trouble off road.

However, I did have a chance to start out spending a day with a Launch Edition shod in off-road tires. I quickly learned there was a sacrifice in terms of on-road comfort and handling. On the local Interstate, the ute proved a little jittery. This required more effort to keep it precisely centered in its line.

With standard all-season rubber — Pirelli Scorpion Zero All Season Elect, to be precise — the R1S calmed down and offered a much smoother and more stable ride. But, it still wasn’t quite as comfortable a ride as the Tesla Model X, to name a key competitor.

2023 Rivian R1S Review: A Lot to Like

There’s a lot to like about the 2023 Rivian R1S even if the digital control technology can be a bit daunting to learn and operate.

The all-electric SUV makes use of its battery drive system for the electronically controlled air suspension and digital dynamic ride system. It is lavishly equipped and fleshed out with some impressive safety and creature comfort technology. There are a few curious faults, such as the lack of satellite radio, Apple CarPlay, and Android Auto.

2023 Rivian R1S EV SUV review at charging station in desert rear three-quarter

The base R1S Explore model starts at $72,500. This SUV is reasonably affordable compared to its competitors. The $17,500 upgrade to the Launch Edition is reasonably justified.

Overall, this is a far more fresh and compelling alternative to other all-electric SUVs, including the Tesla. A week in one and I clearly understood why Rivian is having trouble meeting retail demand for the R1S.

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