The steepest street in Los Angeles, where I live, is a 33-percent grade. Driving down is something you experience in your stomach—it feels like you’re plunging down a slide. A few weeks ago, off-roading in the Catskills, the guide riding shotgun asked if I wanted to try something steeper: a nose-dive down a 45 percent grade of fresh mud. But there was a twist. At the bottom, I’d need to exit the slide in a shot through some trees. And basically do it blind. All of this in an R1S, the new 7,000-pound SUV from the electric car company Rivian, which costs around $90,000.

I am not an expert off-roader. I am not an off-roader at all. The last time I drove a vehicle into the wilderness, I was 18 miles from a phone signal and needed to hammer a tent stake into my window because I’d locked the keys inside. I did that because my car is not worth $90,000. It definitely doesn’t go from zero to sixty miles per hour in three seconds on pavement, which the R1S can, and which felt, the first time I experienced it, like the geography of my organs got remapped.

The world is getting warmer, thanks to humans burning fossil fuels. Cars are going electric with hopes that fewer fuels will be burned. And Rivian wants to put an electric adventure vehicle in your garage as soon as possible, partly to save the world, mostly to stay in business, with “soon as possible” being the sticking point. Rivian has a waiting list about 90,000 pre-orders long. For a variety of reasons—including computer-chip shortages resulting from the global supply chain crisis—it has only delivered about 6,600 cars thus far, almost all of them the company’s pickup-truck, and recently reported second quarter losses of $1.7 billion. Meaning anticipation for the R1S, the vehicle I drove for a long weekend, is high, and there’s also a chance of total failure, and the grade between the two is not slight.

Rivian estimates the R1S will reach customers soonish, likely in August. Before then, the idea was I’d do a little test-driving for a couple days in the Catskills, with hours of curving roads, hilly landscapes, and a forewarned sheriff’s department, plus a 300-acre forested off-road course. All to put the car through challenges it was designed to tackle, even if most Rivian’s customers never will, to see if the hype was deserved.

“You’ve got this,” the guide said.

Reader, I was puckling.


Remember when everybody switched from cell phones to smartphones, practically overnight? “Once you try a product that completely shifts the technology forward, shifts the experience forward, it’s like a diode; it’s hard to go backwards,” Robert Joseph Scaringe, Rivian’s CEO, told me. “We’re going to see a level of consumer mindset shift that’s hard to imagine.”

As a car-obsessed teenager who grew up rebuilding old Porsches, Scaringe realized that humanity’s addiction to fossil fuels would likely spell its doom. The solution he came up with was to start an electric vehicle company, but he knew those kinds of cars were never going to be an easy sell. Too sensible, too quiet, too dull. Americans love hulking SUVs or turbo-charged muscle cars. But what if an electric vehicle came along that was built like a Tahoe? What if it accelerated like a Corvette? Scaringe had a vision for an entirely different kind of EV company—one that could excite drivers across the country and the political spectrum. In a nod to that expansive ambition, Rivian, which he founded in 2009, was headquartered in Irvine, California, but would make its trucks and SUVs in a refurbished auto plant in Normal, Illinois—a reimagining of the heartland’s industrial past to make the car of the future.



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