That Toyota is working on an electric version of its Rav4 SUV, to be powered by an electric drivetrain built by/in collaboration with Tesla is no secret. That the vehicle is targeted to be produced and sold sometime in 2012 is no secret, either. But this week Toyota took the unusual step of inviting the auto press to tool around in early-stage prototypes of the plug-in beast. Unusual because most automakers developing new cars like to keep them, well, secret.

Plugincars was invited to check out one of the “Phase Zero” prototypes and came away with a few bits of optimism to hang your driving cap on if you’re looking forward to hauling lots of people and cargo in zero emissions fashion. Toyota is apparently shooting for a 100 mile range when the EV SUV comes to market, and the current development mules are consistently hitting 96 miles on a single charge. Perhaps more important to selling an electric Rav4 to American SUV buyers, the vehicle also seems to be on track to meet Toyota’s mission to “make and sell an all-electric version that is almost identical in appearance to the V6 gas version of the RAV4, offering the same amount of functionality and acceleration.” Plugincars happily reported:

Handling, steering and cornering—not yet calibrated for the heavy battery pack and new cross members—already has a solid and planted feel. According to [Sheldon, executive project manager for RAV4 EV] Brown, the handling of the production EV will beat out the gas version.

Photo via Plugincars

Whether or not an electric Rav4 makes sense in the short-term is certainly up for debate, given both the additional vehicle weight and expense that currently burden EVs as opposed to their gas counterparts. Plugincars expects the electric Rav4 to cost at least $20,000 more than its gas counterpart, and the prototype they drove weighs roughly a quarter-ton more than the V6 versions currently in Toyota showrooms. Then there’s the environmental impact of building new facilities to crank out the batteries and other new components of new electric vehicles. And, of course, the debate regarding how building and buying a new EV actually compares to purchasing and maintaining a used (i.e. already built) gas vehicle on the Green-0-Meter.

Looking to the long-term, though, technology continues to march on with its exploration of people movers propelled by things other than gas engines. Electric vehicles are on the forefront of that exploration, and a distant future encompassing zero emissions Rav4s instead of their gas burning, CO2 emitting brethren sounds like a good plan. Besides which it’s nice to see Tesla making good on their plans to keep spreading their EV tech out into more and more types of vehicles. If a $100k roadster can beget a $60k sedan and a $50k SUV, then that “affordable” electric car they’ve long been talking about has a decent shot of actually happening, too. Seeing as Tesla’s operating largely on a government loan at this point, I’d love to see them stick to that plan.

In the meantime, check out Plugincars for full first-drive impressions of the prototype Rav4 EV.

[Via: Plugincars]