Rav4EV, which uses a Tesla battery, is fire-free

As federal investigators probe the safety of the Tesla Motors Model S and its battery pack, it’s worth noting that there’s another electric car sold in California with the same basic power source.

And it hasn’t had a single battery fire to date.

Toyota’s Rav4EV features a battery pack built by Tesla. Since the small SUV hit the market in September 2012, Toyota has sold about 1,200 of them, all in California.

In contrast, roughly 20,000 Model S sedans have been delivered worldwide since they started rolling off Tesla’s Fremont production line in June 2012. Three of the cars have caught fire since Oct. 1, prompting an investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Each fire started after a traffic accident punctured the sedan’s battery pack, which sits on the underside of the car.

But so far, that hasn’t happened with the Rav4.

“We have had no reports of battery fires in the Rav4EV,” said Jana Hartline, environmental communications manager with Toyota Motor Sales USA. “We haven’t had any instances of anything like that.”

Both the Rav4EV and the Model S feature battery packs designed and assembled by Tesla, using cells from Panasonic. The Model S battery packs come in two available sizes - 60 kWh and 85 kWh - while the Rav4 has just one, capable of storing almost 42 kWh of electricity.

You might think the lack of fires in the Rav4EV were a simple matter of ground clearance. Two of the Tesla fires began after drivers struck a large piece of metal debris lying in the road. SUVs tend to sit higher off the ground than do sedans, making them less prone to such accidents.

But that isn’t the case with the Rav4EV. Its ground clearance - 5.9 inches - is essentially the same as you’ll find on the Model S, whose undercarriage rides 6 inches off the pavement. The sedan’s suspension system used to lower that height to 5.2 inches at freeway speeds to better hug the road. But following the fires, Tesla reprogrammed the Model S suspension systems to keep the car elevated at higher speeds.

(Tesla also used to supply battery packs for Daimler’s electric smart microcar, although the car’s current edition uses a battery pack from a different supplier. Again, no battery fires have been reported, said Robert Moran, director of communications for Mercedes-Benz USA.)

So what accounts for the difference? Perhaps it’s simply a question of more cars on the road equaling more accidents - and more fires. After all no car, whether powered by gasoline or electricity, is immune.

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