Earlier this month, EV upstart Rivian unveiled the R2, a smaller, more affordable, more mainstream SUV widely regarded as the young company’s ticket to the promised land of financial health. The rules of the car business dictate that if Rivian can sell more vehicles to more people, it can achieve the economies of scale necessary for it to stop losing billions of dollars—and maybe actually make a buck or two for investors. 

Consequently, the new R2 is critical to Rivian’s future. Its success or failure will determine whether the promising and beloved startup triumphantly ascends to the ranks of Tesla and China’s BYD—or lands on the trash heap of failed automotive ventures. 

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Rivian's second act

Rivian's high-end R1T pickup and R1S SUV landed it on the map. The $45,000 R2 is coming next. But the smaller, more distant R3 is all anyone's talking about. 

But it was a different Rivian altogether that stole the show at the company’s R2 reveal event in California: the R3. “I’m really, really excited to talk about R2’s sibling,” Rivian CEO and founder RJ Scaringe said to audible gasps from the crowd. He then unveiled a pint-sized, angular hatchback that he said would cost even less than the R2. 


Despite the lack of concrete details about price, range or release date, what followed was a drool-fest of epic proportions over the endearing little EV. Car nerds gushed about the R3’s resemblance to automotive icons. Even some regular people hopped on the hype train. I can’t recall such an overwhelmingly positive response to a new EV in recent years. 

Sure, the apocalyptic Cybertruck caused a frenzy upon its unveiling in 2019, but that was mostly for the wrong reasons. Tesla's pickup triggered a collective “They’re making that?” The R3 invited a chorus of “Please take my money!”

Gallery: Rivian R3

But what exactly about the R3 struck such a chord with people? To find out, we asked a couple of car design experts for their professional opinions on why the R3 looks so darn good. 

A lot of it has to do with nostalgia, they reckon. Across social media, the R3 immediately elicited comparisons to the first-generation Volkswagen Golf hatchback, sold in the U.S. from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s (as the Rabbit). Both cars share the same generally boxy silhouette, sharp angles and crisp edges. 

Rivian R3X

“It’s really an iconic shape,” said Paul Snyder, chair of the transportation design department at Detroit’s College for Creative Studies. “And I think there’s an association made for, maybe, a happier past, subconsciously.”

In a time of rampant nostalgia for 1980s cars, the R3 was bound to resonate with people, said Matteo Licata, a former car designer and design history professor at Italy’s IAAD (Istituto d'Arte Applicata e Design). “Launch it 10 years ago, and it wouldn’t have had the same effect, in my opinion,” he said. 

Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk1

Indeed, Rivian’s chief designer told The Drive that the R3 was inspired by 1980s rallying icons like the Lancia Delta Integrale and Audi Quattro. 

What’s more, in an era when modern cars are overloaded with busy styling elements, the R3 is refreshingly simple and restrained, experts said. 

“It’s not earth-shattering, but I think that’s the point,” said Snyder, whose design credits include the Honda Odyssey minivan and cult-favorite Ford Flex SUV. 


Instead of grabby styling, the R3 relies on straightforward design and balanced proportions. The R3’s few “character lines” are all coherent with one another, and there’s nothing gratuitous or jarring going on, Licata said. The relationship between the height of the hatchback’s greenhouse and the sheetmetal below it resembles the cars of decades ago, before vehicles got so chunky, he said. Its stretched-out hood gives off Volkswagen Golf vibes, he added.

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It’s a breath of fresh air in other ways too, Licata and Snyder said. It tracks that a friendly looking, small, affordable hatchback would stand out in a car market dominated by large, expensive, macho SUVs. The R2 looks nice enough, but in broad strokes it’s more of the same. 

Rivian R3X

On top of all that, the R3 benefits from just plain great design and execution. “They’ve done a brilliant job,” Licata said. “It is one of those rare designs in which I wouldn’t move a single line.” 

Snyder said there’s a “rightness” about it and praised its proportions and thoughtful detailing. He’s also a fan of the R3’s big wheels and the deep beveling around its tail lights. 


Charming as the R3 may be, Rivian has a mountain to climb before it can even hope to get the hatchback into eager customers’ driveways. First, it needs to manufacture and market the R2 without going bankrupt. If all goes well, by 2026 that cash cow should bring Rivian way more customers and revenue than the acclaimed but expensive R1T pickup and R1S SUV ever could. 

Then there’s the challenge of actually selling the R3. Sure, U.S. consumers badly need more cheap, rationally sized electric vehicles to choose from. But there’s a big difference between generating a Tweetstorm and generating sales. 

“Car enthusiasts are a very talkative, opinionated bunch," Licata said. "But then they never buy anything."

Contact the author: tim.levin@insideevs.com

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