Toyota – and by extension, Lexus – is an interesting company. Sure, it isn’t known for necessarily building the most thrilling or visceral cars on the road, but Toyota is interesting because it’s rarely the first to do anything. Why is being third or fourth to launch a feature or a car in a new segment interesting? Because it means Toyota gets to learn from other brands’ failures and do things better. Usually.
A great example of when “usually” falls apart is the forthcoming 2023 RZ 450e. It’s Lexus’ first fully electric production vehicle, and like the Toyota BZ4X on which it’s based, the results aren’t that great.
Full Disclosure: Lexus wanted me to drive the new RZ 450e so badly, the company invited me to San Diego and put me in a cushy hotel along with a bunch of other journalists there to sample Lexus’ first EV.
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Range, Or Lack Thereof
The headline figure for the RZ 450e is its range – or lack of it. The EPA rates the base RZ at 220 miles, but if you get a model with 20-inch wheels, that drops to just 196 miles. While that frankly laughable range isn’t the entire story, it will be a fact many buyers in the U.S. struggle to get past. Is there a chance the RZ will do better in the real world? It’s not impossible, but I wouldn’t hold out hope.
The RZ 450e shares its platform with the Toyota BZ4X and Subaru Solterra, and exclusively comes in a dual-motor, all-wheel-drive layout. The front electric motor puts out 150 kilowatts (201 hp) and the rear motor produces 80 kW (107 hp). While a little over 300 hp combined doesn’t sound like a lot, it feels perfectly adequate in the RZ, thanks to its instantaneous electric torque.
There are three levels of regenerative braking, but sadly, no one-pedal driving mode. The brakes are adequate and there’s no jarring transition between regenerative and mechanical stopping force.
Steering Into Uncharted Waters
Thankfully, this half steering wheel will be optional.
The RZ’s suspension tuning is superb and geared almost exclusively towards comfort. The body feels well controlled, even over large bumps, and the ride is extremely supple. The RZ’s standard electrically assisted steering is direct and not overly weighted, which is nice. The steering wheel itself is wrapped in an almost neoprene rubber-like material which feels weird at first, but I grew to like it.
Lexus will sell the RZ with a drive-by-wire steering system, but it won’t be available at launch in the U.S., and likely not until 2024. It’s extremely weird to use and awkward at low speeds in situations where you might need a lot of steering input, but feels acceptable in normal traffic. Lexus is billing it as a mobility solution, but other than someone who might be missing an arm, I don’t know who it’s actually for. Add in that the system is paired with a weird yoke instead of a normal steering wheel, and it’s a hard “no” all around.
While the exterior styling is bound to be divisive – though for my money, it’s better looking than the Toyota or the Subaru – the RZ’s interior should be anything but. It’s very similar to the current-generation Lexus RX and NX models, but even cleaner than those. There are two seating surfaces available, either Lexus’ Nuluxe artificial leather or Ultrasuede. Both are decent, but the Nuluxe would be my choice because I suspect it will wear better over the long haul.
The RZ’s front seats are comfortable, if not overly supportive, and passenger room is excellent with just shy of 40 inches of headroom front and rear, as well as 42 inches and 37.5 inches of legroom, respectively. Like the Solterra and BZ4X, the RZ lacks a frunk and its sloping rear glass limits cargo room somewhat, but the 23.7 cubic feet of space will be enough for most people most of the time.
A Nice Place to Be
Interestingly, Lexus is using the RZ to roll out a few new tech features for interior comfort. The first — and the one Lexus seems most proud of — is radiant heating. This is accomplished by a heated fabric-covered panel under the area where the glovebox would be if it existed, as well as on the bottom side of the steering column. The idea is that it’s supposed to reduce reliance on the traditional climate control system and therefore help with range in cold weather, but during my test drive, I struggled to feel much of a difference through my jeans unless I was almost touching the panel. It’s a cool idea, but I think it would need to be stronger to accomplish much, though that would likely impact range.
The other feature that Lexus is proud of is its shadeless glass roof. This is an almost unilaterally terrible idea, particularly on electric cars where it means you have to run the HVAC system even more often, eating into the car’s range. The glass roof adds headroom, which is nice, but as is always the case with these roofs, the tint isn’t dark enough to prevent the cabin from turning into an oven on a hot day. There is an optional electrochromic feature that turns the glass opaque, but it’s hard to say how effective that will be in the middle of a Southern California summer.
Being a modern Lexus, the RZ has a decent suite of tech for both entertainment and safety. The standard 14-inch landscape-oriented touchscreen is great, and while the icons can seem a bit small when you’re trying to use them while driving, the system overall is responsive and easy to use. Wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard and a Mark Levinson stereo system is optional.
The very robust Lexus Safety System Plus 3.0 is standard on both RZ trims and includes adaptive cruise control, active lane-keep assist, automatic emergency braking, lane-departure warning, road sign assist and proactive drive assist, which automatically brakes for you when it detects upcoming corners. Traffic Jam Assist is an optional extra and will let you go hands-free at speeds up to 25 mph.
An Electric Lexus for Lexus Owners
In addition to the range issue, Lexus created a few other hurdles for itself with the RZ. For example, the base RZ Premium starts at $59,650 including a $1,150 destination fee, and that doesn’t get you most of the more desirable tech features, though it does get you the best range of the bunch, at 220 miles. The top-tier Luxury trim has the 20-inch wheels as standard and therefore the worst range, and starts at $65,150. Add in the fact that these models are produced in Japan, and therefore ineligible for the federal EV tax credit, and things aren’t looking good.
But wait, there’s more. Lexus hopes to convert many of its own RX and NX owners into RZ buyers. This makes sense in theory, because a huge chunk of Lexus customers are repeat buyers. But the company isn’t offering any kind of charging assistance with the RZ, which is weird — Toyota is giving BZ4X buyers a year of free EVGo DC fast charging. Lexus has a partnership with Chargepoint, but that just means RZ owners and lessees can pay for charging in the Chargepoint network through their Lexus app. This feels like a mistake if you’re targeting first-time EV buyers, even if you only expect to sell 5,000 units in the U.S. in the first year.
Lexus is offering one concession for new EV owners: the chance to borrow an internal-combustion vehicle from their dealer’s loaner fleet for up to 30 days each year for three years. That means RZ owners can borrow an RX, LS, LX, etc. for use on longer trips. Is it a great solution? No, and it’s not even a unique one – Mazda does something similar for MX-30 buyers, for example – but it may be enough to convince some people who are on the fence.
At the end of the day, the RZ is a fantastic Lexus crossover, but a terrible EV. It’s comfortable and luxurious enough to make most people happy, but it’s so far from being competitive with vehicles like the Hyundai Ioniq 5 or Genesis GV60, I have to wonder why you’d buy this Lexus over anything else.
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