All-Electric 2023 Lexus RZ Steers Luxury in a New Direction
The 2023 Lexus RZ 450e is on sale now in the US with a conventional steering wheel, but a butterfly-style steer-by-wire yoke is coming.
A 150-kW front motor and an 80-kW motor propelling the rear uses power from the water-cooled 71.4-kWh lithium-ion battery pack, with a total output of 308 hp.
The RZ could qualify for federal tax credits if leased. The customer doesn’t get the credit, but the finance company does and should technically pass it on to the customer, according to Lexus.
With the growing market for all-electric crossovers, it’s not easy for an automaker to find a unique selling attribute to stand out from the premium competition. There’s the Mercedes-Benz EQB, BMW iX, Cadillac Lyriq, Audi e-tron, Jaguar I-Pace, and Volvo XC40 Recharge—all chasing the Tesla Model Y—with more EVs on the way.
The seat-of-pants experience across these models will be roughly the same: a quiet, smooth ride with lots of torque and an upscale, roomy interior with a cargo hold. A key differentiator for shoppers will be estimated range, along with the convenience and availability of local charging options.
Lexus has another—somewhat radical—idea that could spark demand among young, aspirational drivers who grew up racing cars virtually through video games. Lexus’ first all-electric crossover, the 2023 five-passenger RZ 450e, is also the brand’s first vehicle to offer steer-by-wire—there’s no steering column or physical linkage communicating steering inputs to the rack-and-pinion assembly that turns the wheels.
The Japanese luxury brand goes one giant step further, replacing the steering wheel with a butterfly-shaped yoke (although Lexus is trying to find a better name for it) that would look right at home in the cockpit of your everyday Millennium Falcon.
Based on our recent test drive in Europe, this new technology completely upends the handling dynamics in a segment known for conservative driving. It might be the car Max Verstappen would buy.
But Lexus smartly is launching the RZ 450e first with conventional steering and a round wheel, perhaps anticipating a small enthusiast crowd interested in the steer-by-wire yoke, which will be offered in the US once the engineers have the technology fully baked.
For context, the steering wheel with the conventional electric power steering system completes nearly three full rotations in the RZ—old classic cruisers with loose steering could manage about four rotations. With steer-by-wire, the RZ’s butterfly yoke can’t even make one full rotation. To go lock-to-lock requires the yoke to travel a mere 150 degrees in each direction, which seems to work fine on the highway with minimal steering inputs.
But try making a U-turn or a 90-degree right at an intersection or a three-point turn requiring shifting into reverse—the most disconcerting maneuver of all—and you might feel like it’s your first time ever driving a car.
But let’s not obsess about steer-by-wire. The RZ 450e is an exceedingly competent, comfortable, stylish EV, with or without the funky steering. Its observed energy efficiency was a bit disappointing, however.
The RZ fits neatly in Lexus’ crossover portfolio, larger than the UX and NX and smaller than the RX. While the others run with gasoline engines or in hybrid configurations, the RZ is the only BEV, and yet the general design language for all four is basically the same, with steeply raked windshields and liftgates contributing to an upscale, sporty vibe. By 2035, Lexus plans to produce nothing but battery-electric vehicles.
The controversial Lexus grille provides the most differentiation, with the UX and NX sticking with the angry and angular Predator-style “spindle grille” while the newer RX and RZ are toning down this visual element.
Because the RZ doesn’t need the same open-air front-end cooling for a radiator, the design team has come up with the “spindle body,” which means the trapezoidal shape is the same, but created instead with body-color fascia. I consider it an improvement. The RZ also has an optional illuminated Lexus logo between the headlamps.
With steer-by-wire getting most of the attention, it’s easy to overlook the powertrain, largely because it performed during our test drives exactly as a modern BEV should: With no CVT or conventional step-gear transmission, acceleration is swift, smooth, and nearly silent, thanks to a 150-kW front axle motor and an 80-kW motor propelling the rear using power from the water-cooled 71.4-kWh lithium-ion battery pack stowed under the floor and supplied by Prime Planet Energy & Solutions.
With 308 hp and an EPA-estimated range of 220 miles, Lexus says the all-wheel-drive RZ 450e can reach 60 mph in 5.0 seconds and has a top speed of 99 mph, making it great for casual suburban driving. The heaviest version of the RZ comes in Luxury trim, tipping the scales at 4619 pounds.
This 355-volt electrical system—part of Toyota’s new e-TNGA platform dedicated for EVs—allows for 240-volt Level 2 charging in 9.5 hours, while 150-kW DC fast charging takes about 30 minutes to attain 80% state of charge, Lexus says. The standard 120-volt wall socket in the garage will take more than two days to top off the battery.
We didn’t have to worry about charging during our day of driving through the rolling hills (and the occasional freeway) of southern France in cool-ish temperatures. The cars were not charged during the lunch break. In each leg of our test drive, the RZ managed efficiency ratings of between 18.1 and 23.1 kWh per 100 km, which translates into 3.4 and 2.7 miles per kWh.
Modern EVs, such as the Hyundai Ioniq 6, Lucid Air, and Tesla Model 3, have cracked the threshold of 4 miles per kWh in observed efficiency, and we were hoping for similar performance from Lexus’ first EV. The smaller (and much older) Chevy Bolt can easily top 3.5 miles per kWh. However, this level of efficiency for the RZ appears to be in line with the popular Tesla Model Y, which is similar in size.
Also, if you really like one-pedal driving (stopping just by lifting off the accelerator) in the new EVs, you won’t be able to in the Lexus RZ. The product-development team determined that it was better to keep drivers engaged in stopping the vehicle, while still allowing the use of steering-wheel paddles to adjust levels of regenerative braking.
The familiar drive modes (Normal, Eco, Sport, and Custom) are there to suit your mood, but the RZ adds a new Range mode that turns off the climate control and is estimated to extend range about 5% compared with Eco.
The RZ’s interior—with the conventional steering wheel moreso than with the butterfly yoke—also looks and feels like its Lexus crossover stablemates, intentionally crafted to present like a luxury car regardless of the powertrain.
The 14-inch touchscreen display is easy to navigate, and wireless Android Auto and Apple Car Play are standard. There’s no glovebox but there’s an available radiant heater to warm the front-row foot wells, and at night the door panels are bathed in a distinctive light pattern called “Shadow Illumination.” There are two bio-based upholsteries, NuLuxe and Ultrasuede.
The marketing team identifies the target demographic as highly educated city/suburban professionals with household income of at least $175,000 who have been Lexus loyalists or are moving up from a Toyota vehicle.
Lexus isn’t giving deep discounts on home installation of vehicles chargers, but the brand is dedicating a phone line to RZ customers and offering 30 complimentary reserve days in a different Lexus vehicle over the course of three years from the date of purchase.
Lexus is planning to sell 4900 RZs across the US this calendar year, among the 30,000 units to be sold globally. China is expected to be the vehicle’s biggest market. On sale this month, the RZ is assembled in Motomachi, Japan, which makes it ineligible for federal IRA incentives in the US if the vehicle is purchased.
However, it could qualify if leased. The customer doesn’t get the tax credit, but the finance company does and should technically pass it on to the customer, according to Lexus. A savvy customer looking to save some dough will need to ensure the finance company follows through.
Vehicles are being unloaded now at the port in Los Angeles for shipment across the US, which means first customers will take delivery in the coming weeks.
Pricing starts at $59,650 (including $1150 destination charges) for Premium trim with 18-inch wheels (rated at 220 miles of range) and steps up to $60,890 for Premium trim with 20-inch rims (rated at 196 miles). Topping the lineup is the Luxury trim, at $65,150.
As for the option price of the steer-by-wire yoke, we’ll have to wait until that wild technology is ready for delivery in US-bound copies of the RZ.
Lexus has kept RZ pricing reasonably moderate, partly by opting for a smaller battery rated at 220 miles of range in the US. Do you agree with that strategy? Please comment below.