For years while German luxury-car makers were heavily committed to diesel engines, Lexus instead relied on hybrids to improve efficiency. After the Volkswagen emissions scandal put all diesels—even the majority that were not gaming the tailpipe tests—under a dark cloud, the German automakers jumped onto the EV bandwagon in an attempt to atone for their real and imagined sins. The resulting regulatory and competitive pressures have created an inexorable push for EVs, and Lexus could no longer hold out. So, at a time when most German luxury brands have already introduced three or four EV models, Lexus is releasing its first, the RZ450e.
The new entry is a crossover that's sized between the familiar Lexus NX and RX models, the brand's two top sellers in America. The RZ is built on a new platform called e-TNGA, which is also shared with its Toyota bZ4X sister ship and the closely related Subaru Solterra, both of which are just going on sale. Though the RZ is about three inches shorter in length than the RX, its 112.2-inch wheelbase is two and half inches longer, designed to enhance interior space. The RZ is also about three inches lower than its larger Lexus sibling.
The powertrain, similar to the one in the bZ4X, uses separate electric motors for the front and rear axles. However, in place of the twin 107-hp motors in the all-wheel-drive Toyota, the AWD-only Lexus drives its front wheels with the 201-hp motor from the front-drive bZ4X, making for a total of 308 horsepower, 94-hp advantage over the dual-motor bZ4X.
A 65.6-kWh liquid-cooled battery, which uses lithium-ion prismatic cells produced by a joint venture between Panasonic and Toyota, resides in a roughly six-inch-thick pack under the RZ's passenger compartment. This is not a huge battery capacity in the current market, no more than the bZ4X, and Lexus is estimating a range of only 200 to 225 miles, depending on wheel size.
Takashi Watanabe, the RZ's chief engineer, says this battery size was a conscious choice, designed to limit weight and maximize electrical efficiency. According to him, tests indicate that the RZ gets 15 to 20 percent more mileage per kWh than its competitors—a worthwhile goal, though perhaps not at the expense of range. We're eager to test that claim.
Lexus provided no charging times for the RZ, but it can take only a maximum of 150 kW on a DC charger, so it won't be high on the fast-charging leaderboard. And the onboard charger is rated at just 6.6 kW, less than the current norm of about 10 to 11 kW, so a Level 2 full charge will likely require roughly 11 hours.
Watanabe seems unconcerned with such modest stats, insisting that the RZ will deliver a good compromise between range, efficiency, and performance. Speaking of which, Lexus offered no predictions about acceleration, but we would expect times to 60 mph in the mid-five-second area.
Instead of using of cutting-edge electrical infrastructure, the RZ seems more focused on new features, the key one being the available drive-by-wire steering, which uses a yoke-type steering wheel. A highly variable ratio is so quick at low speeds that only 300 degrees of rotation—less than one turn lock-to-lock—provides full travel. This is possible because there is no mechanical connection between the electrically powered steering rack and the steering yoke. (Originally dubbed One Motion Grip, this setup will be renamed, as the folks at U.S. headquarters concluded that OMG steering was not the best name in the States.)
Another interesting choice, given the emphasis on overall efficiency, is the use of a nonblended, purely hydraulic brake. Regenerative braking is controlled exclusively by releasing the accelerator and is adjustable but limited to a maximum of 0.15-g deceleration. This makes for conventional pedal operation and feel, but at the sacrifice of some efficiency and potential range.
We had a brief opportunity to drive examples of the RZ, with both conventional and drive-by-wire steering, at an old racetrack near Barcelona. Both cars felt surprisingly good at brisk speeds. Body roll is limited, brake feel is excellent, and acceleration is healthy, though hardly breathtaking. And understeer was limited despite the front-biased power, which is unusual among all-wheel-drive EVs. One explanation is that the Direct4 control system varies the torque split from 75 percent in front to 80 percent in the rear, depending on conditions.
The RZs were also quiet and felt tight, thanks to measures such as a front strut-tower brace, double-layer acoustic door glass, heavier gauge steel, and generally more sound insulation than Toyota applies to the bZ4X.
The drive-by-wire steering model worked well on the track, where the speeds were high enough that its variable ratio was similar to that of the conventional steering. Neither steering system had great feel, but it seemed easier to bend the drive-by-wire RZ into a corner and precisely hit the apex.
The yoke-steering version also gets a different instrument cluster that is an inch and half higher and slightly farther from the driver. The idea is to take advantage of the missing upper portion of the wheel to slightly reduce both the angular and the focus adjustments needed when you shift your vision from the windshield to the instruments.
There was also a very tight autocross course to test the steering systems, and while the drive-by-wire car eliminates the extensive hand-over-hand shuffling the conventional steering requires, it felt unnatural. The superfast ratio responded so quickly at low speeds that it was hard not to overcorrect, and the front end of the Lexus felt as if it were being jerked from side to side rather than being turned.
But the faster ratio did pay off in a short slalom test on a low-friction surface designed to induce oversteer. It was definitely easier to catch the RZ's slide with the drive-by-wire system and avoid spinning. Living with this system in real-world driving, though, will be the best test to gauge its ultimate value and comfort.
This will happen with closer-to-production RZs around November, shortly before the cars go on sale in America. Toyota expects to import only 4900 units for the 2023 model year, so expectations are modest. Prices haven't yet been set, but with the all-wheel-drive bZ4X starting at $45,295, a base of perhaps $55K would seem reasonable for the RZ. We probably won't get the yoke-steering version in the first year, and a front-drive model might eventually appear at a somewhat lower price. When considering costs, keep in mind that Toyota has built enough Prime plug-in models that it is expected to start losing its federal electric-vehicle tax rebates later this year. And since Lexus falls under the corporate umbrella for this benefit, you will likely be paying close to the sticker price for this model. Sometimes, arriving late to the EV party does not pay off.
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