Lexus RZ 450e Prototype Review: A Small Battery, No One-Pedal Driving, and a Yoke
Lexus’ upcoming BEV will approach emissions-free driving in a few unusual ways.
Lexus is leaping into the electric car segment with the 2023 RZ 450e, a crossover designed with battery-only power in mind from the get-go. While it isn’t the first Lexus-branded EV—that distinction goes to the UX 300e sold in some overseas markets—the RZ is the first Lexus-branded EV that will be available globally and, crucially, one that will not be offered with another type of powertrain. On a secondary but equally important level, it illustrates how Lexus views electrification and provides hints about what to expect as the brand starts volleying EVs in a bid to ditch even hybrid technology in most markets by 2030.
On the surface, an electric crossover is as prosaic as it gets. Everyone is either doing one or wants to do one, even the company that made your old Walkman. Taking a deeper dive reveals that the Toyota-owned firm’s approach to going electric is unusual in a number of ways. The RZ uses a relatively small battery pack, it does not offer a one-pedal driving mode, and it can be fitted with a steer-by-wire system connected to a yoke.
Why would you put a goddamn yoke in a car when we’ve gotten by with a wheel for decades? I traveled to Barcelona, Spain, to meet some of the folks who developed the RZ and learn why these choices were made, and get a first crack behind the wheel of a couple of RZ 450e prototypes.
Lexus RZ 450e Prototype Specs
- Base price: TBA
- Powertrain: 71.4-kWh battery | 150-kW front and 80-kW rear motors | 1-speed automatic | all-wheel drive
- Horsepower: 308
- Torque: TBA
- 0-60 mph: TBA
- Curb weight: TBA
- Manufacturer-estimated range: 225 miles
- Seating capacity: 5
- Cargo volume: TBA
- Quick take: The RZ 450e showcases the Lexus approach to designing an EV.
- Score: N/A
Closely related to the Toyota bZ4x, and consequently, on the same branch of the EV family tree as the Subaru Solterra, the RZ rides on Toyota’s e-TNGA architecture, developed specifically to underpin electric vehicles. It stretches about 189 inches long, 74.6 inches wide, and 64.4 inches tall, meaning it’s around six inches longer, an inch wider, and an inch lower than the NX. Calling the RZ a bZ4x in Lexus garments would be an oversimplification, however. Lexus chief engineer Takashi Watanabe told me that his team made several modifications to the platform before deeming it worthy of building a crossover upon.
“We increased structural rigidity. We made reinforcements in the front, in the back, and around the suspension towers and we added a front strut bar, for example. We wanted to minimize flex,” he said.
The RZ falls in line with the current Lexus design language even without the massive spindle grille thanks in part to a spindle-shaped insert flanked by angular headlights. Its roofline is raked without sinking too far into the murky “four-door coupe” swamp, while its back end is characterized by a horizontal light strip accented by “LEXUS” lettering and an almost duck tail-like spoiler integrated into the hatch.
There’s more to the design than meets the eye, and much of it is functional. Take the two fins above the hatch, for example. “As air travels along the sides of the vehicle and onto the rear glass, it creates a center of turbulence and there is a little bit of vacuum that occurs. When you steer, that turbulence has an effect on the steering response and has a tendency to try to push back. Those fins correct the flow of air along the sides,” Watanabe explained through his interpreter. And take a look at how the outer rear lights stick out slightly from the quarter panels. This small detail creates downforce, he added.
The Balancing Act
Power comes from two electric motors (one per axle for through-the-road all-wheel-drive) zapped into motion by a 71.4-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack. The unit assigned to the front wheels is mounted upright to clear up more space in the cabin, though this is achieved at the expense of a frunk, and it’s rated at 201 horsepower. Out back, a motor is installed on its side to lower the trunk’s floor and its output is pegged at 107 horsepower. Put another way, the RZ uses the front-wheel-drive bZ4x’s front motor and the all-wheel-drive model’s rear motor, though the latter’s power controller is fitted with a silicon carbide semiconductor that the Toyota’s does not get. While Toyota makes two drivetrain configurations available, Lexus hasn’t decided if it will add a front-wheel-drive model to the lineup yet.
Lexus estimates that the RZ will offer a maximum driving range of approximately 225 miles when rolling on 18-inch wheels and around 200 miles when fitted with 20-inch wheels, figures that certainly won’t make headlines. The company’s rationale is that efficiency will become more important than range for many electric car buyers in the coming years. It’s why Lexus chose to go with a smaller and lighter battery pack than a larger one that could return more driving miles—and it’s a reasoning that holds water, as it could play a role in ensuring that our roads don’t become overrun by 8,000-pound electro-whales. But will someone who regularly drives between Los Angeles and San Francisco nod in agreement? The jury is still out on this one. In the meantime, Lexus predicts that the battery pack will retain about 90 percent of its capacity after 10 years, and it notes that the RZ is compatible with 150-kilowatt quick chargers.
Fitting a bigger battery pack was ruled out for a number of reasons, according to Lexus of Europe’s marketing manager Bart Eelen. Batteries are heavy, and engineers wanted to keep the RZ’s weight in check. Batteries are also expensive, and the marketing team needed to keep the RZ’s cost in check. There are limits to how big of a battery you can stuff in the platform, too, and Lexus determined this is the best balance.
A Brief Jaunt
My time behind the wheel of the RZ was limited only to a few laps of the Parcmotor Castellolí closed-course track located on the outskirts of Barcelona, a roller coaster-like circuit that would be tremendously fun in a souped-up, 1,275cc Austin Mini. As a result, this review won’t have any public-road impressions. I drove a pair of early pre-production prototypes—so I can’t comment on final interior build quality—though they felt nicer inside than some regular production cars. Both were quick off the line, smooth, quiet, and comfortable—my first impression was that the RZ had the same character as other Lexus crossovers, and that’s a good thing. Body roll wasn’t excessive, and the braking system felt better and more natural than the average EV’s.
Steering wheel-mounted paddles let me choose one of four brake energy recuperation levels, but there was no one-pedal driving mode. The maximum amount of regeneration that you get when taking your foot off of the accelerator pedal is dialed in at 0.15 Gs. And, interestingly, pressing the brake pedal always summoned the hydraulic braking system. This is an important distinction because, in many electric cars, hitting the brakes increases the level of regeneration instead of pushing the pads (up to a certain point, at least). Watanabe told me that his team made this unconventional choice for a good reason.
“We believe in the fact that the accelerator pedal and the brake pedal each play an individual role in the vehicle operation. The throttle is meant for speed control; braking is its own thing,” he said.
The two testers I drove differed in one significant area: steering. Lexus fitted the first prototype with a normal steering system, the one that will come standard in production cars. It fitted the second prototype with new steer-by-wire technology that will sooner or later be available as an option on some trim levels, though timing hasn’t been confirmed yet. Steer-by-wire brings with it a yoke instead of a round steering wheel.
Gird your loins, folks: This system is fascinating, promising, and controversial in equal measures.
The Future of Steering? Sorta, Kinda
Let’s unscramble this egg: on one side, we have the steer-by-wire technology, and on the other, we have the yoke.
First, the system. As its name implies, this setup eschews the mechanical link that usually connects the steering wheel and the steering rack and instead relies on an electronic connection to turn the wheels. There is, thankfully, a backup system to save your ass if something in the main system decides to retire but it’s electrical as well; as a result, this version of the RZ has no steering column, which is an odd thing to grok. Steer-by-wire isn’t new, several carmakers have already experimented with it (including Infiniti, though with a mechanical backup system), and it was added to the RZ for reasons purely related to handling and comfort. It does not save weight—it’s actually somewhat surprisingly heavier than a conventional steering system due in part to the 12-volt battery that powers the redundant components.
“As the drivetrain’s torque increases, we need a faster and more precise steering system,” Eelen said.
The steering lock is set to 150 degrees and the system’s ratio is variable. At low speeds, the steering was almost freakishly quick. You don’t need to frantically turn the wheel to make a tight turn (like, say, in a parking lot) or to control the car if it’s skidding out of control. A run on a wet skidpad was eye-opening. Lexus instructed me to gun it from a full stop and rapidly go around a series of cones until the car lost traction and began to slide. The prototype fitted with steer-by-wire proved exponentially easier to get under control than the prototype equipped with the standard steering system because the front wheels could be turned with quick, precise inputs rather than by sending the steering wheel on a frantic series of cartwheels. Every split second counts in a situation like this, and it’s not as Hollywood stunt driver-esque as it might sound, especially if you regularly drive in winter weather.
The system gradually became slower as the RZ accelerated and it felt almost like a normal steering setup at freeway speeds. The transition was gradual and it didn’t catch me by surprise—imagine the “what the hell?!” moments you’d have if it wasn’t gradual. Another benefit of steer-by-wire is that vibrations from the wheels, especially when driving on rough roads, don’t make their way to your wrists. True, I only got to experience it on a closed-course circuit and not on real roads, but overall the system was easy to get used to and surprisingly natural with a good amount of feedback. You could reasonably expect it to feel video game-like but Lexus has done an excellent job of tuning it.
And, yes: Since the variable ratio eliminates hand-over-hand movements, Lexus took the liberty of replacing the steering wheel with the infamous yoke. This, too, sounds good on paper: It gives the driver a clearer view of the digital instrument cluster, which is embedded deeper into the dashboard than in the RZ fitted with the normal steering system.
In application, I found it unergonomic. Even if you no longer need the top and bottom parts of the steering wheel’s rim, there are times when it’s nice to have them. Sure, everyone has been taught to keep their hands on the 9 and 3 o’clock positions, but everyone has also ended up with one hand at 6 and the other holding a coffee near the end of a long drive. With the yoke, there’s really nowhere else to put your hands unless you treat it like a tiny handlebar. I think that a smaller steering wheel, like the one you’ll sit behind if you rent a Peugeot 208 on a trip to Europe, would make far more sense than a yoke, but it’s very much a matter of personal preference and habit. I recommend trying it rather than taking my word for it and moving on; your mileage may vary.
Pay no attention to the constellation of warning icons illuminated in the test car’s instrument cluster. It’s a pre-production prototype, so development work is ongoing. Not all of the functions are ready for prime time, and it’s completely normal for the car to have a lot to say. What you should pay attention to, however, is the black strip in front of the instrument cluster because it’s paying attention to you. It’s a driver monitoring system that keeps an eye on whether you’re alive, awake, and focused, issues warnings if it decides you’re dead, asleep, or somehow distracted, and slowly stops the car if you don’t respond. Nothing is official yet, but it’s not too far-fetched to speculate that the driver monitoring system could sooner or later get woven into a hands-free advanced adaptive cruise control system, similar to what General Motors and Ford currently offer.
The First Step
Much like how it took its own path to the luxury segment with the first-generation LS, Lexus is drawing on decades of hybrid-building experience to shape a unique approach to EVs. Its first entry into the battleground is promising. There are still some creases to be ironed out, but I expect that by the time the RZ reaches showrooms, it will be a well-rounded crossover that blends the quietness and smoothness of an electric car with the comfort and dependability that the firm has been known for since its inception.
Built in Japan, the 2023 Lexus RZ 450e will go on sale nationwide in November 2022. There is no word yet on how much it will cost, but buyers will be eligible to claim federal and local incentives. Pricing for the steer-by-wire system hasn’t been announced, either; Lexus hasn’t even revealed what it will call the steering… thing. It’s not a wheel, and rest assured, Lexus product marketing manager Sakiko Aono told me that the name hasn’t been decided yet but stressed that it won’t be called a flippin’ yoke. But there’s time to find a suitable name since the system will not be available in the RZ’s first model year on the market.
An American automotive journalist and historian, Ronan Glon is based in France. His work has appeared in Autoblog and Digital Trends.
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