Lexus (TM) has been doing it’s thing quite successfully in the auto world for some time now — defining Japanese luxury.
But Lexus’s EV efforts, like those of its parent company Toyota, have been stalled. Lexus has been on the back foot developing its first EV, which will finally come out this year while its competitors in the luxury space have had EVs out for some time now.
Toyota has new leadership in place (Lexus former head no less) to get its EV efforts jumpstarted. Under the old regime led by Akio Toyoda, the company’s first EV — the Toyota bz4x, would use at new platform called the e-TNGA platform, a modified version of the existing TNGA platform meant for EVs.
Now Lexus’s first EV – the RZ 450e, is using this platform. Both cars are very similar below the skin, though Lexus’s version will lean in harder on luxury and performance. The question is — Did Lexus nail its first EV effort or is there a reason why Toyota is ceasing development on this platform?
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Lexus design in the EV age
The RZ 450e will look very similar to many of Lexus’s devout customers, and those that know the design in general. Similar to the NX and RX, the RZ features hard angles as well as curves, but it all seems to work in a “Japanese futurism” sort of way, and in the flesh looks taut and sporty as well. The coupe-like profile gives the RZ an aggressive look, though this does hurt cargo capacity a tad.
Missing from the RZ is one of Lexus’s signature design features – the spindle grill. In it’s place is an aero-friendly, smoothed out trapezoidal looking nose, with smaller Lexus spindle grills on the side.
Inside is where things get more interesting. Lexus has always been strong in the materials and fit and finish front, with a nice array of leathers (or in this case, Lexus’s new vegan materials), wood veneers, and soft rubbery textural pieces. It’s the technology front where Lexus has been struggling with from a usability standpoint.
Now the driver is faced with a cockpit setup, with fighter-pilot like screens flanking the driver’s seat with the hood display and console angle toward the driver. But there’s one big change.
This is where we get to Lexus’s take on what the future of EV driver’s setups will look like. Called “Steer by Wire,” coming next year the RZ will feature this setup that includes a yoke steering wheel with a slightly adjusted driver’s instrument panel, angled for use with the yoke steering wheel. It is a totally different set up compared to the traditional steering wheel (which still be offered), and the Steer by Wire system has a completely different steering ratio and feel. More on that later.
‘Steer by Wire’ driving
For this first drive both versions of the RZ were available to drive, but this test will focus on the Steer by Wire version.
Like most EVs, the Lexus here has immediate torque at the get go, through the use of two electric motors in this case. Lexus says the front motor is capable of 150kW of power, with rear slightly less at 80kW, giving the total system 312hp of power.
While other EVs in the price range have more power, the 312hp here felt more than enough. Combined with the cars suspension dampening, the felt planted and drove smoothly, with Lexus-like refinement.
Despite this car being a pre-production version, there weren’t many rattles to speak of. The car was quiet like a regular Lexus, and even more so given its electric powertrain. The car is biased towards front wheel drive in most instances, so most drivers will feel its driving characteristics are feel pretty normal.
Lexus is trying to accentuate performance with “Lexus Driving Signature philosophy” as the company calls it, and 5 second 0-60 mph makes it one of Lexus’s fastest vehicles at the moment. But the biggest piece of this is the Steer by Wire system.
Because it is a yoke setup, drivers aren’t going to be able to crank the wheel hand over hand to get steering lock, which would not be ideal given it’s not a wheel. In this situation the yoke can go lock to lock in only 300 degrees, meaning the wheel doesn’t need to turned all the way around for tight steering.
With the system also being electronic, there is no mechanical linkage to the front wheels — it’s electrical signals and motors turning the wheels. This means infinite possibilities in terms of feel — the steering is much more sensitive at slow speeds and tight corners, but can loosen up at higher speeds for stability.
Initially it was something of an alien experience, but it was altogether so “new” that it was thrilling in some sense. Once getting used to it (within 5 minutes or so), the car felt more natural, though steering still felt a tad too sensitive given the fact you only need to steer 150 degrees in either direction to get full lock. This will take some time for drivers to get used to, but once acclimated, it makes the RZ feel like unlike any other car on the road.
Why the RZ 450e is a work in progress
The downsides of the vehicle are unfortunate given the RZ has a lot going for it. The 71.4kWh battery means the car only gets around 220 miles of EPA-estimated range on 18” wheels (196 miles on 20” wheels). The car will have the ability to get over-the-air updates, however these will only affect infotainment, not range or performance.
When speaking to the RZ’s assistant chief engineer, Yushi Higashiyami, he said the reason why the battery’s range was lower compared to others is Lexus’s focus on reliability and longevity of the battery. And this is no surprise given Lexus (and Toyota’s) priorities as a company – reliability, comfort, and affordability to name a few. But in this case, reliability is coming at the expense of range – a key factor in purchasing an EV.
The RZ will start at $59,650 when it goes on sale later this year, which puts it smack in the middle of strong competition from the Tesla Model Y, Audi eTron, Hyundai IONIQ 5, and Cadillac LYRIQ. All of the competitors are generally offering more for the price.
Perhaps this the biggest reason why Lexus felt the need to introduce its innovative Steer by Wire system — it needs to stand out in an increasingly competitive field.
Pras Subramanian is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. You can follow him on Twitter and on Instagram.
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