In the auto industry, timing is everything.
Get it right, and sales will follow. Get it wrong, and even great vehicles can languish. An excellent example of the former is the Lexus RX, which – alongside the Mercedes-Benz M-Class and BMW X5 – took by storm a segment previously dominated by sedans and made SUVs the de facto choice in the premium space. That was about 25 years ago, and the RX has maintained a leading position ever since in spite of increasing competition from all corners of the market.
Where the RX’s arrival couldn’t have been much better, the timing of the 2023 Lexus RZ is interesting at the very least. On one hand, the brand’s first electric vehicle (EV) comes just as the industry at large is facing aggressive zero-emissions targets implemented by governments around the globe, including right here in Canada. On the other hand, its relatively late arrival means Lexus had an opportunity to set the RZ apart with big range and compelling pricing – an opportunity it mostly missed with this otherwise impressive SUV.
A Triumph of Comfort
Before we get to where the RZ falls short of its full potential, let’s first cover the ways it’s excellent, of which there are more than a few. While it might seem on the surface to be nothing more than a badge-engineered version of the Toyota bZ4X, nothing could be further from the truth, and it delivers a properly premium driving experience. In fact, to take that sentiment a step further, no other Lexus on the market today has a more luxurious disposition than this all-electric one – and that includes the flagship LS sedan.
It uses the same platform as the bZ4X, as well as its sibling Subaru Solterra, but it’s been properly reworked to take that architecture upmarket. In this regard, it’s the suspension that’s the highlight, with a smooth and supple ride that ranks among the best around – impressive considering the RZ relies on conventional shocks and springs instead of an adaptive air setup. Not even the BMW iX rides as well as this Lexus.
Likewise, Lexus engineers have managed to mask the weight and rigidity of the battery pack that spans the RZ’s floor in a way most of their adversaries have yet to match. The Mercedes-Benz EQS SUV doesn’t do as well to hide the stiff structure that EVs like this need in order to store energy. While the roads in the south of France where this test took place aren’t nearly as pock-marked as the ones at home, the RZ dazzled with its conventional compliance and composure.
Reinventing the Wheel
While it won’t be ready in the RZ’s first year on the market, a new steer-by-wire system was perhaps the most pleasant surprise of a morning drive spanning a little more than 150 km across ribbons of winding road. As the name would suggest, the setup goes without a mechanical connection of any kind between the steering wheel and front axles, with motors at each end transmitting and receiving signals to do the job.
The benefits of such a system include greater steering ratio variability and less input required during low-speed manoeuvres, as well as the elimination of bumps and vibrations that usually make their way from the front wheels to the driver’s hands. Of course, the latter means the feedback that’s felt is entirely artificial, but it’s undeniably smooth.
A little more debatable is the necessity of the switch from a conventional wheel to a steering yoke instead. It’s not merely an aesthetic exercise, with the two-sided design improving instrument visibility compared to a full wheel – particularly for taller drivers. Its inclusion was made possible by the completely electronic connection to the front wheels and the reduced input needed to change direction, although it wouldn’t be totally unfair to describe it as twitchy at low speeds. Turning the yoke more than a few degrees when reversing, for instance, is met with far more steering angle than a conventional wheel would offer. (And, indeed, an afternoon spent in an RZ with a traditional steering setup was quick to prove this to be true.)
Clever Electric Tricks
In spite of the learning curve that comes with that yoke – and in fairness, it could well be fine tuned before it arrives, presumably for the 2024 model year – there’s a simplicity and smoothness to the drive itself. With a dual-motor electric all-wheel drive system, acceleration is seamless if not especially swift. The RZ uses the largest of the Toyota bZ4X’s motors to drive the front wheels, while a slightly smaller one in the back results in a combined 308 hp. (That’s about 100 hp more than an all-wheel-drive bZ4X.)
Not unlike most modern all-wheel drive systems, electric or otherwise, the one used here is variable and can split the torque application front to back as required. It can even operate with either electric motor entirely disconnected, depending on conditions. The system doesn’t just optimize traction but driving manners, too, with the ability to use more of the front motor to reduce nose lift during acceleration and more of the rear to reduce nose dive during braking.
On the subject of slowing down, it’s unfortunate that the RZ doesn’t employ proper one-pedal driving that uses regenerative braking to simultaneously bring the vehicle to a stop while recovering kinetic energy that would otherwise be lost and using it to charge the battery. While an adjustable regenerative system is included, it only slows this EV down rather than bringing it to a complete stop.
There is, however, something of a unique drive mode that should help maximize efficiency. The so-called range setting goes a step further than the more traditional eco mode (also included) by running only the front motor, disabling the climate control system, and limiting the top speed to 100 km/h. Best of all, it doesn’t feel like the RZ is limping its way around when that drive mode is in use, but it should come in handy when trying to squeeze as many kilometres as possible out of the RZ’s battery.
Short on Range
Range is something of a subjective matter, with individual needs dictating each of our comfort levels; however, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where less is more when it comes to an EV like this one, which is why the maximum 354 km the RZ can travel on a single charge is something of a letdown. Meanwhile, the top two trims and their 20-inch wheels can only make it an estimated 315 km.
In fairness, the RZ’s lithium-ion battery is on the small side at 71.4 kWh. But that doesn’t change the fact that a similarly sized Tesla Model Y and its 82-kWh battery pack can travel a claimed 531 km before plugging in again. For Lexus to be this late to market with its first electric offering means expectations for more range are anything but unrealistic. Its onboard charger is also limited to a maximum 6.6 kW, whereas some competitors offer up to 11 kW, while it tops out at 150 kW on a DC fast-charger.
Spacious and Stylish
Getting back to what the RZ does well, this is an EV that makes excellent use of its footprint and neatly packaged platform to offer all kinds of interior room. While its overall size puts it somewhere between the midsize RX and compact NX, the RZ is about as cavernous as the former, and it feels more like a sedan when climbing in and out thanks to its low floor.
The rake of the rear glass means the cargo area isn’t quite as spacious as it probably could be, although the RZ gets some style points for its duckbill on the back and corner spoiler-type wing tips up top. Even so, it looks and feels more spacious behind the tailgate than its 389 L behind the back seats and 910 L with them folded that’s listed on the spec sheet would suggest. (For the sake of comparison, the smaller NX offers 643 L with its rear seats upright and 1,328 L with them folded.)
With a morning spent behind the wheel – er, yoke – of the equivalent of a range-topping Executive model finished in Ether blue paint, the matching faux-suede upholstery on the seats and door panels (plus blue carpet underneath the black floor mats) added an unexpected wow-factor. Meanwhile, the massive 14-inch touchscreen found across the lineup is equally impressive but sits low enough on the dashboard that it’s not nearly as distracting as it could be.
The exterior is unquestionably Lexus, although it packages that familiarity in an entirely unfamiliar way. This being an EV, a proper grille up front would be unnecessary and inefficient as far as aerodynamics are concerned. Even so, the plastic panel in place of one bears the same signature spindle shape Lexus has used for years. Ditto the daytime running lights that mirror the ones used elsewhere in the lineup.
A Little Pricey
The RZ’s Canadian pricing doesn’t seem entirely unfair, although it’s a little expensive given its limited range. That’s particularly true at the top of the lineup, with the 2023 Lexus RZ 450e Signature carrying an MSRP of $80,950 (plus freight and taxes). In terms of the other two trims available, the entry-level RZ Signature has an asking price of $64,950, while the mid-grade Luxury is $73,550. By comparison, the Tesla Model Y Long Range offers a little less luxury but far more range for its $69,990 starting price, while the Performance version starts at $75,990.
With all due respect to the LS sedan, the 2023 Lexus RZ is the smoothest and most sophisticated of all the brand’s models at the moment. It’s far more than a dolled up Toyota, and the RZ feels properly luxurious to drive. There’s a warm familiarity to this Lexus in spite of its unfamiliar powertrain, and that’s an impressive accomplishment.
Where it stumbles across the finish line at least a little is its range, which is disappointing given the RZ’s slightly late arrival on the market. It’s not as if the similarly shaped (but more expensive) Audi E-Tron Sportback offers that much more driving distance between charging, but that’s the point – and it’s one that’s only compounded by Tesla’s big numbers and lower price. Lexus had a chance to make its first EV the same kind of game-changer as the RX before it, but it comes up short in key areas.
If last year’s KPMG study is true, and some 80 per cent of Canadians won’t consider an EV with less than 400 km of range, then the RZ faces long odds of becoming the segment sensation its sibling did some 25 years ago. But then again the rest of what it delivers captures the same essence of excellence the RX brought with it way back when, and with EV sales set to surge, its timing could be just right for those who aren’t quite as concerned about how far they can travel between charges.