First Drive: 2023 Lexus RZ 450e review
Is the apparent slow-walk to full electrification by Lexus and parent company Toyota really down to dependence on the hybrid tech that has served both so profitably thus far? Or, rather, a deeply engrained culture of engineering caution? Fuel for the conspiracy theorists includes Lexus seemingly bodging its first full battery electric vehicle – the UX 300e – out of an already-aging hybrid model, while Toyota’s much-heralded bZ4X has been stalled by two recalls, complaints about disappointing range, poor AC charging rates and glaring omissions like the lack of a percentage readout for remaining battery.
These are all being addressed but it’s an uncharacteristic wobble by Toyota for its first ground-up BEV, and a headache for Lexus given this RZ 450e is built on the same e-TGNA platform, battery and motors. It also arrives somewhat late to a party already full of disruptive newcomers, social climbers like Kia and Hyundai and German premium brands finally waking from their torpor.
- Super refined
- Well equipped
- Yoke steering is a talking point
We don't like
- Less than impressive range and efficiency
- Generic electric SUV packaging
- Infotainment interface
Looks-wise the RZ follows the Lexus formula, with a very Japanese combination of sharp edges, confident contours and precise detailing. There’s no grille as such but the signature ‘spindle’ shape endures, the long wheelbase and rising shoulder line offering genuine presence, even if certain bZ4X hardpoints like the position of the charging port betray its shared origins. A Bi-Tone paint option on the two upper trim levels lends some definition, the contrasting black roof, bonnet and trim accentuating the swoops and slashes along the flanks to good effect. It’s definitely a Lexus. Just which Lexus, given the brand has coalesced around this mid-size SUV format with a spread of vaguely generic and similarly badged options. If the average punter is able to pick out the RZ450 from an RX450 or an NX450 at a glance they’re doing better than us, put it that way.
Performance and Handling
While the RZ uses the same 71.4kWh battery as the bZ4X a more powerful combination of motors puts some ground between the Lexus and its Toyota origins, a 150kW front motor paired with an 80kW one at the rear (the bZ4X has two 80kW motors) for a system total of 313PS (230kW) and 435Nm of torque. Healthy, but trailing the likes of the Polestar 2, Jaguar I-Pace and posher versions of the impressive Kia EV6, Hyundai Ioniq 5 and Genesis GV60 family. It’s less of an issue on the road, where the RZ feels decisively quicker than the bZ4X, fast enough for any real-world driving situation and appropriate to the Lexus ethos of refinement over outright, stat-chasing performance. There are no tricksy multi-mode dampers, air springs or other gimmicks beneath, just a more traditional focus on body stiffness, well-judged passive suspension and a near-obsessive dedication to eradicating NVH through targeted body reinforcement and soundproofing. That's nearly undone by the 20-inch wheels you get on the upper Premium Plus and Takumi trim levels and their brittleness over sharper bumps. The standard 18s on the base trim are smoother and, thanks to their low rolling resistance tyres, score you another 20 miles or so of range. After chatting to Lexus it seems these will now be a ‘downgrade’ option on Premium Plus if you so choose.
A launch test route isn’t enough to get a meaningful sense of efficiency but, from what we could gather, you’re going to need every bit of range you can claw back as well, the bold claims of 3.7 miles per kWh more like 2.8 at a relatively relaxed cross-country pace on the 20-inch wheels, and about 3.1 on the 18s on a relatively brisk winter’s day. Lexus claims an absolute best-case of 273 miles but, based on our stats, a usable 200 miles is going to be hard won. As on the bZ4X, with no indication of percentage of remaining battery charge, it’s hard to really keep track of your efficiency and likely real-world range, too.
Meanwhile, the RZ’s real USP won’t be available until 2025 at the earliest, but Lexus let us it try out anyway. Called One Motion Grip, it’s an optional steer-by-wire system with a distinctive yoke-style controller. Where others have attached such devices to conventional steering columns for a style over content novelty factor Lexus is, in its style, doing it properly with no physical connection to the steering rack. This permits an endlessly variable steering ratio so at low speeds you can go from lock to lock without going hand over hand, the system then relaxing as the speeds rise for a more natural feel. The weighting doesn’t seemingly change, though, the ability to filter out what Lexus considers undesirable ‘noise’ from the tyres and suspension meaning zero feedback. Frankly, this is a little unsettling, the first time you approach a corner at any speed feeling like a leap of faith given you have no clue how much steering output you’ll get for a given input. You do acclimatise but, in its current configuration, it still feels a little twitchy in the low to mid-speed range, situations like roundabouts where there can be a big variance in corner radius and entry speeds made for some jerky progress until we built trust in how it would react. Work in progress and, perhaps, an answer to a question nobody was asking. But a talking point, at least, and something to make the RZ stand out from the crowd, which it arguably needs.
The all-electric platform brings with it the usual advantages of a battery pack slung low between a long wheelbase to the benefit of stability, centre of gravity and interior space. And the RZ looks after all its occupants, not just the ones in the front. The leather-free upholstery options are a noteworthy move for a generally conservative brand like Lexus, the sustainably sourced Ultrasuede on the top Takumi trim matched with similar material on the door cards to good effect while In-Ei effects inspired by a Japanese aesthetic philosophy of how light and shadow plays over different materials brings to life otherwise unadorned surfaces. Which all sounds very high-brow and more interesting than the more wood/aluminium/carbon inlays typically signifying ‘premium’ interior trimmings.
It’s certainly a calming place to spend time, thanks to both the sense of quality and the refinement of the electric powertrain, even if we found the seat squabs a little short up front and lateral support through the corners lacking. In its current configuration the One Motion Grip yoke also means the stumpy stalks for indicators and lights move with the wheel, and in flailing around your fingers sometimes land on the wrong control. Apologies on that score to the driver in front who got a triple flash of the piercing LED headlights when we were fumbling for the regen paddle on the approach to a roundabout.
Technology and Features
Given how deeply screen culture is embedded into all walks of Japanese life it’s a curiosity how slow brands like Lexus have been with snazzy, graphical interfaces for onboard tech. True, the 14-inch screen at the heart of the RZ’s dash is crisp, clear and packed with features. But the text-driven menu system feels clunky and lacks surprise and delight compared with the phone-inspired tiles, tabs and widgets in rival systems. Most people will likely just connect their phones and use their familiar apps, of course, with Apple users able to do this wirelessly while Android devices still need to plug in.
Elsewhere there are some interesting features Lexus pointedly cites as designed to improve battery efficiency over the bZ4X in a veiled dig at their Toyota colleagues. A standard-fit heat pump and various sophisticated battery control systems help here, the more interesting innovation being ‘radiant heating’ from the lower edge of the dashboard acting as an invisible blanket over the legs of the driver and front-seat passenger. A slide in the presentation claims this pulls just 70W for the driver and 170W for the passenger against the 5kW of the conventional cabin heating, so you should be comfortable even if using the dedicated ‘Range’ mode that cuts power and switches the air-conditioning off in the name of a few extra miles. Which you may well need.
A hasty summary of the above would conclude the RZ 450e is perhaps a little boring compared with some of the more dynamic alternatives, but that’s not entirely fair and, in typical Lexus style, the more interesting and subtle features hide behind a natural sense of humility. Quiet quality would be a good way to sum up the Lexus approach in all its products, and so it is here. As such if you identify as a Lexus buyer the RZ will feel a safe place to transition to full electric driving. Whether gimmicks like the One Motion Grip steering are enough to tempt folk from other brands remains to be seen, the apparent lack of range and seemingly poor efficiency another concern.
Insiders will tell you the tendency to under-promise and over-deliver contributes to this, conservatism about how much range the cars on this platform hold back in reserve one suggested reason the figures look so poor. Perhaps so, but the anxiety is real among those considering the switch to electric and if the car tells you it can’t go more than 200 miles that may well steer people back to the hybrids they know and seemingly love. Which brings us back to where we started and the fear that, howsoever motivated, by playing it safe Lexus may be doing itself more harm than good.
2x electric motors, 71.4kWh battery (gross)
313PS (230kW) combined output
435Nm combined output
‘Direct-4’ all-wheel drive
£62,600 (Premium Pack, before options)
Reviewed by Dan Trent