PROVENCE, France – Lexus rolls out its first battery-electric model in the form of the ’23 RZ, a svelte, low-slung CUV that heralds a new era for Toyota’s premium brand – and debuts steer-by-wire technology that eventually is expected to be offered on all Lexus models.
Steer-by-wire, which eschews a physical link between the steering wheel and rack, instead relies on electronic sensors and computer algorithms to determine wheel angle based on driver inputs.
Taking the technology a step further, the RZ driven here provides the first chance to sample the company’s futuristic rimless, aircraft-like yoke-style directional unit (pictured, below) designed to appeal to a far younger buyer than Lexus’ current average age of 57 years old.
When it debuts in the U.S. – the company isn’t saying exactly when, but hopes are for 2024, a year after the model launches with the standard steering system – it will be the first yoke-wheeled, steer-by-wire system ever offered in a production car, Lexus says.
Lexus plans to offer the yoke and steer-by-wire system as an option, with the traditional steering wheel as standard. The brand recognizes the new system might not appeal to everyone, but “old millennials” – those in their mid-20s to mid-30s who were weaned on video-game controllers – likely will find the feel very familiar.
Unlike a traditional steering system with its typical 1.5 turns to lock, the yoke rotates just 150 degrees – less than three-quarters of a turn – before hitting the bump stops. The result is immediate, super-responsive steering, no doubt similar to that experienced at the highest levels of racing.
For drivers raised on standard steering wheels (count us among them), the transition is a bit jarring, especially in low-speed driving and parking maneuvers where the short turn-in leads to unexpected reaction as we reach for a nonexistent steering wheel rim, to complete what is an unnecessary extra rotation of the wheel.
We also find the relatively tight steering wheel and column real estate crowded for ancillaries such as wiper and turn-signal stalks and regenerative-braking paddles, all mounted on and rotating with the steering wheel rather than stationary on the steering column.
But out on the open road, the system offers fighter-pilot precision over cornering, providing an intuitive response that requires only small movements to achieve proper direction. On tight turns, the reaction feels immediate, while on longer, constant-radius curves the steering is tuned for the kind of desirable “set it and forget it” steadiness that requires no corrections to follow the arc.
Traditional linkage steering – the standard set-up until the drive-by-wire option arrives – is equally capable but feels almost dull compared to the new system.
Yushi Higashiyama, assistant chief engineer (pictured, below), assures us the steer-by-wire system includes a redundant 12V power source to enable its operation if the system’s primary 12V power were to fail.
Elsewhere, the all-new RZ shares Toyota’s global e-TNGA platform, which underpins the brand’s bZ4x as well as the Subaru Solterra BEV. Common bits include the 96-cell, 71.4-kWh lithium-ion battery pack that supports up to 150-kW DC fast charging, providing 220 miles (354 km) of range with 18-in. tires, reduced to 196 miles (315 km) on 20-in. tires.
The RZ 450e tested here employs the same oil-cooled permanent-magnet motors as the all-wheel-drive bZ4x, including a 150-kW (201-hp), 196 lb.-ft. (266 Nm) motor up front and an 80-kW (107-hp), 124 lb.-ft. (168-Nm) motor on the rear axle, for a combined maximum output of 313 hp (per Toyota internal testing) and 320 lb.-ft. (434 Nm) of torque.
Similar to the Toyota version, top speed is limited to 99 mph (159 km/h), although we observed 104 mph (167 km/h) in a few quick bursts on the open highway. Higashiyama tells us limiting top speed helps preserve the battery.
The Lexus also eschews one-pedal driving, opting instead for a powertrain deceleration feel similar to that of accelerator lift when driving a vehicle with an internal-combustion engine.
The RZ brings a few new twists, offering AWD as the standard propulsion system and juicing the drive modes. Similar to the bZ4x, the RZ offers Normal, Eco, Sport and Custom driving modes that affect powertrain, all-wheel drive, steering response and air conditioning operation. But RZ adds a Range mode that optimizes the vehicle for maximum mileage by shutting down the air conditioning, sending power primarily to the smaller rear motor and limiting top speed to 62 mph (100 km/h). Higashiyama says Range mode is good for a 5%-10% gain in mileage compared with Eco mode.
Lexus says charging time from zero to 80% is about 30 minutes on a DC fast charger, 9.5 hours on Level 2 and 50 hours on 120V household current.
It’s hard to gauge efficiency when driving several test vehicles, but we log between 2.7 miles/kWh (23.1 kWh/100 km) and 3.4 miles/kWh (18.1 kWh/100 km), despite our often aggressive driving. On one leg, we drive 52 miles (83 km) and burn through 49 miles (79 km) of range. On a shorter jog, we use just 16 miles (25 km) of range to travel 22 miles (36 km).
Production of the RZ at Toyota’s Motomachi, Japan, plant is under way, with 4,900 units headed to the U.S. Pricing ranges from $59,650 to $65,150 (including a $1,150 destination charge), about a $15,000 bump compared with bZ4x AWD models. Lexus has not yet priced the optional steer-by-wire system.
No doubt part of the added cost comes in interior comfort and unique features, including radiant heating of front-passenger feet and lower legs, a standard 14-in. (35.6-cm) touchscreen and first-for-Lexus shift-by-wire transmission control.
RZ buyers also benefit from Lexus Reserve, a program that provides 30 days of complimentary rental vehicles during the first three years of ownership or lease.
Overall, the RZ represents a strong first step into battery-electric vehicles for Lexus, with the potential to bring in new, younger buyers – especially when the trick new steering system hits the market.