FIRST DRIVE | The RZ 450e previews a new era for Lexus

15 March 2023 - 15:10
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Sharp frontal styling in the typical Lexus way.
Sharp frontal styling in the typical Lexus way.
Image: Supplied

The electric-vehicle movement has reached critical mass. Virtually all the mainstream manufacturers that matter have made public commitments towards zero-emissions mobility.

Toyota as an automobile company is known for its conservative approach when it comes to the mass market. Just look at stalwarts such as the Land Cruiser 70-Series, which continues to soldier on in markets like ours, where emissions and safety legislations are not as strict as they are in Europe.

But then on the flipside of that anachronism, the Japanese firm has pioneered next-generation technologies such as hydrogen power, with the striking Mirai. And it pushed the hybrid agenda with the Prius more than two decades ago. On the electrification front, there is an entire portfolio of products in the works.

The first of which came in the form of the bZ4X in 2022. Weird syntax aside, the product makes a great deal of sense in reality: this silent, battery-powered crossover is the blueprint for what most South Africans could end up driving. The zero-emissions Corolla Cross of the future. When our energy parastatal gets its story together, of course.

Expectedly, the luxury arm of Toyota is not going to be left in the past. Lexus has, for many years, served buyers wanting hybridised alternatives, when the German triumvirate offered none. In 2020 the company launched its first production battery-electric vehicle, the UX 300e, which is scheduled to go on sale in the country this year.

And in the near future, buyers have the prospect of the RZ 450e, which is largely based on the Toyota bZ4X. We had the opportunity to drive the Lexus at its global launch event in Marseille, France, late last month. An embargo was imposed on driving impressions, which lifts today.

The RZ 450e is a sharp looker, as models from Lexus tend to be. It cuts an angular profile, replete with interesting design elements to pore over, including rear buttresses. In the side mirrors, the stylistic feature creates the illusion that there is a pick-up-like loading deck at the rear.

It is 4,805mm long, with a 2,850mm wheelbase, the height is 1,635mm and the width  1,895mm. Overall, the model wields a substantial footprint, well-disguised by its tailored proportions.

Open the driver's door and you are greeted by a layout that Lexus describes as the "Tazuna" concept, which is "inspired by the way a rider can intuitively control a horse using just small adjustments of the reins".

The rear has a sleek, sloping roofline.
The rear has a sleek, sloping roofline.
Image: Supplied

Taking centre stage is a 14-inch infotainment screen. Most of the controls and information displays are digital. Materials are of excellent quality, with a sumptuous, bespoke feel that often lacks in straight-cut Teutonic cabins.

The details are exquisite. For example, you can specify "Tsuyasumi" ornamentation for the console, with a charcoal finish and subtle, shiny veining like a natural cinder block.

Even more interesting, however, is the prospect of the One Motion Grip steering-wheel system debuted in the RZ.

Not only does it look futuristic, with its yoke template just like KITT from Knight Rider, it is also forward-thinking under the skin.

You see, One Motion Grip does away with a mechanical steering linkage, using a fully electronic steer-by-wire system instead. Some might recall Inifiniti offering steer-by-wire technology with the Q50 years ago. It was met with sheer disdain by critics.

But on this occasion it felt easier to acclimate with the set-up. One Motion Grip is in prototype phase for now, though Lexus says the technology is road legal. It could be offered in 2025. The car destined for our market will have a conventional steering wheel and mechanical linkage.

Our test drive started with a unit boasting One Motion Grip. The short lock-to-lock action was quite remarkable, with minimal input required to yield significant directional changes at parking speeds.

At freeway speeds, the system was far more natural than expected, managing to be responsive and direct, without being twitchy. It was surprisingly easy to get the hang of.

Actually, getting behind the wheel of an RZ with "normal" steering, it took a few kilometres to reacquaint with the usual sensations.

The digitised interior comes with polarising yoke steering.
The digitised interior comes with polarising yoke steering.
Image: Supplied

The chassis of the RZ is nothing short of praiseworthy, given the weight of the battery and electric motors that it is entrusted with hauling.

It rides on the e-TNGA foundation, reserved specifically for electric vehicles. Laser screw welding, extensive joint reinforcement, suspension tower braces, high-performance dampers and liberal use of high-rigidity insulation are among the reasons for its sturdy, agile feel. Certain exterior panels are aluminium, to save weight.

Though it shares Toyota DNA, the RZ 450e has the distinct plushness of a Lexus. Noise- and vibration-suppression measures include an all-round seal for the bonnet, thick dashboard inner lining, a vibration-damping sheet for the roof, acoustic glass and lashings of insulation material in the cowl, bonnet, wings and wheel arches.

The RZ debuts what Lexus dubs the e-Axle, a module that houses a motor, gearing and power-control unit.

The front combination develops 150kW, while the rear produces 80kW. It is an all-wheel drive vehicle, with an electronic system ensuring power is distributed on a variable basis between front and rear. For example, on take-off it will facilitate a split with 60% biased towards the rear and 40% at the front.

Power delivery is predictable and linear, rather than the pin-back-in-your seat, snappy type of acceleration one is usually accustomed to with electric vehicles. It builds up in the way of a torque-rich internal combustion engine.

A 71.4kWh lithium-ion battery beneath the cabin floor is a structural part of the vehicle, incorporating 96 cells. According to Lexus, the battery is guaranteed to retain at least 70% of its capacity after 10 years. The vehicle features an 11kW on-board charger.

According to Lexus, recharging when connected to a three-phase power supply takes around six-and-a-half hours; with a one-phase supply around 10 hours. Connected to a DC fast-charging system, an 80% recharge can be accomplished in about half an hour.

When running on 20-inch wheels, driving range on a full-charge is claimed at 395km, but improves by 40km if you opt for the model with 18-inch wheels. Electricity consumption is claimed at 16.8kWh.

Indicative pricing could not be confirmed, though the manufacturer announced this week that the RZ 450e would be available locally in 2024.

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