Let’s conduct a little role-playing exercise. Pretend you’re a hardcore Lexus stan (yes, they do exist). For the past few years, it’s only been Lexus for you and nothing else; maybe you had some bad experiences however many years ago with unreliable BMWs or Audis. Since then, you won’t settle for anything less than Lexus’ level of bulletproof quality, excellent customer service and what some consider the only consistently good dealer networks in the business.
But now you’re curious about all these electric vehicles you’re starting to see everywhere. Range and performance are a little less important to you than all the stuff I just described. And besides, you care about the environment, and also: Who actually likes paying for gasoline, anyway? At the same time, you aren’t sold on the gimmick-y nature of many modern EVs, and you also want a driving experience that’s not far off the RX crossovers your family has been leasing for years now.
If this scenario is even close to true for you, you’re one of the approximately 4,900 people in America for whom the brand is aiming the new 2023 Lexus RZ 450e this year. This EV represents just about everything Lexus’ diehard customer-base loves about the brand, with batteries instead of an engine. But it is not groundbreaking or even deeply competitive in the growing EV arms race. Parent company Toyota treated battery EVs with skepticism and, in some ways worked against them behind the scenes for years, so the RZ feels like an attempt to catch up in class after not doing the reading or finishing the homework.
In the increasingly high-spec EV space, the RZ feels more like a niche offering for Lexus’ most loyal and electro-curious customers, not anyone cross-shopping for a Tesla or a Polestar. Even a few special touches like a drive-by-wire steering system and yoke—we’ll get to that later, trust me—probably won’t change that. Even that 4,900 sales figure say a lot — for context, Lexus sold about 100,000 RX crossovers in the U.S. last year and Tesla sold a staggering 252,000 Model Ys. This is not going to be some major volume player in the EV world.
But Lexus has said its future is all-electric and will be that way by 2030. While the RZ isn’t a bad car—far from it, in fact—it Lexus has some work to do to pull that off and compete with everyone else.
(Full Disclosure: Lexus was kind enough to invite me to San Diego to drive the 2023 RZ, paying for my airfare, hotel stay and a few meals. Honestly, I was just happy to not be on the East Coast at the end of February.)
What Is It?
After two decades of dominating the luxury hybrid car space, including releasing the first real one in the form of the RX 400h back in the mid-2000s, Lexus has decided to tepidly see what happens when it gets rid of internal combustion entirely. The RZ is the first all-electric Lexus vehicle.
It’s also the third member of an electric crossover family that also includes the Toyota bZ4x and the Subaru Solterra. It’s underpinned by the same e:TGNA electric platform that those cars use, and has a remarkably similar overall shape and design to both.
The spec sheet reads familiar, but it does boast some nice upgrades from the bZ4x. You get a 71.4-kWh battery here, with standard dual-motor all-wheel-drive (which is an option on the Toyota) and good for 308 horsepower. That’s a hell of an upgrade over the bZ4x’s max 214 HP in dual-motor form.
The new Lexus’ range, however, doesn’t put it in the heavy-hitter EV class: you get 220 miles of juice on standard 18-inch wheels and a disappointing 196 miles on the optional 20-inch wheels. I don’t think that wheel upgrade is worth it, frankly, and with tons of EVs in the luxury segment getting over 300 miles of range, the numbers here feel hard to justify. Additionally, and according to Lexus, the RZ charges from zero to 80% in 30 minutes of 150kW fast charging. That’s decent, but far below many rivals; the Hyundai Group E-GMP cars do the same in almost half that.
If you ask Lexus, it’s about battery preservation and long-term reliability. Super-long-range batteries, with current tech, might not live up the company’s reputation for building things that last. They’d point to all the hybrid RAV4s and Camrys still pulling taxi duty in New York City with endless abuse and little proper maintenance. But does the buyer leasing an RZ for a couple of years really care, or would they want more electric miles? That’s hard to say.
It’s also hard to say how many Lexus buyers will care that it’s similar to a Solterra or a bZ4x? It’s hardly just one of those two cars, but with nicer leather seats; it has enough interesting features that it stands on its own. It’s easy to think of the RZ as just a badge-engineering exercise. I think it’s more like the future of the industry, honestly; automakers will use a single (maybe two, max) scalable common platform for EVs and make them different with battery sizes, motor specs, software and unique features.
Anyway, the RZ comes in two trims: Premium AWD, which starts at $59,650 (add $1,200 onto that if you want the 20-inch wheels) or the more loaded Luxury AWD, which starts at $65,150. As it’s built in Japan, the RZ does not qualify for any tax incentives under the revised Inflation Reduction Act provisions.
How Does It Look?
I think it looks pretty sharp, actually. Of the three EVs on this platform, it’s the best-looking (and all of its body panels are totally unique.) I dig that arching rear quarter, the Sonic the Hedgehog-style aero spikes on the roof, and the supremely minimalistic approach to the Lexus spindle grille. Seriously, there’s nothing there. That’s a choice.
I think the RZ looks best in two-tone form, which comes on a few color options—most notably Ether, their name for this kind of metallic light blue. That’s something different from the endless sea of gray and silver and white Lexuses out there, isn’t it? If I have one major criticism, it’s that it looks a lot like the new Lexus RX at first glance, which is not helped by the fact that the two cars have the same wheelbase and overall length. Again, you can tell Lexus is aiming the RZ at its faithful for with that sizing decision.
Lexus ensured the RZ has the kind of super-premium interior the brand’s known for, with fit and finish to match. Seriously, it’s a nice car inside; there’s no reason to believe the RZ doesn’t have the impeccable build quality and luxury touches those loyalists now expect. Material quality is also excellent; I’m really partial to the UltraSuede trim that comes on the top model, as it’s a vastly less annoying alternative to Alcantara. Oh, and actual, physical buttons; those are a nice touch on an EV these days.
How’s The Tech?
Lexus also added a ton of features and gadgets unique to the RZ, some of which make their world debut here. One is the Dynamic Sky roof, which adds a material coating to the glass sunroof so it can dim to a sun-blocking white color at the touch of a button. Seriously, it’s that simple. You press a switch and click, the glass roof goes white. It’s wild to try for yourself. Also wild: the latest edition of Lexus’ automated parking tech, which uses augmented reality overlays with the vehicle cameras to execute tricky self-parking maneuvers. It works great. I’ll take this over other types of robo-taxi junk any day.
Then there’s the Radiant Heating system, a heating element placed underneath the dash near your feet that’s designed to warm you up like a mini-space heater, and gives the sensation of wearing a blanket. It turns out that running an air-driven heater off the HVAC is super inefficient, and most of the hot air doesn’t even hit your body, so Lexus says this $175 option (seriously, it’s that cheap) is worth it even if you lose the glove compartment. I thought it felt nice.
Particularly of note is the optional steer-by-wire system, which now famously includes Lexus’ take on the yoke control that Tesla couldn’t quite get right. That’s notable enough that it deserves its own deep dive, which you can read later today. But in short: I like the steer-by-wire system more than I thought I would, though I didn’t love using the yoke. This option won’t be available at launch anyway. Given how limited-production the RZ is already, if you ever see a yoke-equipped model, consider it a unicorn sighting.
Finally, let’s talk about the 14-inch touchscreen and infotainment system. It’s good! Toyota’s finally getting better at making these after lagging through much of the 2010s. The screen is pretty, fast and responsive to touch. (The Lexus trackpad, thankfully, has been sent back to Hell where it was born and where it belongs.)
The bummer, however, is the software. It feels lifted from an RX or an NX — not optimized for an EV. There’s no display of available charging stations around you or estimates for range upon arrival when using navigation. That’s awfully disappointing; most EV competitors better optimize their interfaces now to work with your power, range and charging needs. Clearly, Lexus has some catching up to do on this front as it starts to take EVs more seriously.
How Does It Drive?
On the road, the RZ is… fine. It’s fine! If you’ve ever driven an RX—and at this point, I suspect a great many readers have at least ridden in one—the vibes will feel very familiar. The RZ is cushy, comfortable and smooth. It’s not especially athletic, which really made the extra edge offered by the steer-by-wire option feel out of place here. It’s a little lumpy when you put it through a winding backroad. But again, how many owners will do that? How many will want to?
The important thing is that being an EV helps make it dead quiet in almost all driving conditions and road noise isolation is excellent. That’s what you want from a Lexus; the ones that don’t have a howling V10, anyway.
It’s also not fast. Zero to 60 mph apparently happens in an extremely respectable 5.2 seconds, but it never feels like it. Torque delivery is instant and flat in that nice way all EVs generally are. But, shit, I recently tweaked my neck after stomping the accelerator from a dead stop in a Polestar 2 with the 450-horsepower Performance Pack. The Lexus RZ… well, it doesn’t do that.
“Extremely straightforward” is something I had in my notes when I drove this car. It feels designed to really ease the owner into the EV experience; there’s a push-button start to turn the car on and off, so no fancy tech to activate it upon just getting inside, like a Tesla. There are tons of actual buttons and switches and knobs here, so key functions aren’t just relegated to a screen. I do consider that a plus, from a functional perspective.
But the RZ didn’t feel like a completely cohesive approach to making an EV, if that makes sense; it’s more like Lexus wanted to directly transfer the experience it offers to a crossover that just so happens to run on battery power instead of gasoline.
It’s a deeply pleasant and plush driving experience. That’s not a bad thing. Not every EV needs to be a 5,000-pound high-speed weapon that can somehow post zero to 60 times that supercars were doing a decade ago. There’s something to be said for quiet pragmatism and daily drivability. But many luxury buyers are starting to expect all that crazy stuff from their EVs, for better or worse, and that’s not what you get from the Lexus RZ.
What’s The Verdict?
Finally, allow me to address the range. I never got anxious about it cruising around San Diego, both because we hewed close to Lexus’ home base for the event and because California’s EV charging infrastructure is incredibly impressive. (Seriously, I’ve only been back to the West Coast a few times since the pandemic started, and each time I’m blown away at how many more electric chargers and cars I see out there. Good on you, Golden State.)
I’m of two minds on this subject. On one hand, 220 miles is merely fine, and so is 190 on the bigger wheels; we’re all terrible about basing our EV range needs on road trips we never take when most Americans drive about 30 miles a day max. On the other hand, you can get a lot more range from other EVs in this $60,000+ segment. And… wouldn’t you want to? I know I would.
But here’s the upside, and it says a lot: if you buy an RZ, you get access to the Lexus Reserve program, which gives you up to 30 days of free Lexus rentals over the course of three years. It’s actually a great deal. It means you can borrow a gasoline or hybrid Lexus anytime you need to travel, or more importantly here, take the family on a road trip vacation or something. I say it’s significant because it, again, speaks to the excellent customer service and dealer network you get when you buy a Lexus—that goes a long way here and it’s part of why loyalists will be interested in the RZ.
Then again, “Just rent one of our gas cars if you need to drive a lot” doesn’t scream confidence about Lexus and Toyota’s EV game. The RZ feels like the product of that in many ways. But things are changing. Lexus wants to go all-EV by 2030. The incoming new Toyota CEO comes from that division, and he’s made clear he’s not here to screw around on the EV front. And the automaker has a concept lineup of EVs that looks really impressive.
I don’t think the RZ 450e will be seen as a starting point for what’s to come; maybe a rough first draft — a footnote in the electrification of the industry. But for now, and for a small niche of buyers who love what they get from Lexus, it’s a solid ride with some impressive luxury features. It’s the best member of the Lexus-Toyota-Subaru EV trio, bar none—as it well should be.
For a few dedicated Lexus heads, it’ll be an interesting first foray into EV ownership. But the best had better be yet to come from Lexus.
Support our mission of championing car culture by becoming an Official Autopian Member.