I think if there’s one thing I can absolutely, confidently say about Toyota it’s that the company doesn’t make crap. They just don’t. You may not like what they’re making, but whatever it is, be it fantastic or forgettable, it’s probably been well-engineered. I say this up front as a way to temper the rest of the things I’m going to say about Toyota’s first mass-market battery electric vehicle, the bZ4X, which is, if I’m honest, a competent if underwhelming electric car. It’s not bad, but it’s hardly exceptional, either, and I think that may actually be intentional. I think Toyota wants to make an EV that’s a little bit forgettable for reasons that are clear when you’re one of the world’s largest carmakers, and perhaps the largest supplier of cars to people who claim they don’t really care about cars. This car will be a Big Deal for Toyota, so let’s dig into it.
[Full Disclosure: Toyota sent me to its headquarters in the quaint hamlet of Plano, Texas, sometimes called the Amsterdam of Denton County, for an event called Toyota HQ Confidential, so named because they showed us two cars I really want to tell you about, but can’t. While there, I finally got to drive the BR4Z or BXZ4 or whatever the hell this thing is called. Also, Toyota bought me a very nice steak.]
The timing of Toyota’s first mass-market battery EV at first seems strangely late to the game, at least when compared to other carmakers of Toyota’s scale, but, really, if you look at Toyota’s history, it’s not. Toyota is generally a pretty conservative company, engineering-wise, and tends to only introduce innovations after they’ve very extensively studied and tested them.
That’s why Toyota’s first front-wheel drive compact cars were the Tercel and Corsa, introduced in 1978, a solid six years after such front-wheel drive big sellers as Honda’s Civic, and four years after Volkswagen’s Golf, as well as many other earlier cars. Toyota doesn’t rush into things, and that includes battery electric vehicles.
That said, Toyota has been a pioneer of electrification. The combustion/electric hybrid Prius has been the best-known hybrid vehicle for the past 20 years, and did more to popularize and prove the value of hybrid drivetrains more than any other car. Then there’s Toyota’s hydrogen fuel cell-powered electric vehicle, the Mirai, which has been around since 2014 and, as far as I can tell, has made the adoption of hydrogen-powered vehicles only slightly less popular than genital herpes to the average car buyer, so there’s that. Toyota has been skirting around the concept of a battery electric vehicle (BEV) for quite a while, when you consider all this, so it fits the company’s pattern of behavior that it’d only release a BEV when it ws good and ready. I guess that time is now.
By the way, if you’d like to watch a 12-minute conversation and walkaround of the bZ4x, unedited and gritty, I have one right here for you:
If not, I won’t be offended, as I cover pretty much everything here. Still, if you feel like your life would be better knowing what it’s like to interact with actual Toyota employees talking about one of their new cars, I’ve got you covered.
Okay, first, we have to get this out of the way: The name is terrible. I’m not exactly sure what sort of dark alchemy Toyota employed to find a series of letters so awkward and un-memorable as bZ4X, but whatever the brand was doing, it accomplished the goal. For whatever reason, I cannot seem to remember those four simple characters, no matter how hard I try. As I type this, I’m getting better, but it never seems natural to me.
The only way I’ve been able to remember the name at all is if I think of it as the name of an astromech droid from the Star Wars universe, since it has that sort of pattern and cadence. But that’s the only way. I’m not sure how Toyota managed it, but somehow this awkward cluster of alphanumerics is less appealing than other awkward clusters of alphanumerics that other cars are named.
What really baffles me is the fact that Toyota has spent two solid decades building up a brand, Prius, to become synonymous with eco-friendliness and new technology and electrified driving. Why the hell wasn’t this car part of the Prius family?
Sure, the name may be polarizing to some, but the Prius brand has a dedicated and loyal following and a lot of goodwill among just the sorts of buyers who would be looking at an electric car from Toyota right now, so why not leverage all of that? Why wasn’t this the Prius BEV, or something?
I asked Toyota reps about this, and they all insisted that the name comes from Toyota’s “beyond zero” campaign, something that the average consumer cares about as much as Arborist Appreciation Day, which is today, and I bet you didn’t get your arborist anything — not even a card.
They also told me that the shape of the car somehow didn’t fit in with the Prius line and a lot of other stuff I rolled my eyes at (not in front of them, of course. I waited until I got to my hotel room then rolled my eyes in front of the mirror until I puked a little) but the upshot of all this is that no, this is not a Prius, it’s a bZ4X, so there. I’d like to suggest “Busy forks” as a possible nickname that’s easier to remember.
The bZ4X is built on the electric variant of the Toyota New Global Architecture platform (TNGA), called “e-TNGA, which was co-developed with Subaru. This is a modular platform, and will underpin cars of a variety of sizes, with a few fixed hard point areas and the rest being flexible, including number of battery modules, front or front and rear motors, overhang length, and so on.
Unlike many EV platforms, e-TNGA is by default a front motor/front wheel drive setup, and while it’s referred to as a “skateboard” chassis, it’s less of a skateboard design than, say, Tesla uses, as e-TNGA packages a lot of its essential hardware and front drive unit in a tall stack at the front of the vehicle that eliminates the possibility of a front trunk, like many other manufacturers have provided.
I’ll admit, this is sort of a sticking point of mine. I gave Volkswagen plenty of shit for the same packaging issue with its MEB-based ID.4 electric crossover, which also lacks a front trunk, even though I think VW could have managed to get one in there.
I have the same problem with the bZ4X. The lack of a front trunk feels lazy. Ford manages to do it, even providing a massive one on its F-150 Lightning, which isn’t even on a bespoke EV platform, Volvo figured it out, as did Polestar, Chevy, Kia, Jaguar, Rivian, and of course so did Tesla. Sure, it’s a packaging challenge, but I think it’s worth it, at the very least for a small bin to store and access charging cables or adapters without having to unload other luggage.
I get that putting things underhood can free up some space elsewhere, and perhaps servicing and accessibility is better under the hood? I’m willing to give Toyota some benefit of the doubt about that, but I’d still rather have a frunk. Frunks are novel and strangely appealing and EVs are our first chance for non-exotic car buyers to enjoy them again, since the old heyday of cheap rear engined cars went away in the 1960s. Let’s make the most of it.
I have to say that I was genuinely surprised to hear one of the PR people tell me, with some pride, that the bZ4x does not have “neck-snapping acceleration.” This is the first time I’ve ever had a PR person brag about a car’s relative lack of acceleration, and I think this is a very telling statement about which market Toyota is planning to sell this car to: people who just want to go places. In a car.
This isn’t to suggest that the acceleration of the bZ4X is bad, because it’s not — it’s totally fine, and can even feel a bit quick. But it’s not like some Tesla Model S Plaid that has potential to emulsify your brains into a puddle at the back of your skull and put you into a wall or send you deep into a lake via the sheer intensity of speed. Toyota understands that the likely buyers of this car don’t have any interest or time for that bullshit — they’re healthy, well-adjusted normies, not car-addled fools like us, making eyer-rollingly bad car decisions on a near daily basis.
The bZ4X in its one-motor, FWD configuration makes 201 horsepower and 196 pound-feet of torque, which is decent enough, but if you want, you can add a second motor for the AWD version and shoot that number up to an astounding 214 hp and 248 pound-feet of torque. Hey, wait – the second motor only adds 13 hp? Is the second motor from a kitchen mixer?
I mean, look, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the amount of power the Buzzforceps makes. It’s quick enough to get from nothing to 60 mph is about six and a half seconds, and if you need more than that, why are you even wasting that nice Toyota salesman’s time? Get him to put you in a Supra.
The bZ4X does impress with the quiet and smoothness of the ride. It’s like catching the eye of an impeccably-manicured older man in a clearly expensive suit drinking a golden liquor in the sunlight of an outdoor café, and when he sees you he makes eye contact, and raises one eyebrow and his glass to you simultaneously and you’re left thinking goddamn that man is quiet and smooth. It’s like that, so if that’s what you want, fantastic.
The steering is what it should be on a car like this: precise, joyless, effective, and most buyers will never think about it beyond the fact that the rotation of the wheel points the car where to go.
The bZ4X doesn’t offer one-pedal driving like many other EVs, but you can adjust the amount of regen, just not up to the levels where you get to ignore the brake pedal.
What’s very clear is that Toyota tuned this car to meet the desires of their target buyers: It’s easy to drive, it’s comfortable, it insulates the driver and passengers from the sensations and weather outside, and it asks little in return. It also seems to beep a little less frequently than recent Priuses do, which is a blessing.
The Range And Charging
According to Toyota’s official numbers, the 71.4 kWh battery pack in the single-motor bZ4X will take you up to 252 miles in XLE form or ten miles less if you opt for the Limited trim. With two motors and a slightly larger 72.8 kWh battery pack, you’ll be able to go 228 miles in the XLE, and 222 in the Limited.
Those numbers are, at best, adequate. They’re about the minimum expected from a modern EV, and like anything that’s the expected minimum, it’s kind of disappointing. Even worse, recent real-world tests by Edmunds has found that the bZ4X falls short of its estimated EPA range by 15 miles for a single-motor Limited version, for a total of only 227 miles.
That’s not great, and what’s also un-great is the fact that the maximum 240V AC charging rate on a Level 2 home charger is 6.6 kW. That’s not ideal compared to other EVs like the Ford Mach-E and VW ID.4, which can pull up to 11 kW.
Toyota says its Level 2 charging capability can bring the car from “low to full” in nine hours. Of course, DC fast charging is quicker, with front-drive models offering 150 kW charging capability and all-wheel drive offering 100 kW. Motor Trend did some testing on the bZ4X’s charging rates; check that out.
I feel like Toyota is finally emerging from a long period of some really overdone, unpleasant design — a busy, confusing design language full of vents and folds and flaps and creases and fins and all sorts of mess — most of which is happily tamed down on the bZ4x. Instead, we have a fairly clean design that relies quite heavily on the contrast between the black wheelarch and other sections and the painted body panels.
Look how much work those black sections are doing in the profile view of the Bizzyforks: That middle section that kicks up between the wheels is working hard to make the side view less bulky and ungainly, and the lower rear bumper corner’s blackout attempts to give an illusion of a pert, tapered-in rear, and the angular black wheelarch sections want to make you think those wheels are way bigger than they are.
Toyota calls this an SUV or crossover, but really it’s a four-door hatchback. A bulky one, sure, with a high beltline and fairly tall, but there’s not that much ground clearance, and it doesn’t meet both Rules of Wagonhood, so it’s not even a wagon. It’s a hatchback.
I mean, if you want to drive it on dirt roads, it should be just fine to do so, as Toyota shows in a little promo video:
Not that there’s anything wrong with hatchbacks, of course. I love them. Which is why I think Toyota shouldn’t feel ashamed to call the bZ4X an EV hatchback, if they wanted.
The front end treatment is fairly simple and reads a bit like a mischievously-smiling face, which I’d regard as a plus. The lighting is pleasantly simple, though the way the body-colored panels rest atop the headlamps while being just slightly removed from the rest of the body makes them look a bit like pop=up headlights that are stuck halfway. I’m not really sure I get what they were going for with that.
The giant dogbone-shaped bumper area has a slightly concave shape and character lines, but in white especially, facing the front, it does become a huge blank visual area that still, somehow, doesn’t seem to have an easy provision for a front license plate outside of drilling holes.
Around the rear we find a graphical treatment with the taillights forming a single, branching unit that stretches across the rear of the car with a thin black-and-red bar, then grabs on for dear life at either end, gripping around those rear fender haunch-bulges. It’s not boring, and I like the character line that forms the top crease of the rear haunch over the wheelarch.
It is a bit busy, and again we see a lot of black plastic earning its pay to hide a good foot of bulk at the lower rear of the car. I hope all these black areas are forgiving of scrapes and scratches, because if they are, that would make them actually useful. Toyota wasn’t crazy about letting me test that out, though, so I can’t say for sure.
I do kind of like the internal CRT-scanline-like linear graphics in the taillight itself, something that worked very nicely on early ’80s Pontiac Trans Ams, among other cars. I’m not being a dick here, I genuinely like it!
Overall, I think Toyota has accomplished something very specific with the exterior design of the bZ4X: The brand has made a car that’s quite easily recognizable, even from a distance, a car that seems to have a lot of edgy design characteristics, but the more you look at it, the more conventional and normal it seems. That’s a tricky dance, and I think they pulled it off well, and it’ll suit their target customers well.
That said, I don’t really think it’s all that appealing looking, especially when compared to other EVs like the Kia/Hyundai pair, which have genuinely striking and elegant designs with real character and style:
It’s not bad. It’s not great. I think it’ll be just fine for a lot of people, and I also think this is a sort of theme you’ll be seeing a lot throughout this review.
I think the bZ4X (dammit, it’s still hard to remember and type that) makes some of its most questionable decisions in the interior, which I suppose you could say about many of us, too. There’s some great choices here, too, like the use of an engagingly-textured fabric for the main dash covering instead of the usual textured plastic, but there are also some strange choices, like the deeply confusing instrument binnacle design and the fact that the car has no glove box.
Yes, that’s right, much like my sad little Yugo or a 1972 Ford Maverick, the bZ4x has no glove compartment, and for some reason this pisses me off. Toyota’s friendly reps told me it was because there is an optional heater unit that can be mounted in this location, which heats up the car more efficiently than the conventional heater system, and while I think that’s great, I don’t believe for a filthy second that a company with the engineering might of motherflapping Toyota couldn’t have figured out how to work a glove box in here as well.
The Toyota reps eagerly showed me that the center console storage and door pockets were ample, and while that’s great, every other modern car manages to have those same exact storage compartments and a damn glove box.
Look, this isn’t the end of the world, but with EV competition being so intense and the main competitors being so closely matched in so many ways, why would Toyota leave out something as expected and useful as a glove box? Sure, it has other compartments, but have you looked inside people’s cars, Toyota? People use them all. Generally, the glove box gets the duty of being a car’s mobile archives and records department, holding registration and insurance cards and service records and other important documents, safely and out of the way, freeing up those center console storage bins and door pockets for the other random detritus of life.
When you get rid of a key storage component from the storage ecosystem of a car, that cascades down, and now maybe the center console box has to hold the Important Documents so you’re less likely to comfortably use it for your other crap and entropy gets a firmer grip on your messy life and things get worse.
Screw that. Toyota could have put in a damn glovebox, but they didn’t, like they didn’t bother to try to fit a frunk. It’s disappointing.
Okay. Let’s move on to something nice. The rear seat room is great! The floor is flat, and the rear seats are quite comfortable! Also, the cargo area is pretty generous, and there’s a movable floor panel that can be dropped to give a few extra inches of height, or be raised to create a flat floor when the rear seats are folded down:
It’s a good, usable space back there (27.7 cubic feet, so if you’re wondering how many NeXT Cubes will fit in there, the answer is 27), and the cargo opening is a good size as well. I’m sure plenty of bicycles and curbside love seats will get crammed into these hatches an awful lot in the near future.
Okay. Now let’s talk about this:
That’s the instrument cluster, and while I do appreciate the novelty of the unusual design, clamped on the steering column like a face hugger from the Alien movies, when actually trying to use these instruments, I always found it looked like this:
Somehow, no matter how I positioned the seat, they were always blocked by the steering wheel. Yes, I’m a comically, possibly even tragically short guy, but I’m about the average height for a woman, and I’m pretty sure there’s a vast market of women buyers out there who would be dealing with this same situation, just with likely better personal hygiene.
Toyota calls this a HUD-like instrument position, suggesting that it requires less eye movement, but I’m not buying that, since real heads-up-displays project or reflect images directly on the windshield and aren’t blocked by the damn steering wheel.
It’s also not like the graphic design of the gauges are that great, either.
The text is small and thin, the icons are tiny and not easy to identify, and for some reason I can’t fathom Toyota is still using backlit warning lights instead of incorporating all the warning icons right into the main gauge cluster LCD display. Maybe it’s for redundancy reasons? I’m not sure, but it seems wasteful to me – there’s already a display there that can show anything you want, so why waste some LEDs and a scrim to show some blinking arrows or a blue high-beam light?
On the plus side, I appreciate some of the small graphical touches seen on surfaces throughout the cabin.
Electro-Toys And Whatevers
Toyota understands what its buyers want when it comes to infotainment and electronics, and for the most part provides everything demanded: CarPlay and Android audio, wireless phone charging, a decent number of USB A and C charging ports, a high-quality center stack screen, voice controls that actually will operate the HVAC system and wipers, over-the-air software updates, WiFi hotspot capability, lane keeping, dynamic cruise, and similar semi-automated driver assist systems, and so on. It’s all there, it’s all basically fine.
There are some interesting very Toyota-like innovations that seem to be happening quietly and without much notice, like a “high-resistance coolant, which prevents fire from short circuits even if leakage of the battery’s liquid coolant occurs,” which seems like a damn good idea.
Price And Verdict
The 2023 Toyota bZ4X starts at about $42,000, but expect over $43,000 with destination charges and all that. The FWD Limited edition goes up to about $48,000, and when you add the second motor for AWD you’ll be adding about $2,000 more. You also have to pay for colors that aren’t black, like over $400 for white paint, which seems ridiculous.
I’m going to compare that to the Hyundai Ionic 5 that starts at under $40,000 and the Kia EV6 that starts at just over $40,000. I think both of those look significantly better and offer better range and charging options than the bZ4X, which makes me wonder why, exactly, anyone would pick the Toyota over those, or over a Mach-E or Tesla Model 3 or Y or VW ID.4 or even a Chevy Bolt?
I think the answer is because it’s a Toyota. And this isn’t so much about any kind of brand snobbery, it’s that Toyota, as I said at the beginning, has a long, well-earned reputation for not building crap. And I think that matters to a lot of people.
Tesla has often been accused of building crap, and while there are many diehard fans out there who would buy literal crap if it came from the taut anus of Elon Musk [Editor’s Note: Jason, do we really need to rile up the Tesla stans for no reason? -DT], there are also many people who see the, um, everything (gestures all around, waving arms) around Tesla as something they’d rather avoid, and these same people have read stories about Chevy Bolts catching fire and just aren’t interested in buying an EV to be cutting edge or whatever. They just want a car they don’t have to worry about that doesn’t need gasoline, and the bZ4X could be just that.
People will buy a Toyota because their experience with Toyotas has been undemanding and easy and painless, and those people may be looking for those exact same anodyne traits in an EV. There’s a place in the market for an EV with specs that are just good enough if buyers can feel pretty certain they won’t ever have to think about the car if they don’t want to, and I think there’s a good chance that’s what Toyota has made here.
So, if you’re looking at numbers and specs and style, I don’t think there’s a lot to steer anyone to the bZ4X. But if you want a reasonable guarantee that the EV you’re buying won’t be a hunk of crap in the shop all the time, then I think you can make a pretty safe assumption that Toyota will deliver that.
One last thing: I saw this as I was testing out the bZ4X, and I’m very curious.
A cowboy church? Are there mechanical bulls involved? Beef jerky used instead of communion wafers? Sounds kinda fun.