Lexus offers a a glimpse at its EV future with the RZ 450e

Its first clean-sheet EV features an innovative steer-by-wire system.

Daniel Cooper / Engadget

An hour north of Marseille sits Château La Coste, a winery, hotel and art gallery nestled in the heart of a beautiful Provincial valley. In its grounds is a Renzo Piano-designed steel and glass oubliette, buried in a knife wound carved out of the undulating vineyards. It’s here that Lexus has gathered the world’s press to show off its latest vision for the future of driving. Lexus believes the new RZ 450e is a new dawn for electric vehicles, but also for the way that we control them. That’s because several of the prototypes on show utilize the company’s long in development steer-by-wire system that threatens to upend more than a century of technology.

The RZ 450e is Lexus’ first battery electric vehicle, so long as you forget about all of the other ones it's sold over the years. Unlike its predecessors, this is the first to be conceived as an EV from the get-go, rather than as a variation of a model built to accommodate an engine. It sits atop Toyota’s E-TNGA platform, the same underpinning both the bZ4X and Subaru’s Solterra. As much as the platform is common, however, Lexus was keen to point out that this is not just a rebadged bZ4X, and is very much its own vehicle. Whereas that car was designed to be more friendly when going off-road, this car is built exclusively for town-and-city living.

Given both are midsize crossover SUVs built on the same platform, there are many similarities between the two. But Lexus’ design language makes the RZ look less bland than its cheaper sibling, with sharper side lines and a more aggressive nose. Unlike the Toyota, the Lexus is only available in a four-wheel-drive, dual-motor system that outputs a combined 230kW power (150kW from the front, 80kW back). But that translates into a quoted brake horsepower of 309, so it won’t be as quick as some of its would-be rivals in raw speed. The company would probably point out, however, that its Direct4 system, which uses a variety of digital control units to monitor where force needs to be distributed to ensure the car remains planted on the road, potentially offers a far better sense of driving than its rivals.

There are other differences: The boot is larger, 522 liters in the main boot, plus an extra 58 liters under the false floor, compared to the bZ4X’s 452 liters. The interior options are nicer, and for more cash you can get Alcantara-esque trims and nicer metallic paint jobs. The interior plastics are all high quality, with all the surfaces you come into contact with feeling thicker and nicer than some vehicles I could mention. Which is to say that this is still a Lexus.

Unlike other EVs, Lexus will sell you just one battery size, with each RZ coming with a 71.4kWh battery, of which 64kWh is available to drive. Lexus says that rather than messing with different battery sizes, it’s worked instead to squeeze a lot of performance and efficiency out of this cell. You should expect to wring 245 miles from a charge with 20-inch wheels, and get closer to 265 miles if you opt instead for the 18-inchers. I have an urge to castigate the company for not even breaching the 300 mile range limit given that, to many, it might feel like a dealbreaker. That said, I’m not sure I could drive from my house to Liverpool (4 hours, 42 minutes, 254 miles) without stopping for a comfort break.

And despite its obvious weight and size, Lexus said that it has made the RZ 450e as efficient as it can be. It should be able to get between 3.4 and 3.7 miles per kWh, although another midsize SUV, Hyundai’s Kona Electric, has it beat in the on-paper efficiency stakes. There’s an 11kW charger on board that, Lexus promises, will harness enough DC fast charging to re-juice the 450e’s battery to 80 percent within half an hour. None of those figures are eye-grabbing on their own, but speak to a package that’s solid, uncontroversial and hopefully reliable on the longer term. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hoping that, since Toyota and Lexus have lagged so far behind the rest of the industry, that its new generation of EVs would have performance figures to make it stand out against its high-priced competition.

Lexus is already taking orders for the 450e in select territories, but you can only pick it up with the standard electrically-assisted rack and pinion steering system. At the launch I attended, Lexus also equipped some of the trial vehicles with its One Motion Grip (OMG) steer-by-wire system which will be available as an additional option at some point in 2025. OMG removes the mechanical link between steering wheel and wheels, replacing it with a torque actuator on the driver’s end, which is connected by wire to a control actuator on the axles. Rather than turning the wheel directly, you’re issuing instructions which are transmitted to the wheels for it to carry out. A bit like when you play any video game, come to think of it.

Lexus pre-programmed our test vehicles with routes designed to take advantage of Provence’s twisty, scenery-filled roads. But it was on one mercifully straight highway that I wondered how much of this system will be the last straw for purists craving connection to the road. Even with so many aids added to steering systems as they presently exist, there’s still a physical sense that you turn a wheel, and the vehicle obeys. This ever-so-slightly feels like the beginning of the end for mechanical steering, the drawing of a veil over the last century plus of driving.

Image of the steering yoke in Lexus' new RZ450e.
Daniel Cooper

With any new technology, there is the inevitable culture shock as you get to grips with the change. Spending a few hours with it does not constitute enough time for endorsement or indictment, but I do have some initial thoughts. Driving with One Motion Grip is a lot more alive and active than you may expect from a stately SUV, especially one from Lexus. The system does demand your attention, and going around my first roundabout I needed to make lots of fine-tuned adjustments to my steering. I can see why the press who tested a very early version of this system a few years back described it as “twitchy.” It’s not the right word, but you get a sense that you need to recalibrate your sense of turning, which is hampered by the fact that the turning will change depending on the speed you’re traveling at.

It has taken the better part of twelve years for Lexus to develop this system, although it’s not the first to the idea. Infiniti, Nissan’s luxury car marque, launched the 2014 Q50 with Direct Adaptive Steering, albeit it remained a mechanical connection to the wheels as well. Lexus is going all in on wires, but to reassure wary would-be purchasers about reliability, also added redundant actuators at both ends, as well as a back-up battery, to ensure steering never loses power. That means there’s no great weight saving (vital for BEVs) compared to “real” steering, but you still get all of the other potential benefits of switching to the technology.

With One Motion Grip, the 450e can offer the same level of dynamism for driving as seen in other parts of the car. The Direct4 system can already alter the torque put to each wheel to balance the ride, and you get a similar level of dynamic-alteration when driving. For instance, the system will adjust how much turn you get depending on the speed you’re driving at, with tricky car-park maneuvers more dramatic than switching lanes on a highway. And for that, we come to Lexus’ most eye-catching, controversial and interesting change, ditching the steering wheel for a yoke in a quest to end “hand-over-hand” driving.

Ditching the steering wheel also means that Lexus can reduce clutter and make it easier for drivers to see the instrument binnacle. This is a great idea in theory, but falls victim to the problem that more than a few Toyota and Lexus vehicles have suffered from over the last few years. I don’t know why, but many models (including the 2014 Mirai, 2015 Prius, 2012 and 2018 Corolla, amongst others) have their infotainment displays too low down in the center console. So when you want driving directions, you need to physically take your eyes off the road to look at the screen. At least in the bZ4X, the display is at the same height as the steering wheel, but here, the 14-inch infotainment display is buried below the air vents. Maybe it’s all a clever ploy to ensure everyone opts for a heads-up display, but it’s a persistent bugbear of mine.

Towards the end of my time with the setup, it got easier, and I suspect that it’ll only take a few days of regular use before it becomes second nature. It’s almost tragic that, for all of the effort, this technology will eventually pass unremarked into everyone’s daily driving habits. But I will admit that, when it came time for our last trip, driving the 450e back to the airport, me and my driving partner James both said we’d prefer driving the version with the wheel. But then, it’s always easier to run screaming back toward the comfort of the familiar when you’re pressured for time.

Lexus has been in the process of building electrified vehicles for the better part of two decades but it’s only now that it has launched its first clean-sheet EV. Toyota may have been the first to make a partially-electric vehicle work as a mass-market proposition, but it always had hydrogen as its north star of its strategy. It, in tandem with fuel companies and the Japanese government, opted to pursue hydrogen as the wonder-fuel of the future. Company officials frequently cited the cost and weight of batteries, and the speedy refueling times of hydrogen, as justification to avoid following the market. Inch-by-inch, sector-by-sector, the corporation has ceded more and more of the ground it initially cultivated to upstart rivals. The only evidence the company still clings to the hope of re-litigating the last decade of auto industry evolution was in a clearing across from the chateau’s polished concrete garage.

There, surrounded by metal barriers clad in Toyota-branded banners, was a hydrogen generator used to feed power into the facility necessary to charge so many cars all at once. But for my own pessimism, there remains hopeful shoots that Toyota’s fuel cells may finally find their place. The company recently announced a deal to sell hardware to Hyliko, a French trucking startup, to build the sort of heavy-duty equipment that hydrogen power is ideal for. Similarly, BMW has started showing off its iX5 Hydrogen, a prototype hydrogen EV that uses Toyota’s technology. But these are still little more than green shoots of hope that hydrogen hasn’t become a technological cul-de-sac the company has driven itself down into. Especially given the natural benefits of generation, transport and efficiency that electricity has always had over its rival.

As for the RZ 450e, it’s an EV that makes a better case for your head than perhaps it does your heart. Perhaps it’s because all EVs are a little more bloodless than their gas-powered rivals, and that the company has spent so long refining its offering. It’s powerful enough that you’ll feel a real kick when you put your foot to the floor, and the steering is a lot more active and direct than you would expect from a big, heavy, Lexus-branded SUV. But there’s also something sterile about the whole thing, the seriousness of the machine stripping out some of the fun. But that’s flimsy criticism of a grown-up vehicle that gets the fundamentals right, and should leave you with no doubts about the reliability of its hardware.

The Lexus RZ 450e is available to order in the UK for £62,000, with the most expensive Takumi variation costing £72,100. Deliveries for the vehicle are expected to begin at the end of May.