Toyota Motor Corporation’s introduction of the Lexus brand in 1989 shook the automotive landscape, marking the first time a mass-market Japanese manufacturer attempted to move into the high-end luxury segment outside of its national borders. Now 30+ years later, Lexus has debuted what might be its most important vehicle since the original LS 400, which commanded international attention: the all electric RZ 450e. Far more reflective of the modern world’s obsession with crossover SUVs than the brand’s inaugural low-slung sedan flagship, it brings Lexus into the electrified era with gusto and refinement.
“There is no leather or wood in the RZ’s interior,” Katelyn Salzman, the RZ’s US product marketing manager, says at our test drive in California. It’s just one surprising fact about the electric crossover (on sale now at Lexus retailers, with prices beginning at $59,950) which is meant to attract buyers from both inside and outside of the brand.
Lexus’s signature wood and leather steering wheels, Kiriko glass door trim and other intricate panel-work are nowhere to be found. The interior isn’t devoid of the brand’s flair for Japanese craftsmanship, but it’s done in a brand new, very welcome way. Most surfaces provide pleasant tactility, from the knurled aluminum shift dial to the buttery steering wheel upholstery. With choices of synthetic NuLuxe leather or Ultrasuede® depending on trim level, RZ owners can pick from a simplified yet future-forward palette of two-tone interior colors: smoky Dapple Gray, black and caramel-tan Palomino or creamy and aqua-blue Thunderstorm and Macadamia.
In Luxury trim level models, the center console trim is a sustainable “tsuyasumi” film material that’s engraved with a wood-like pattern. In place of multifaceted trim pieces on the doors, ambient lighting with varying designs is projected onto a clean swath of upholstery and the overall sensation is zen-like, giving the interior a sense of occasion as day transitions to night. Radiant heating from the underside of the steering column and passenger dashboard areas provides warmth in a more luxurious—and energy-efficient—manner.
Next to the brand’s latest-generation RX crossover, the RZ’s exterior represents something different. It has an all-new version of the recognizable Lexus grille that the company dubs the “spindle body,” more of a uniform part of the car’s frame since grilles aren’t needed for airflow in electric vehicles—but toward the rear, its crossover shape creases sharply upward to form four-door coupe style lines met by a raked-back roof. On top of the rear pillars rest two tailfin-looking spearheads, which Lexus refers to as “vortex generators,” which have a purpose beyond aesthetics: through clever aerodynamics, they help the vehicle’s range by reducing drag and negate the need for a rear windshield wiper in rainy conditions because the air naturally blows downward. It’s rounded out by a continuous, high-riding rear tail light with LEXUS spelled out in the middle. An optional two-tone paint job makes it even more evident.
On the road, the two motors together produce a little over 300 horsepower, with the instant torque delivered through all-wheel-drive it feels more agile and responsive than most Lexus products before it. The brand has talked up its Lexus Driving Signature quite a bit, an overall re-dedication to good driving dynamics, and it shows here. The cabin is open and airy yet silent, and the brand’s reputation for build quality shines through after just a few minutes of driving. Absent are the synthesized motor sounds that other brands are betting on, just a barely audible whir of the electric motors under throttle.
The driving experience is also where one of the RZ’s most unique features debuts. Although it’s not available at launch, a second steering interface will be optional on the RZ in the United States. It’s a steer-by-wire system paired with a yoke-style steering wheel. Yokes have been thrust into the mainstream by Tesla, but there’s a key difference here—the yokes in the Model S and X do similar 2.5-turn lock-to-lock motions as conventional steering wheels, but the RZ’s yoke only requires half a turn to generate the full range of motion left or right; no hand-over-hand method needed here.
“The steer-by-wire set-up was under study in our Advanced Research department as long as seven or eight years ago,” explains Tatsuya Ishigaki, the RZ’s assistant chief engineer. “We chose this vehicle to pair it with because of the obvious synergies with its position of innovation… and the yoke shape actually came after the system itself because of its lack of need for hand-over-hand movement.” After driving it, that rings true.
The RZ 450e’s lack of competitive range (between 190 and 220 miles or so per charge, depending on wheel choice) is made up for by the fact that it’s both really good at being a Lexus and a truly different type of Lexus. It’s quiet, smooth and well made, but it’s also agile and involves the driver. It has all the infotainment and safety tech modern buyers want; it iterates on the brand’s existing design language in a unique manner, and comes with the promise of build quality that nascent independent EV makers can’t really yet claim. Its thoroughly more modern interior, active driving feel and unique details combine to deliver a surprisingly different experience than any of its brand stablemates.
Hero image courtesy of Lexus