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2023 Lexus RZ 450e First Drive Review: Clever Features, Embarrassing Range

Lexus' first EV offers solid luxury and some clever features, but its range could be the worst in the segment.

The RZ shares its underpinnings with the Toyota BZ4X and Subaru Solterra.
Craig Cole/CNET

The 2023 RZ 450e is Lexus' first EV. Built on the e-TNGA structure that's shared with the Toyota BZ4X and Subaru Solterra, this angry-looking utility vehicle offers the usual luxury trappings and some innovative features, including a Steer-By-Wire yoke. But the RZ 450e's range -- arguably any EV's most critical aspect -- is embarrassingly low.

Less is, in fact, less

In a world where the Air sedan from startup automaker Lucid can go more than 500 miles between charges, the RZ 450e's range is well behind the times. According to Lexus, internal estimates using the Environmental Protection Agency test cycle suggest this SUV will go up to 225 miles when fitted with modest 18-inch wheels... and only 200 when rolling on larger 20s. (The current WLTP range guesstimate is more than 400 kilometers, about 249 miles, though this test is more forgiving than the EPA's.) Those ratings are with standard all-wheel drive, though the automaker will also offer front-wheel drive in other countries (something it's still considering for the US). 

Those range estimates could change before the vehicle goes on sale, with each likely increasing. But this Lexus' performance is an obvious weakness even when compared to nonluxury rivals like the Ford Mustang Mach-E, Hyundai Ioniq 5 and Kia EV6 -- all of which can go more than 300 miles between charges.

Another potential downside to the RZ 450e is its lack of a front trunk. Engineers packaged the powertrain's various modules and control hardware under the hood, leaving no room for a storage cubby. They did this to keep the high-voltage wires as short as possible to save weight and cost. Fortunately, the rear luggage space is plenty large and the load height is low, around 29 inches.

Along with its underlying architecture, the RZ 450e shares the same 71.4-kilowatt-hour, liquid-cooled, lithium-ion battery pack with the FWD BZ4X (which has up to 252 miles of range, by the way). Lexus defends its engineering decision by claiming to have taken a balanced approach when developing the RZ 450e. For many drivers commuting to work or running errands, even 200 miles is plenty of juice, plus smaller battery packs cost and weigh less, provide better dynamics and allow the vehicle to be more efficient. The automaker projects this SUV will be 15% to 20% more economical than rival EVs, consuming as little as 18 kWh of juice per 100 kilometers. However, all this could just be an excuse because Toyota is behind the curve on electric vehicle development.

Naturally, durability is a point of pride for Lexus and the RZ 450e's battery pack should retain more than 90% of its capacity after 10 years. A warranty protecting owners from this sort of degradation is currently being studied.

As for charging speeds and feeds, specifics haven't been finalized, but the RZ can absorb electrons at a maximum rate of 150 kilowatts when hooked to a DC fast charger, identical to what Ford's Mach-E tops out at, ditto for the front-wheel-drive BZ4X. Strangely, the all-wheel-drive model maxes out at just 100 kW. Blowing those three vehicles away, the EV6 and Ioniq 5 max out at a mighty 250 kW thanks to their variable 400-volt/800-volt charging architecture. In relatable terms, this Lexus should -- though this is not finalized -- be able to go from dead to an 80% state of charge in about 30 minutes. The Level 2 charging speed is unknown, but the closely related BZ4X can handle 6.6 kW of AC power.

The RZ 450e's efficiency scores have not been finalized, either. The similar Toyota BZ4X in XLE all-wheel-drive trim stickers at 114 mpge city, 94 mpge highway and 104 mpge combined. This Lexus will likely be similar.

The RZ is closer to the RX in size, rather than the NX.

Craig Cole/CNET

Surprisingly potent performance

That battery pack, which is made of Panasonic prismatic cells, juices a pair of electric motors that provides all-wheel drive. Up front is a larger 150-kW unit, while the rear axle is energized by an 80-kW motor. All told, the RZ 450e packs a 308-horsepower wallop, plenty in an SUV that is closer in length to a Lexus RX than the smaller NX. Stretching its legs on Spain's Circuit Escola near Barcelona, the RZ certainly knows how to move. Acceleration is smooth but also effortless. No, it's not Tesla Model S quick, but I'd estimate this vehicle can hit 60 mph in the 6-second range, plenty of performance for street use.

Like any good Lexus, the RZ 450e's ride quality tends toward the softer side, but body roll is reasonably well controlled, even while pushed through corners at excessive speeds. MacPherson struts support the front end, while a double-wishbone setup props up the rear. Frequency reactive dampers -- Lexus' first implementation of this mechanical shock absorber technology -- respond differently to varying roadway inputs, helping to iron out surface imperfections without beating you up.

There's no hiding this vehicle's mass, but like other EVs it feels planted until the tires start squealing in protest. The all-wheel-drive system can apportion torque front to rear based on conditions or driving mode, though vigorously exercising the RZ on a track reveals this system is smooth and completely seamless.

You'll be able to get the RZ with a normal steering wheel.

Craig Cole/CNET

When it's time to slow your roll, the braking is as natural as organic quinoa because, oddly enough, there's no transition from regenerative to friction braking. When you hit the pedal, there's no increase in regenerative braking because the vehicle just uses its friction brakes. This leaves a small amount of efficiency on the table, but the RZ 450e's chief engineer explained the company feels the accelerator pedal should only be used for acceleration, not slowing down, an unexpected answer from the automaker that practically invented this technology with its pioneering Prius hybrid.

Similarly odd, the RZ 450e does not offer a true one-pedal driving experience, though it provides four different regenerative braking intensities. The lowest one delivers nearly zero drag, while the most potent offers up to 0.15 gs of deceleration.

Steer clear

The RZ 450e will offer two different steering systems: a conventional setup with a wheel and a futuristic, fully electronic, Steer-By-Wire yoke with no physical connection to the front wheels. The conventional affair operates as you'd expect: It's intuitive and natural, with a light touch and moderate ratio. Naturally, there's zero learning curve, which is not so with the yoke.

In certain countries, this science fiction steering system will be called One Motion Grip (yep, OMG for short). According to engineers, it offers numerous advantages over its century-plus-old compatriot. More motorcycle handlebars than wheel, the yoke provides better visibility of the instrument cluster, offers enhanced agility at low speeds with no nervousness on the highway and it even eliminates wheel winding. This is all backed by fully redundant electronic systems and even a small secondary battery to power all this stuff in an emergency.

It's weird, but easy to get used to.

Craig Cole/CNET

On track, the yoke is surprisingly good, enhancing the RZ's agility and seamlessly adapting the steering ratio as speeds change. It makes this SUV feel stable and agile, though there is pretty much zero feedback from the front tires.

The yoke only turns about 150 degrees from lock to lock, so it's never making a full revolution unlike Tesla's setup. Unfortunately, at lower speeds around a tight cone course, the RZ 450e feels darty, small corrections resulting in big front-wheel movements, which can make the SUV feel like it's rocking from side to side. There's a learning curve to that yoke, too. I often try going hand-over-hand while steering around cones, but there's nothing to grab, plus at low speeds, it takes concentration to dial in the right amount of steering angle without overdoing it, which is not so with the much more relaxed steering wheel.

Lexus also set up a short, low-traction course that allows me to experience at-the-limit handling. Kicking the conventional RZ's rear out with a generous stab of accelerator requires copious amounts of countersteer to correct. It's easy and natural to slide the vehicle and maintain control, but it takes a lot of very quick hand movements to do. This is not the case with the yoke. Thanks to its much-quicker ratio, only a small amount of input is required to arrest oversteer. Surprisingly, this feels totally natural, with none of the jitteriness or overcorrection I expected.

Less suggestively, One Motion Grip should be called Steer-By-Wire in the US. It will be optional on the highest-grade RZ 450e model at a future, though still-undisclosed date. I had my initial reservations, but overall, One Motion Grip is an intriguing technology that provides real benefits, even if it takes some getting used to. Still, right out of the box, it's superior to Infiniti's dreadful steer-by-wire system and should be far better than Tesla's, too.

Opt for 20-inch wheels and you'll get a measly 200 miles of range -- according to preliminary estimates, anyway.

Craig Cole/CNET

Odds and ends

The big draw of this first-drive opportunity is to experience the RZ 450e's performance and get a taste of its digital steering system. Beyond that headline-grabbing stuff, this vehicle is also graced with a few other features of note, like a standard dimmable glass roof, another first for the Lexus brand.

Aside from that, the RZ features a clean-looking infotainment system with a 14-inch touchscreen. This system resembles what's offered in other new Toyota and Lexus models, though I did not get any opportunity to play around with it. Radiant heaters designed to warm the driver and front passenger's legs, increasing vehicle efficiency, are also offered.

Lexus' Safety System Plus 3.0 provides a host of amenities. Advanced driving aids like adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning and an emergency driving stop system are included. That last item features a driver-monitoring camera that can tell if you're incapacitated. If so, it will decelerate the vehicle to a complete stop in its lane and engage the hazard lights to warn other motorists.

Like other Lexus models, the RZ 450e wears in-your-face styling. The bodywork is embellished with plenty of angled lines and sharp surfaces, which you can easily make out underneath this prototype's brand-specific camouflage. Up front, it's impossible to miss the filler piece that's there instead of a traditional opening, but grille or not, there's no mistaking this utility vehicle for anything but a Lexus.

It definitely looks like a Lexus.

Craig Cole/CNET

Available later this year

Assuming there aren't any supply chain-related snafus, the new Lexus RZ 450e is expected to launch in the US this November. Pricing is nowhere near available right now, nor are other critical details like charge times and feature availability. If all goes to plan, this information should be released later in the year.

Aside from its possibly worst-in-class range, the RZ 450e looks nice, has ample tech and seems plenty comfortable. One Motion Grip is an intriguing addition I need more time with, but it shows promise. In many ways, it helps this EV feel like the future even if, in other ways, it's behind the times.


Editors' note: Travel costs related to this story were covered by the manufacturer, which is common in the auto industry. The judgments and opinions of CNET's staff are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.