This completely electronic system has some real advantages over conventional steering wheels, though there is a learning curve.
Along with Tesla , another automaker is quite literally reinventing the wheel: Lexus will offer a futuristic-looking yoke in its new 2023 RZ 450e all-electric SUV. This almost handlebar-like input device provides some genuine benefits, but as I found out while testing the RZ in Spain last week, it also takes some getting used to.
The technology will be called One Motion Grip (yep, that's OMG for short) though in the US it will be christened Steer-By-Wire, a more sensible name. With no physical mechanical connection to the front wheels, Lexus' yoke eliminates wheel winding and hand-over-hand movements in tight, low-speed turns. This setup also provides a better view of the instrument cluster and enhances agility at pretty much all speeds.
But why? Takashi Watanabe, the RZ 450e's chief engineer, explained that EVs have much more torque and are usually far more responsive than internal-combustion vehicles. He and his team wanted to offer a steering system that matches the responsiveness of an electric powertrain, and the only real way to do this is with steer-by-wire technology. He also noted that as drivers become more familiar with the technology, it could also serve as a stepping stone to autonomous vehicles with steering wheels that completely fold away when not in use. Basically, in its own way, the yoke is helping to prepare motorists for a self-driving future.
Putting Steer-By-Wire to the test in a couple engineering mules, Lexus invited me to Circuit Escola near Barcelona, Spain to experience the technology firsthand. On the track, which is quick and has plenty of stunning elevation changes, the yoke enhances the RZ's handling. While there's basically zero road feel, the steering ratio continually changes with your speed increases or decreases, becoming much quicker around parking lots and more muted at highway speeds for stability. Driven in anger, it's easy to place the RZ 450e on a decent racing line, and hitting apexes is repeatable and intuitive. When the ratio changes, it happens so gradually you don't feel it, and it only switches when the wheels are pretty much straight ahead so things don't get all wonky in the middle of a corner. That would be bad... like, really bad.
This yoke feels almost completely natural on a fast-paced track (or say, a highway), though it's awkward at lower speeds where the learning curve factors in. Unlike a conventional steering wheel, which might take 2.5 turns to go from lock to lock, the yoke only rotates about 150 degrees. At low speeds, this means you're reaching the end of the front wheels' travel pretty quickly. When navigating tight turns, it's easy to initially apply way too much steering input since the yoke is so sensitive, and then you have to make midcourse corrections to get the vehicle's nose where you want it. This back-and-forth can result in a discomforting side-to-side body motion that makes it feel like you've never driven before.
Also, I keep finding myself trying to steer hand over hand and reaching for a rim that doesn't exist. What is it they say about old habits?
An additional test Lexus arranged for me was a low-grip surface that allowed me to get some oversteer and kick the RZ's back end out. Mashing the accelerator and cranking the wheel makes it easy to get a little sideways, something that's a snap to correct in the well-balanced RZ 450e fitted with a conventional wheel; it just takes extremely fast and aggressive steering inputs to manage (which is part of the fun!). The same maneuver in the yoke-equipped model is far easier to correct as it takes no wheel winding at all, just a wrist flick to countersteer enough and keep the back end from stepping too far out. This is immediately intuitive and confidence inspiring.
Naturally, with no physical connection to the front wheels, redundancy is mandatory. Accordingly, Lexus built in an extra set of major components and includes a small backup battery to run everything if there's a fault elsewhere in the vehicle's electrical system. Sure, there are instances where the RZ's Steer-By-Wire system might become compromised, but Lexus took appropriate precautions.
As for Tesla's trendsetting yoke, it has a physical connection to the front wheels and still requires awkward hand-over-hand movements while turning. I haven't tried Elon's setup yet, but with all the wheel cranking and the lack of a conventional rim, it seems inferior to what Lexus has developed.
The RZ's Steer-By-Wire is probably something most drivers will adapt to in a few days' time, maybe even after just a couple hours behind the yoke. If everything goes to plan, the 2023 Lexus RZ 450e will go on sale this November, with the yoke becoming available at a future date. Naturally, pricing hasn't been finalized, but the yoke should be offered as an option on the highest trim level of this all-electric SUV.
At the end of the day, Lexus' new yoke works better than I ever expected. The company's engineers delivered a futuristic-looking steering device that offers real-world benefits and they minimized -- though didn't quite eliminate -- the system's learning curve. I'm still not sure this setup is the solution to any actual problem, but it's far better than Infiniti's maligned steer-by-wire system and should be totally livable in day-to-day driving, which is a win for Lexus.
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.