Lexus, Toyota’s luxury arm, just started delivering its first all-electric vehicle to dealerships in the US. Starting at $59,650, the RZ 450e is offered in two flavors—Premium and Luxury—and it will play a starring role in the Lexus lineup as the brand works toward an all-electric product offering by 2035. Highlights for this new car include a steer-by-wire system with a controller that looks like it belongs in a commercial jet; radiant heaters to warm your feet and legs where a glovebox usually sits; and silky-smooth acceleration that distinguishes the RZ from its competitors.
Here’s what sets it apart and what it’s like behind the yoke—more on that detail in a bit.
The public got its first glimpse of the RZ 450e when it was unveiled last spring. The RZ was built with some familiar parts and design elements borrowed from Toyota’s bZ4X, including the “skateboard” platform the Subaru Solterra also uses. Automakers build EVs on these flat surfaces as a painter uses a blank canvas, creating unique structures unencumbered by engine and transmission placement. The lithium-ion battery is distributed under the subfloor of the vehicle, establishing an even weight balance and sports car feel when cornering.
Effectively, that’s where the resemblance ends. The RZ employs two motors instead of one (as in the bZ4X or Solterra), and combined, the dual-motor setup delivers a total of 308 horsepower. Even more importantly, the RZ is tuned for luxury customers with incredibly smooth acceleration and a quiet cabin enhanced by active sound control, which balances unwanted cabin noise with directed sound frequencies. When testing it recently in Provence, France, my driving partner and I found we could carry on a conversation in normal voices with no problem, even on somewhat bumpy rural roads.
Inside the cabin, Lexus is now using more bio-based sustainable materials like plant-based “polyester,” or simulated suede (Lexus calls it Ultrasuede) replacing the yards of leather from previous model years. The RZ’s 14-inch touchscreen was first seen in the Lexus NX when the brand finally replaced the often-criticized touchpad that held court in the console of many Lexus vehicles. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard, and Wi-Fi connectivity is available for up to five devices.
A panoramic moonroof is also standard in both trims of the RZ. At the base Premium level, the roof has a special coating called low-e, or low emissivity, to keep the interior cool by blocking some wavelengths of light. Or, you could jump up to the Luxury variant for upgraded dimmable glass that Lexus calls Dynamic Sky. In either case, Lexus opted to remove the motor-driven automatic shade present in many cars with a glass roof. By doing so, the RZ affords more head room and more importantly, it shed 12.8 pounds from the total vehicle weight.
Also unique to the RZ is an optional steer-by-wire system that Lexus is calling a “game changer.” It’s not the first car to include a U-shaped steering control, typically called a yoke in the aircraft world. A couple of years ago, Tesla dabbled with yoke steering and then offered a retrofit traditional steering wheel for those who didn’t like it. Lexus is not going down that road for good reason: the steering systems are completely different.
The RZ’s steer-by-wire option is not just a reshaped wheel in the way Tesla attempted. There is no mechanical link between the steering wheel and steering rack with a steer-by-wire setup, as it would be in a car with a traditional steering system. Instead, information is relayed electronically (“by wire”). While a traditional steering wheel can be turned all the way around for a total of about 720 degrees, the steer-by-wire controller tips only 150 degrees in either direction.
“Up until now, there have been other [steer-by-wire systems] but this actually extends the capability by far,” Lexus assistant chief engineer Yushi Higashiyama told PopSci. “Of course, there will be customers who prefer the traditional steering system. The reason why the RZ team took on the challenge of implementing the steer-by-wire system is because that’s also taking on the challenge of the future of electrification and what’s coming next.”
Lexus representatives advised us to take it slow the first time out to get used to the difference in motion, but we found it to be very intuitive and easy to adjust to. Making a 90-degree turn required a gentle twist instead of a hand-over-hand turn, and I thought the steering felt more like a direct connection from my arm motion to the car itself. The RZ is engineered such that the steering ratio adjusts depending on how fast you’re driving, which is intended to feel agile at low speeds and stable at higher speeds.
Before you get too excited about it, know that the steer-by-wire option won’t be available at launch. Lexus has not revealed when it will offer the alternative steering choice; all that the representatives will reveal right now is “not yet.” Incidentally, this feature is called One Motion Grip—OMG, for short—in Europe, and Lexus decided that abbreviation would not play as well in the US market.
Does the RZ offer enough range?
Because it’s an EV, range anxiety is still a concern for buyers in the US. The Biden administration’s new rollout of standards for EV charging stations, powered by $7.5 billion in federal funding, is aimed at standardizing charging stations across the country. That should help alleviate apprehension, but the market has plenty of room to grow. Still, it may be a surprise to some that the RZ was launched with a range of 220 miles with the standard 18-inch wheels, or 196 miles with the upgraded 20-inch wheels. Bigger wheels mean less rolling resistance and decreased range.
With a DC fast charger, the RZ’s battery can top up from zero to 80 percent in about 30 minutes. At home with a Level 2 charger, expect it to recharge from zero to 100 percent in roughly 9.5 hours.
Lexus knows that the RZ’s range is lower than some of its competitors, but Aono says that most RZ buyers will opt for home charging, and that the range is still far above what they need on a daily basis. To entice potential customers who might be skittish about buying an EV, the brand is offering a new benefit called Lexus Reserve. This dealer-led program allows RZ owners to borrow any other available Lexus car from the dealership for free for a total of 30 days over the first three years. That way, if an RZ owner wants to take an extended road trip that exceeds the range, they can borrow a gas-powered GX SUV, for example, to bring the family.
“Americans’ daily average is 40 miles,” Aono says. (According to research from AAA, that number was about 33 in 2021.) “Are you going to be driving 200 miles [in a day]? Probably not. Instead of worrying about that, you can swap your vehicle. We want to make sure our customers are comfortable.”