The 2023 Toyota bZ4X is the first model the company has designed from scratch to be an electric vehicle. It’s a compact crossover with ample interior room, available all-wheel drive, and the brand’s usual suite of standard and optional safety and driver-assistance technologies. EPA projected range ratings are expected to come in at 222 to 252 miles, depending on version; prices will be announced closer to its on-sale date.
The bZ4X has been a long time coming. Toyota has long said it doesn’t see electric cars as practical or profitable. It previously offered two generations of battery-electric RAV4 EV, but only to Californians and only in the exact numbers required to meet regulatory requirements for sales of zero-emission vehicles.
Now the global tide has turned toward more EVs in virtually every automotive segment. Toyota, however reluctantly, must follow along. In mid-December, Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda said the company would spend $35 billion on battery-electric vehicles, along with a like amount on “electrified” vehicles (meaning hybrids and plug-in hybrids).
That brings me to the bZ4X, which enters an EV segment already occupied by the Ford Mustang Mach-E, Hyundai Ioniq 5, Kia EV6, Volkswagen ID.4, and more soon to come. I should note Toyota’s EV will also be sold with only minor alterations as the 2023 Subaru Solterra. The two cars share powertrains, underpinnings, and most sheet metal. The Solterra has Subaru-specific tuning for its standard all-wheel drive, minor trim differences, and a different front end. (I think Subaru has a better model name: the Latin words for sun and earth combine in ‘Solterra,’ against a string of upper- and lower-case letters plus a number.)
Gallery: 2023 Toyota bZ4X XLE FWD First Drive Review
Behind The Wheel
From the driver’s seat of the bZ4X, it’s clear Toyota’s EV has excellent front visibility, with a low cowl height, a short nose, and slim windshield pillars. While it’s dimensionally smaller than the hugely successful RAV4 compact crossover, the electric SUV has a wheelbase of 112.2 inches – exactly as long as its Highlander three-row mid-size SUV. That provides plenty of interior room, with comfortable front seats and enough legroom for a six-foot rear-seat rider to stretch out behind the driver.
The instrument cluster is mounted in a pod that sits high on the flat dash and far from the wheel, toward the base of the windshield glass. Owners of certain new Toyota and Lexus models will be right at home with the user interface on the standard 12.3-inch central touchscreen, which offers a list of standard or optional digital features too long to fit into a drive review like this. Thankfully, the bZ4X retains dedicated “hard” controls for many functions – unlike Teslas in particular. The touch-sensitive bar below the central screen controls heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning functions, for instance.
On the road, the front-wheel-drive model drove pleasantly enough, with excellent noise control and few of the electric-car whines some models produce. With only 201 horsepower (150 kilowatts) in a 4,266-pound vehicle (about 900 pounds more than a RAV4), even the lightest FWD model is hardly a speed demon. The AWD model, with 214 hp, felt incrementally peppier, though also heavier (4,322 pounds).
Two Drivetrains, Two Batteries
I was surprised to find the single-motor bZ4X has some of the least powerful regenerative braking I’ve recently experienced in any EV, at least one with a battery large enough to provide more than 200 miles of rated range.
Due to what Toyota execs characterized as supply-chain challenges, the single- and dual-motor versions of the bZ4X use different battery cells from different makers. The base FWD model uses a 71.4-kilowatt-hour pack with cells from Panasonic, while the AWD version uses a Chinese-made battery pack of 72.8 kWh using CATL cells. This explains a difference in their charging rates: the front-drive model charges at rates up to a quoted 150 kilowatts, while the maximum possible rate quoted for the AWD pack is only 100 kW.
The AWD version offers an X-Mode control, that lets drivers choose among several modes for difficult road conditions – courtesy of the Subaru-developed AWD system – that include Snow/Dirt, Deep Snow/Mud, Grip, and Control. Studies suggest very few drivers ever use these, but they do reinforce the “AWD = added safety” message.
Only two trim levels are offered: XLE and Limited, with 18-inch wheels standard and 20-inch alloy wheels on the top-trim Limited. All versions have a panoramic fixed-glass roof, one area where Toyota has echoed most other EVs on the market, but the XLE offers only black interiors. Options are limited to a Weather package on the XLE, and three on the Limited: a split rear spoiler, a two-tone paint treatment with contrasting roof, and a nine-speaker JBL Audio system.
EVs Can Be Special; Is This One?
We may not yet be at the point where car shoppers knowledgeably compare different EVs based on the specs and features they bring to bear. Today, some drivers still think EVs are all Teslas. But that day isn’t too far off.
Looking at the features that make well-designed EVs special – and often better than their counterparts with engines – the Toyota bZ4X comes up short on a few fronts:
- It lacks a front trunk, though it’s not alone on that front. But the extreme compactness of an electric drivetrain makes extra storage entirely possible with careful use of space.
- It doesn’t offer the Plug And Charge software that lets drivers simply plug in and walk away, with all billing handled seamlessly on the back end.
- A maximum charging rate of up to 150 kW (on the FWD version) is par for the course, but doesn’t approach the rates of up to 350 kW theoretically possible on the newest Hyundai and Kia entries.
- It lacks useful power-out capability, with no 120-volt outlet to let passengers power electric accessories that draw more power than a USB port provides.
In the end, I was left with the impression that Toyota, always a conservative company, hasn’t reached for the stars in its first volume EV. The bZ4X will likely be well-built, reliable, and – with luck – perhaps the batteries can be as durable as those in the company’s renowned hybrids, which often last 300,000 miles or more. Toyota says its “goal” for the bZ4X batteries is to retain 90 percent of their original capacity after 10 years, though that is not written into the warranty, which protects against complete battery failure for 8 years or 100,000 miles.
But Toyota stubbornly goes its own way, and it seems to think it has little to learn from any other maker of electric vehicles. One annoying peculiarity brought home this distinction: the bZ4X quotes battery charge only in miles remaining. Virtually every other EV offers a battery state of charge in percentage, somewhere in the cluster or the vehicle status screens. Not Toyota.
Company executives also declined to discuss at what charge percentage the battery would warn drivers of a “low battery” condition. The algorithm varies, they said. Fair enough, but experienced EV drivers often prefer percentage because it’s less likely to induce range anxiety – and more like a traditional gas gauge.
If At First You Don’t Succeed…
That one display point is minor at best; very few car shoppers visiting Toyota to consider their first EV will ever notice it. And to be fair, Toyota product development is relentless. Consider the very first Prius hybrid, an underpowered subcompact sedan that was noisy and remarkably slow. Just two generations later, Toyota had cracked the 50-mpg barrier with a vehicle that addressed virtually all the first Prius’s anomalies (except perhaps styling) and sold millions globally.
As for sales in the US, expect Toyota to sell exactly as many of the bZ4X as required to meet its regulatory requirements and keep the company within corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) limits. Do not, however, expect Toyota ads to point out the advantages of EVs over its lineup of gasoline hybrids any time soon. It has too much invested in the latter.
If Toyota is serious about EVs – and now it has to be, whether it wants to or not – it will improve its subsequent EVs to keep them competitive. The bZ4X isn’t a bad offering; it’s just a little underwhelming.
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