One For The Fan Club: The 2023 Toyota bZ4X
When you're going into a brave new era of vehicles, asking your die-hard buyers what you should build is probably not the right move.
I'm not saying that's what Toyota did with its first mass-production all-electric, the bZ4X. I have no evidence to back up such a claim, and besides, in some ways, it feels like they didn't ask anyone at all. But at the exact same critical moment for EV adoption that sees Hyundai producing the world-beating IONIQ 5 and its corporate cousin Kia using the same platform to produce the stunning EV6, why would Toyota choose to simply meet its (admittedly high) established standards? The best I can come up with is a very cynical attitude on Toyota's part: "This will sell to people who will only buy Toyota products. That's enough. We really don't want to do more than that here, anyway."
Facts that are in evidence: Toyota's outgoing CEO, Akio Toyoda, has never been onboard with the EV revolution. Hybrids? Absolutely. Let's face it, the Toyota Prius put hybrids on the map, and the company has done an excellent job of spreading that technology through its lineup---right on up to its biggest SUVs. Hydrogen? At times it felt like "Akio Toyoda" must be Japanese for "Don Quixote" as the company dumped billions into two generations of the Toyota Mirai, a fuel-cell vehicle that comes with its own real-life multi-player game---find the working hydrogen station. But EVs? It's taken Toyota 12 years to answer the Nissan Leaf---much less every EV that has come since, most of which have pushed the Leaf to very near the back of the pack.
The 2023 Toyota bZ4X is a joint venture with Subaru, which produces a mechanically identical version, the Solterra. It has a single electric motor, with 201 total system horsepower. 60 miles per hour from a standing start takes 7.1 seconds, which is competitive with the IONIQ5 and EV6 base models, which do it in 6.2.
But range is an issue, even if it doesn't appear so at first glance. The EPA estimate for range on a single charge is 252 miles. That's solid. Toyota discourages charging to 100% on DC fast chargers and charging speed drops considerably after 80%, so a more realistic range figure is 202, which puts it almost 50 miles shy of the Hyundai or Kia with 80% charge.
Our experience found considerably less range. Charging it to 100% over a weekend on 110v household current resulted in an indicated range of 183 miles (it was 169 miles when we started charging 48 hours earlier). 80 percent of that would be 146 miles. Toyota is investigating at least one case of an even more severe range discrepancy. Toyota's own guidance is that a charge from when the "low charge" light comes on to 80% should take 30 minutes. Fine, but the Hyundai and Kia do that in 18.
Inside, the instrumentation is in a pod above the steering wheel (which, no matter how the wheel is set, is never completely out of the way). I've been told the initial design had a yoke in place of the steering wheel. I can only imagine first-time EV buyers' reaction to that.
Oh, and remember when we said "low charge light" a few paragraphs up?
Unlike every other EV, the bZ4X does not give you a percentage of charge remaining. Like a gasoline car, it shows you a gauge similar to a fuel tank and the number of estimated miles remaining. To get the battery percentage requires a smartphone app. This car feels like Akio Toyoda decided that the best way out of building EVs was to just build one that resisted being understood, much less loved, and then declare the failure of a noble experiment. Our test vehicle was a bZ4X FWD XLE. Base price $43,215 including destination, and to its credit, it does come well-equipped, with Toyota's comprehensive Safety Sense 3.0 active safety suite standard, as well as 18-inch alloy wheels, bi-LED projector headlights, rain-sensing wipers, a six-speaker audio system with Qi wireless charging, and a panoramic fixed glass roof with power sunshade.
Our test vehicle also had some extra-cost options---the Supersonic Red paint ($425), the XLE Weather Package with a heated steering wheel and heated front seats ($500), carpeted floor mats and cargo mat ($269) and a mud guard ($149). As-tested price, $44,558.
Late last month, Mr. Toyoda announced that he's stepping down as CEO, with Lexus and Gazoo Racing President Koji Sato taking over on April 1. In an interview with Financial Times, Toyoda had this to say: “Because of my strong passion for cars, I am an old-fashioned person in regards to digitalisation, electric vehicles, and connected cars. I cannot go beyond being a car guy, and that is my limitation.” As if somehow, they were mutually exclusive. They're not. We'll see where Toyota goes under its new CEO beginning in the spring.