Over the past few years, and maybe a dozen visits, I don’t think I’ve ever been able to see downtown Los Angeles clearly from afar. Some combination of smog and weather seems to perpetually add a Gaussian blur to the skyline. Recently, I drove up the hill to Griffith Park in a new 2023 Lexus RZ 450e, the brand’s first fully-electric model for sale in the U.S., to see what I could see. But my bad luck was undefeated, with a hazy shade smothering the vista. So I drove off without bothering to get out of the battery-powered car.
While L.A.’s air quality has improved substantially since the 1990s, southern California’s air is still among the worst in the country, and there is a long way to go before the clear days outnumber the hazy ones. Hopefully the electrification revolution and improved efficiency in battery construction will help us breathe and see a little better. Is this new SUV from Lexus the right EV to ferry us into that future?
Lexus Does Lexus Right
The first and probably most important bit to know about driving the RZ is that it feels entirely natural. We’ve been trained to think of the EV experience as a radical departure from the internal combustion-powered vehicles to which we are more accustomed — an iPhone on wheels with instant torque and lightning acceleration. But the RZ, from the second you sit behind the wheel, gives off thoroughly normal vibes, and I mean this in a good way. Think of it as a gateway EV for Lexus loyalists.
Sure, you know it has an electric powertrain, and you feel it when you hit the pedal, but it pauses for half a breath before the 308 horsepower and 320 lb-ft of torque dual-motor all-wheel-drive system, which Lexus calls Direct4, fully spools up. The electric motors (150 kW in the front and 80 kW in the rear) will flick the RZ off from 0 to 60 mph at a good clip — around 4.8 seconds.
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I drove the SUV over two days, first from Santa Barbara to L.A. and then around the City of Angels for a few hours running some errands and attempting to sightsee before heading to the U.S. Open. It’s luxurious, easy to drive and capable. In the corners, the RZ stays well planted, considering the curb weight around 4,600 lbs. (plus or minus depending on trim), but the suspension setup (MacPherson struts in front and a double wishbone in the back) as well as the tuning on the frequency reactive dampers are decidedly soft with a good bit of bob and roll to keep passengers from grabbing the handles. That amount of give also takes the edge off most road bumps and textures.
When it’s time to slow down, the brakes feel much like they would in an ICE-powered crossover, and it’s hard to notice much in the way of regeneration from the four different regen levels. No one-pedal driving here, which is sort of odd since parent company Toyota essentially pioneered that tech. But as someone who despises using the angle of the accelerator to slow down, I’m not complaining.
The water-cooled, 71.4-kWh lithium-ion battery pack is EPA-rated to the tune of 220 miles of range on the standard 18-inch wheels. An upgrade to the 20-inch rims degrades it to 196 miles. That’s not exactly class leading, so buyers will certainly need to install a home charger for end-of-day fill-ups. To that end, Lexus customer service has a dedicated staff to facilitate at-home charger installation. On a 150-kW charger, the RZ can go from nearly dead to 80% in a respectable 30 minutes.
So how’d it fare in the real world outside of theoretical estimates? After a roughly 100-mile drive down the coast from Santa Barbara to L.A., with the AC and ventilated seats on the whole way, I handed the keys off to a valet with a shade less than 50% charge left.
Soft on the Inside
Yes, it’s a Lexus, so you know it’s posh, but the RZ is a legitimately lovely place to spend some time — and I got to sit in the front seat a little longer than I would have liked thanks to a decent snarl in Thousand Oaks.
The RZ comes in two trim levels: Premium and Luxury, which start at $59,650 and $65,150 respectively. I drove the latter, which is fitted with not only a heated steering wheel, heated and ventilated front seats, and a wireless charging pad, but a large and helpful head-up display plus a wickedly cool electrically tinting panoramic glass roof called Dynamic Sky.
The seats are supportive and comfortable. Overall, the reductive design gives the interior an airy quality and spacious feeling passengers will appreciate. For the driver, that lack of clutter also helps to stay focused on the road ahead, minimizing eye movement and thus mitigating fatigue when behind the wheel.
The centerpiece 14-inch infotainment touchscreen, which intuitively runs nearly every feature in the RZ, dominates not just the dashboard, but the minimalist, spacious cabin as well. Wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto come standard. An upgrade to the Luxury model gets you a bombastic Mark Levinson Surround Sound system and multi-colored ambient interior lighting.
Both trim levels offer a suite of driver aids, like adaptive cruise control and lane-keep assist, which inspired quite a bit of confidence on my highway drive while the optional hands-free traffic jam assistant kept me sane in the cliche that is L.A. traffic. I also needed to haul a fair bit of luggage, but the 34.9 cubic feet of cargo space was ample for a large suitcase, duffle and my golf travel bag.
Range anxiety is quite real if you’re driving an EV whose range capability is under 200 miles. In recognition of the fact that our country’s charging infrastructure doesn’t currently allow for pain-free, fast-as-gas fill-ups everywhere you drive, Lexus offers RZ buyers an interesting perk: a total of 30 complimentary days of gas-powered loan vehicles for the first three years, which would allow you to take longer road trips without any hassle.
All in all, the RZ makes a compelling argument for making the jump to electric. But not nearly the case clean air and clear skies do.
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