Payne: Lexus LF-Z concept signals measured electrification strategy

Posted by Talbot Payne on March 31, 2021

Toyota Motor Corp.’s luxury brand, Lexus, debuted an all-new, digitally advanced, electric LF-Z concept Tuesday, its first vehicle on a dedicated battery platform.

Billed as a transformative moment for the Lexus brand, the edgy LF-Z continues the brand’s evolution of battery-powered products dating to 2005 with the RX 400h, a hybrid that was the brand’s first electrified vehicle. By 2025, Lexus plans 20 new electrified models including all-electric, plug-in hybrids and gas-hybrid models. Currently, six of Lexus’ 10 models in the U.S. market have hybrid variants.

The Lexus LF-Z concept is the brand's first fully electrified model.

Unlike Cadillac and Tesla, however, Lexus did not signal a move to all-EVs. Lexus has consistently been one of the big three best-sellers the U.S. luxe market — together with BMW and Mercedes — in gas and and hybrid models. Lexus aims to offer electrified variants of all models by 2025, with the sales ratio of electrified variants exceeding gas-only vehicles.

The sharply angled, futuristic LF-Z builds on the LF-30 concept revealed at the 2019 Tokyo Auto Show. The sci-fi LF-30 was the first glimpse at the brand’s “Lexus Electrified” plan to create a dedicated battery architecture. The LF-Z brings that concept close to production.

The dedicated battery platform is similar to the Ultium battery-powered, skateboard platform that will undergird Cadillac’s 2023 Lyriq crossover. With its sharp edges and aggressive facia, the LF-Z also looks similar to Caddy’s EV design language. GM’s luxury brand, following the success of Tesla, is pursuing a more radical, all-EV plan by 2030 that it hopes will jump-start the brand’s small-volume sales.

In line with corporate trends promoting green initiatives, Lexus said its electrification plans are part of a larger commitment to sustainability.

“While fulfilling our social mission of realizing a carbon-neutral society, we will continue to provide the fun and joy that cars bring,” said Lexus International president Koji Sato.

Though Lexus sells in 70 markets around the world, the U.S. and China account for more than 70% of the brand’s global sales (about 525,000 of 720,000 units). Governments in both markets have signaled that they will force automakers to go all-electric in coming decades, even as luxury customers have been reticent to buy EVs not named Tesla due to batteries’ added expense and range challenges.

The LF-Z is a two-row crossover with battery technology similar to GM's Ultium.

Like its sister Toyota brand, which brought the first successful hybrid vehicle to the U.S. in 2001, Lexus has been a battery-power pioneer. But unlike GM and Volkswagen, Lexus is skeptical of going all-electric anytime soon.

“The current business model of the car industry is going to collapse,” Toyota president Akio Toyoda warned late last year of industry plans to go all-EV. He said countries like Japan simply do not have the electric grid capacity to handle an all-electric fleet.

Lexus LF-Z electric concept

 “The more EVs we build, the worse carbon dioxide gets,” Toyoda said, pointing out that most of Japan’s grid is powered by coal and natural gas. “When politicians are out there saying, ‘Let’s get rid of all cars using gasoline,’ do they understand this?”

Including Lexus’ diversification of its fleet to a new electric platform, Toyota plans to invest more than $13 billion in electrification in the next decade. That plan includes the 2024 opening of a new Shimoyama technical center in Japan. Lexus targets global sales of 4.5 million hybrid vehicles — and 1 million EVs — by 2030. Since the launch of the 2005 RX 400h, Lexus has sold 2 million hybrids worldwide.

Like the RX 400h, the LF-Z Concept is a two-row SUV. Following EVs from Tesla, Cadillac and Mustang, its advances are as focused on digital and style innovations as they are battery-oriented.

The LF-Z's panoramic sunroof allows plenty of light into the vehicle's minimalist cockpit.

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Under a panoramic glass roof, the concept wraps the driver in what it calls a Tazuna cockpit — a minimalist design featuring digital screens with AI software that learns the driver’s habits. With independent electric motors front and rear, the Lexus also debuts new, four-wheel driving tech called DIRECT4.

“The instant responsiveness of an electric motor’s driving force to freely control a vehicle’s four wheels for superior and highly flexible driving performance … sets it apart from conventional vehicles,” said Lexus in a press release.

The concept also features drive-by-wire steering — eschewing a direct mechanical connection between steering wheel and steering rack. The steering wheel itself is a radical, yoke design like the forthcoming 2021 Tesla Model S upgrade. And without a gas engine to feed, Lexus’ signature, huge spindle grille is more sculpture than grille.

The Lexus LF-Z concept brings Toyota's luxury brand closer to offering a vehicle powered solely by battery technology.

Responding to a digital key, the LF-Z will open and turn on as the driver approaches the vehicle.

“The automotive industry has entered a period of once-in-a century transformation,” said Lexus as it pursues an ambitious agenda of electrification as well as driverless mobility. “In addition to the growing social mission of carbon neutrality and compliance with the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations, customers’ lifestyles and values are changing and diversifying at a speed previously beyond imagination.”

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