Payne: Smooth, comfy bZ4X is an EV for the Toyota faithful

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 21, 2022

Encinitas, California — Toyota pioneered the green auto segment 20 years ago with its egg-shaped Prius, expanding its customer base from Camry shoppers, Tacoma off-roaders and Supra speedsters to include hybrid tree-huggers.

These loyal green customers then watched over the last decade as Tesla stole Toyota’s green eco-mantle with the all-electric Model 3 and Model Y.

The faithful have finally been rewarded with the all-new 2023 Toyota bZ4X, the first all-electric Toyota built on a skateboard chassis. Just like a Tesla, but Toyota-fied.

Stepping on the gas (electric?) pedal, I surged out of a stoplight on Carlsbad Highway north of San Diego, leaving traffic behind. Tesla made macho acceleration an EV trademark — contrary to the snail-like Pious — and the bZ4X doesn’t disappoint. Liquid smooth and quiet as a beach breeze, the SUV is pleasant to drive around town devoid of a droning CVT transmission or gutteral V-6. Toggle the regen button (conveniently located right next to the rotary shifter) and you can one-pedal drive. Just like a Tesla.

The 2023 bZ4X EV shares the rear headlight design with other Toyotas like the Camry. The long wheelbase gives it more interior room than a RAV4.

But the top-drawer, Michigan-friendly all-wheel-driver’s 214 horsepower pales next to the AWD Model Y’s neck-snapping 384 ponies — good for 4.4 seconds 0-60. My Toyota arrives two seconds later.

That puts it at the back of the pack of Model Y pretenders (Tesla dominates the EV market with some 70% of sales) that have flooded the market, including the Subaru Solterra (which shares the bZ4X’s skateboard platform), Volkswagen ID.4, Hyundai Ioniq 5, Kia EV6, Volvo C40 and my favorite, Ford’s Mustang Mach-E.

The battery skateboard chassis of the 2023 Toyota bZ4X EV carries a 355-volt battery platform for slower charging than some EV peers.

Like the Camry sedan and RAV4 SUV, bZ4X’s game plan revolves around reliability and room. Vroom? Not so much. Unlike some automakers that have set dates for their all-EV future, Toyota recognizes EVs are a niche for now. You want thrills? Check out the all-new gas-fired GR86 sports car and twin-turbo V6 Tundra — also released this year.

Like its stablemates, bZ4X will turn you head. Borrowing design cues from an alphabet soup of sources — fascia from the Model X, flanks from Lexus NX, fender classing from RAV4, taillights from Prius — it poses a coherent, premium design statement. And that’s a good thing since bZ4X starts at $42K (on par with ID.4, Ioniq 5 and Co.), well north of a RAV4 hybrid.

Less appealing is its alphabet soup of a name: bZ4X. No worries, I speak Alphanumeric.

Translation: BZ is short for Beyond Zero (important to its righteous image, but a dubious claim of zero emissions since the SUV’s battery is mined from the world’s lithium deposits, then charged via America’s fossil-fuel-fired energy grid). Then things get really obtuse. The 4 stands for midsize vehicle (3 is for compact, 2 for subcompact, and so on). And X is for crossover.

Toyota turned RAV4 (Translation: Recreational Active Vehicle with 4-wheel-drive) into a winner, so who am I to judge?

The unique interior of the 2023 Toyota bZ4X EV offers a cloth dash, deep console, and awkward steering position.

A bigger issue is bZ4X’s mixed bag of tech beneath an appealing interior design package. I ogled the center console’s striking tidal wave of black trim cresting in a broad 12.3-inch screen, then barked: “Hey, Toyota! Take me to Boulders Resort, Scottsdale, Arizona.”

Confusion.

The Tesla would have understood my Southern accent, mapped the 504 miles to destination, and included charging stops on the way complete with restaurants and shops where Mrs. Payne and I could graze while the car slurped electrons. Not the Toyota.

I turned to the trusty touchscreen keypad and located Boulders, but my e-guide hadn’t a clue where fast chargers could be found along the way. Finding fueling stations is my job, apparently.

Toyota says that charging station updates are scheduled for future over-the-air updates (another Tesla innovation), but it will be tough sell to California greens desperate for something different than the six Teslas on their block. Toyota knows its target audience; six-figure households with a multi-car garage that have a Nowhere-Near-Zero Land Cruiser for when family road trips are required.

While competitors like Ioniq 5 boast quick-charging 800-volt platforms, Toyota has settled for a 355-volt platform that will fast-charge from 10-80% in a leisurely 60 minutes. Range puts it in the low end of the segment with 228 miles for my AWD XLE tester. That’s better than a standard-battery, AWD Mustang Mach-E’s 211 miles, but shy of an AWD Model Y’s 330 miles and 256 miles for a comparable Hyundai Ioniq 5. Don’t even think about towing something behind the Toyota.

The cockpit of the 2023 Toyota bZ4X EV shows off the recessed, hoodless instrument panel and large center screen.

Like Mach-E, bZ4X features a clever recessed, unshrouded instrument display behind the steering wheel because EVs don’t need big displays with RPM dials. Essentials like mph, speed limit, adaptive cruise indicator and auto high beams (the Toyota is typically loaded with standard safety features) are displayed in what is essentially a non-reflecting head-up display.

Unfortunately, it is, um, obstructed by the steering wheel. I had to lower the wheel into my lap, which compromised aggressive driving maneuvers. Again, Toyota knows its buyers: this is city cruiser, not a corner carver.

A panoramic roof comes standard in the 2023 Toyota bZ4X EV.

Ergonomic tics aside, the cabin is as comfortable as your sun porch.

Letting the sunshine in is a premium panoramic roof, a standard item that Tesla made a signature of the SUV class. Under the glass dome is a palatial rear-seat couch with Land Cruiser-like 47.1 inches of legroom — 10 more inches than a RAV4. My giraffe legs loved it, and they dig the heated rear seat option, too. Not to be left out, front passengers get heated/cooled seats — and a special space heater (like your sun porch in the winter) where the glove compartment used to be.

That’s right, bZ4X nixes the glove compartment — innovating on the passenger side just as it does the driver dash.

Instead of a glovebox, the 2023 Toyota bZ4X EV offers a passenger leg/foot heater under the dash.

Expect more such breakthroughs as interior designers recognize the benefits of EVs that no longer have driveline tunnels through the middle of the cabin. BZ4X ditches the glove compartment because it has a bottomless center console into which you can drop air gauges, insurance cards — it’s so deep Toyota offers a top bin so you can segment it. Under the electronic shifter is more space for your purse, tissue box and small dog (I hear they’re all the rage these days).

The emphasis on space does not extend to a frunk, which is another Tesla-pioneered feature (for those counting, that’s liquid torque, OTA, pano roof, big screen, frunk) that Ford has embraced with the Mach-E and Lightning pickup. Mach-E was hell-bent on creating a Tesla clone to steal away Model 3/Y buyers. Toyota? Not so much. They’re content to make an approachable EV for brand loyalists.

They’ll give it a big tree-hugger hug.

2023 Toyota bZ4X

Vehicle type: Battery-powered, front- and all-wheel-drive four-door SUV

Price: $43,215, including $1,215 destination charge ($49,970 Limited FWD and $52,050 Limited AWD as tested)

Powerplant: 71.4/72.8 kWh lithium-ion battery driving single/twin electric motors

Power: 201 horsepower, 196 pound feet-torque (FWD); 214 horsepower, 248 pound-feet-torque (AWD)

Transmission: Single-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.1-7.5 seconds (AWD-FWD, mfr.); towing, fuhgettaboutit

Weight: 4,266-4,464 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA est. range, 252 miles (XLE FWD), 228 miles (XLE AWD), 242 miles (Limited FWD), 222 miles (Limited AWD)

Report card

Highs: Spacious interior; liquid-smooth ride

Lows: Odd steering wheel position; spare long-distance charging info

Overall: 3 stars

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

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