Is Toyota’s Late Arrival at the Battery EV Party a Grand Entrance?

Toyota’s first mainstream battery-electric vehicle, this 2023 Toyota bZ4X, will launch in the middle of 2022. That’s about 27 years after GM’s EV-1, 13 years behind the Nissan Leaf, and 11 years since the Tesla Model S made EVs aspirational. So, while Toyota has produced 18 million electriFIED vehicles (hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and fuel-cell electrics) during the past 20 years—more than anyone else—the brand is arriving fashionably late to the plug-in battery-electric party. Will the bZ4X prove worth the wait?

Toyota has taken something of a beating in the press of late for pushing back against governments and other entities looking to hasten the internal combustion engine’s demise, and for refusing at the recent Glasgow climate conference to commit to phasing out combustion-engine production by 2040. These efforts led London-based think tank InfluenceMap to rate Toyota as our planet’s third most obstructive corporation on policies relating to climate change, right behind ExxonMobil and Chevron (and well ahead of the next automakers, Daimler and Hyundai at 18th and 25th, respectively). Ouch.

Toyota responds by pointing out that if the materials used to build its 18 million HEVs and PHEVs had instead been allocated to fully electric vehicles, it would have only produced 260,000 BEVs, whereas the efficiency improvement attributable to its hybrid fleet equates to the carbon savings of 5.5 million EVs. Points taken.

We’re promised the 2023 Toyota bZ4X is the tip of a seven-vehicle EV spear comprised of seven “beyond zero” battery electrics. It rides on a new dedicated e-TNGA platform developed in conjunction with Subaru, which will launch its Solterra variant simultaneously. (In case you wonder, Subaru generally ranks near Toyota toward the bottom of decarbonization-progress lists from organizations like The Carbon Disclosure Project and the World Benchmarking Alliance.)

After getting our first opportunity to crawl around the 2023 Toyota bZ4X on the eve of its public debut at the L.A. Auto Show, we’re having trouble shaking the feeling Toyota is kind of being dragged kicking and screaming into producing battery electric vehicles.

Sizing Up the 2023 Toyota bZ4X

The 2023 Toyota bZ4X’s exterior package is slightly bigger than the Toyota RAV4/Subaru Forester but smaller than the Highlander and Outback. Think of a Toyota Venza with its wheelbase stretched 6.3 inches to fit a big 71.4-72.8-kWh battery and shorter overhangs because of the smaller powertrain, providing more interior space within 2 fewer inches of overall length. And to reduce frontal area (and hence overall aerodynamic drag), the height drops a couple inches. Toyota is waiting until the March first-drive opportunity to divulge interior specs, but this former interior-packaging engineer busted out the tape measure and estimates headroom will drop by almost 2 inches front and rear as a result of the higher floor and lower roof. Cargo room behind the rear seat also looks to be a tad less than in the Venza, meaning about 10 cubic feet down from the RAV4. More pertinent, the bZ4X doesn’t appear to hold much if any packaging advantage over the Volkswagen ID4 or Ford Mustang Mach-E.

What It Should be Like to Drive

Toyota doesn’t appear to be interested in conquesting Tesla Model Y customers, and maybe not even Volkswagen ID4 intenders, as the 2023 bZ4X will be no rail-gun speed-demon. The base bZ4X will send just 201 hp and maybe as much as 230 lb-ft of torque to the front wheels, while all-wheel-drive variants will get two less powerful motors good for a total of 215 hp combined and maybe 260 lb-ft. These will be permanent-magnet-type motors and they’ll spin through a single-speed gear reduction. With curb weights estimated at 4,250-4,350 pounds, we expect 0-60 acceleration in the high-7-second range—well behind the obvious electric competition. And why did Toyota power the axle burdened with steering in this clean-sheet design that also offers AWD? Because the company’s loyal owner base is more comfortable with the traction advantages of FWD. So, don’t expect the front-driver to be the fun-to-drive leader of its class. There’s still no word on payload or trailering capability.

How’s the Range and Efficiency?

Neither the 2023 Toyota bZ4X nor the Subaru Solterra have completed EPA testing yet, but both manufacturers claim 250 miles or better from the battery packs which we’re told contain 71.4 kWh in the front-drive model and 72.8 kWh in the AWD version (these are gross capacities; usable capacity will be slightly less). Again, that sounds like the bare minimum table stakes in this game. Little info on charging was presented, except to say the bZ4X will be able to charge from near empty to 80 percent within an hour on a DC fast charger. The specific chemistry of the lithium-ion battery is still under wraps, but Toyota emphasized it is engineered to retain 90 percent of its capacity after 10 years of use. And with redundant battery-health monitoring, use of a high-resistance non-flammable coolant, and meticulous production-process monitoring to identify and eliminate contamination during battery production, Toyota is confident it has all but eliminated the likelihood of a battery fire.

Will the 2023 Toyota bZ4X Go Off-Road?

With just 8.3 inches or so of ground clearance, it’ll be no Rubicon-runner, but the Subaru collaboration endows it with X-Mode off-road traction programming that supposedly functions like some sort of automatic terrain-control system (there is no terrain dial). It will also feature a Grip Control system we’re told is like off-road cruise control for maintaining certain low speeds while negotiating hills or obstacles. These features are controlled by a bank of buttons to the right of the shifter.

How’s It Look, Inside and Out?

The 2023 Toyota bZ4X is not a gorgeous or striking vehicle in the flesh. It’s proportioned well enough, but some of the design elements and choices won’t be for everyone. For instance, the “hammerhead shark” body-color eyebrows on the headlights that kind of look like a hood gap that widens toward the edges. Actual gap issues are likely to plague the charge-port door, which cuts through the side cladding.

Things inside are more pleasant, with attractive cloth trim on the dash and a nice perforation pattern on the seats. And a small main instrument cluster is located way forward near the windshield base where it is viewed by looking over the steering wheel (prepped for an eventual switch to a steering yoke?). The shifter is also new; pressing the center of the knob engages neutral, pressing the outer ring and rotating left or right gets reverse and drive, while a separate button engages park.

There is ample space front and rear, though the high floor left the thighs of my 30-inch-inseam legs unsupported. We’re also disappointed there’s neither a frunk nor a glovebox. There is a passthrough storage area under the front of the console and a reasonable space in the center console, which gets a removable bin that reveals a hidden shallow space that’s longer in front. Under the cargo floor there’s a small cubby sized to accommodate the 110-volt charger.

Heat Pumps and Radiant Warmth

To maximize efficiency in all weather conditions, the 2023 Toyota bZ4X includes heat-pump-based climate control, augmented by seat and steering wheel heaters, plus radiant foot-and-leg heating for front-seat occupants (a first for Toyota). All of this helps keep passengers comfortable while reducing the need to heat all the air in the cabin.

Safety Sense

On the safety front, the new 2023 bZ4X will debut Toyota’s latest Safety Sense 3.0 suite of sensors, which increases the detection range of the millimeter-wave radar and single-lens camera. Advantages include improved cyclist detection in low-light conditions, daytime motorcyclist detection, and guardrail detection. Lane recognition is also improved for better Lane Tracing Assist functionality.

Over-the-Air Connectivity

Subscribers to Toyota’s Drive Connect telematics system will get cloud-based info on traffic, parking, and charging-station location and status, along with a digital-key system that allows owners to use their smart phone (or authorize the phones of others) to unlock and start the vehicle. Naturally, it’s all over-the-air upgradable as fixes, improvements, or enhancements become available. Don’t hold your breath for anything as whimsical as fart-noise sound effects from Toyota, however.

When, How Much, and Is It Worth Waiting For?

We’ll know more precise timing when we drive the 2023 Toyota bZ4X in March, but we’re told to expect deliveries mid-year. We expect pricing to fall in the $37,000-$42,000 range, and our hunch says enthusiasts in our audience won’t be overly tempted by the bZ4X. Meanwhile, Toyota has no great ambition to win converts from Tesla, Volkswagen, Ford, or anybody else. The company is confident there are EV intenders out there patiently waiting for their first chance to buy an electric that earns the Toyota quality, reliability, and durability reputation. They’re probably right.

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