Toyota and its luxury brand Lexus are no strangers to technological innovation or to pushing the boundaries of style and design. Now the spindle-grilled Lexus brand is pushing the limits again with the 2023 Lexus RZ 450e, not only its first electric vehicle, but also the company’s first to offer an optional steer-by-wire system and a polarizing yoke-style steering wheel.
After a few turns on the Parcmotor Castellolí, a track just outside of Barcelona, it’s clear that Lexus is ready to step into the all-electric space with a couple of unique features that could change the way we drive. But are these gimmicks or an accurate vision of the future?
Late to the Battery-Electric Party, but Dressed to Stand Out
Despite its strong advocacy for hybrids since the Prius debuted in 2000, investment in the hydrogen-powered Mirai and even offering an electric RAV4 in years past, Toyota’s first mainstream battery-electric vehicle (BEV) only just arrived: the 2022 Toyota bZ4X. Unfortunately, the bZ4x is a lackluster entry in an increasingly competitive field, with a maximum range of 252 miles and slow charging speeds.
Enter Lexus. The company plans a fully-electric lineup by 2035, and the first of these models is the RZ 450e. While this five-passenger crossover is built on the rather middling b4ZX’s platform, it offers an innovative twist.
While the RZ 450e will come standard with all-wheel drive (AWD), known as Direct4, and will get the same 71.4 kW battery pack as the front-drive bZ4X, the RZ gets a different pair of motors set at the rear and front axles. The front motor in the RZ is a 150kW unit, while the rear one is 80Kw, putting out a Lexus-estimated combined 313 horsepower. Both motors were designed to optimize interior space without sacrificing power. The RZ should be quicker than the Toyota, though it has only a 225-mile range.
While eight laps on a closed course in a pair of prototypes won’t tell us anything about what the RZ is like to live with, it did offer a first drive of the vehicle’s most innovative features: The optional steer-by-wire system that comes with a yoke-shaped steering wheel.
Steer-By-Wire: Preparation for Autonomous Driving
Conventional steering systems use mechanical connections between the steering wheel and the steering rack to direct the wheels. In steer-by-wire systems, there is no mechanical link. Instead, they use electronic actuators at the steering column and rack to direct the wheels.
It’s important to note that Toyota isn’t the first to the steer-by-wire game. Infiniti released a steer-by-wire system in 2013 with the Infiniti Q50, to mixed reviews and tepid buyer response. The Q50 had a mechanical backup to its system, largely to give customers a sense of security should the system fail.
The RZ, in contrast, has no mechanical backup or physical connection to the wheels, though it does have a redundant second system powered by a separate 12-volt battery. That tells you just how solid Lexus thinks the tech is, especially when it comes to application in BEVs.
“We had to match a steering response to these torquey electric motors, so we had to have continually variable steering,” Takashi Watanabe, the Chief Engineer for the RZ said via a translator at the Lexus-sponsored event.
The Lexus RZ 450e will only get the optional steer-by-wire systems in vehicles with the highly-publicized yoke-style steering wheel. The RZ 450e will initially launch with the mechanical steering and standard steering wheel set-up when it arrives in November, while the yoke and steer-by-wire will arrive next year. Lexus says that timing is not firm because of supply chain issues–not because of any last-minute regulatory hurdles.
In autonomous vehicles, Watanabe continued, “If you’re sitting there and the steering wheel is just kind of moving by itself, that’s awkward. We want to make the steering wheel not move, and it has to have steer-by-wire to allow that possibility.”
Fully autonomous driving may still be far off thanks to a litany of technological and legal hurdles, Lexus is clearly beginning to consider its implications for future designs.
That Yoke, Though
The design includes a steering wheel shape that many people have largely dismissed as unrealistic outside of video games, F1 vehicles and the Tesla Model S Plaid: A yoke-style steering wheel. While the yoke, particularly the Tesla version, has been largely pilloried, in the context of the future of driving, the strangely shaped steering wheel makes sense, still functions just like a steering wheel, and is surprisingly easy to use.
Admittedly, I was skeptical about the yoke steering wheel. However, two brief closed-course drives in a pair of RZ prototypes, one with the mechanical connection and normal steering wheel and another with the yoke-style steering wheel and the steer-by-wire system, changed my mind.
At what would amount to highway speeds on the course, around some relatively sharp turns, the RZ with the yoke felt natural and intuitive. At lower speeds through a small and tightly winding autocross track that included a complete u-turn, however, the yoke and steering system became a little strange. It felt more difficult to maneuver in tight spaces, and made it slightly harder to judge the driving line.
It takes a moment to get used to the yoke steering wheel and, more so, the steer-by-wire system, but once you do it’s a lot like using a video game controller.
Because the steer-by-wire system has no mechanical connection, the steering ratio, meaning the amount you turn the wheel to go around a corner at any speed, is continuously variable. You never turn the yoke more than 150 degrees in either direction to take a sharp turn at any speed.
In the prototype with the standard steering system and normal wheel, you’d need to turn the wheel completely, 1.5 times, either doing a hand-over-hand or shuffling movement to get the car around a sharp turn. In the yoke prototype, you don’t have to cross over or shuffle your grip.
On the skidpad, in simulated emergency maneuvers on a slippery road, the yoke-and-wire system truly shined. Lexus set up cones creating a short lane-change course on a treated surface that replicates wet road conditions.
The mechanically-steered RZ behaved as any heavy crossover might in slippery conditions, sliding sideways when pushed even with the all-wheel-drive system managing wheel slip. Quick hands bring the car back in line but, as in all vehicles, there’s always a moment where you wonder where and when the wheels will find grip again.
In the steer-by-wire-and-yoke system, the RZ was more stable, no matter how much throttle you gave or how hard you cranked the yoke. That’s because the steer-by-wire system is so quick to calculate the amount of steering input, the amount of wheel slip, the pitch and yaw of the vehicle, and the accelerator input, that it does nearly all the work of keeping the RZ pointed where you want it to go.
While I did get the yoke-and-wire version sideways, it was quicker to recover and very fast to respond to inputs. Plus there was no hand-over-hand to get it back under control, which made it feel a lot more controlled than it did in the prototype with the conventional steering.
Once you spend a few minutes with the yoke, it feels more natural in your grip, though it does require you to use both hands at almost all times. This isn’t a wheel you want to lazily drive. It’s uncomfortable if you try to one hand it, as most Americans habitually do.
I found the best grip position was to wrap my thumbs around the top of the yoke and grip each side of the wheel evenly. With my hands in this spot, it felt like I had the most direct control of the vehicle and could make quick, precise movements to point it in the right direction. While the yoke-and-wire system still needs some tuning, Lexus has certainly created something that will stand out in the growing sea of electric vehicles.
Of course, there’s the question of real world-application. The target market for the RZ is China, according to the company and Lexus plans to build around 2,700 RZs per month with about half of those going to the Chinese market and 400 to 500 per month headed stateside. For the first year, Lexus expects to sell around 4,900 RZs in the U.S. (as 2023 models).
The company would not offer 2023 sales targets or pricing, nor would say how many RZ customers it expects will opt for the yoke-and-wire setup. Still, it’s clear that it’s beginning to build the components required for the autonomous future.