Toyota’s electric vehicle efforts have been getting a fair amount of criticism from some of its investors and environmental groups that don’t think it’s putting enough effort into them.
Instead of going all-in on EVs, the world’s largest automaker has been taking a more balanced approach focused largely on hybrids.
Its argument is that instead of making one pricey electric car, you can build dozens of affordable, fuel efficient hybrids using the same amount of battery materials, which could help speed the reduction in carbon emissions. The company is also big on hydrogen-powered vehicles that can either burn the gas without creating any carbon dioxide, or use it in fuel cells to generate electricity in place of heavy, slow-to-charge battery packs.
It’s a debate that won’t be ending anytime soon, but it kind of overshadows the fact that Toyota has just introduced a new electric model.
The bZ4X is a compact utility vehicle similar in size to the Volkswagen ID.4 and Hyundai Ioniq 5. The bZ part of the name stands for Beyond Zero, as in zero emissions, but… beyond. There’s something about vehicles that make a positive impact in the marketing mumbo jumbo, but that’s the gist.
If the bZ4X looks familiar, that might be because you’ve seen the same vehicle at your local Subaru dealer, where it’s sold as the Solterra through a partnership between the brands.
Toyota offers the bZ4X in either an XLE or Limited trim and both are available with the choice of front-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive. Prices start at $43,335 for a front-wheel-drive XLE and $45,415 for an all-wheel-drive XLE.
The bZ4X is lower, but a little longer than a Toyota Rav4. It also has a longer wheelbase that gives it more legroom, which is especially noticeable in the roomy second row.
Its 27.7-foot cargo area is spacious, and has a wheelbarrow storage space under the floor for a portable charging cable, but is about 10 cubic feet smaller than the taller Rav4’s.
The interior is a mix of conventional and unconventional styling. The center console has buttons, toggles, touch-sensitive pads and a touchscreen, and the transmission selector is a knob. Toyota’s latest infotainment system interface is a little clumsy, but wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration are included.
The real oddity is the instrument cluster, which is mounted high up on top of the dashboard. It’s meant to put it in the driver’s line of sight, but is easily blocked by the steering wheel, depending how you sit.
That’s because the bZ4X is also available with a steer-by-wire system in other markets that uses a flat-top yoke-style wheel that doesn’t block the screen. Unlike Tesla’s, it’s calibrated to only require 150 degrees of rotation to turn the wheels from lock to lock. Toyota hasn’t said when U.S. models will get it.
I was able to set things up so that I could just see most of the important information on the screen with just the bottom cut off in the all-wheel-drive Limited I tested. Priced at $50,115 it comes nearly loaded with climate-controlled front seats, a panoramic sunroof, lane centering adaptive cruise control and a 360-degree camera that provides a virtual view of what’s under the vehicle. An $1,130 option package adds a nifty-looking split rear spoiler, a crystal clear nine-speaker JBL audio system, heated rear seats and radiant heating for the driver and front passenger’s feet.
The floor and the seats are meant to be used instead of the cabin heater, which can really suck the range out of the vehicle on a cold day. And there’s not that much to begin with. The 201 hp front-wheel-drive trims are rated for 252 miles and 242 miles on a full battery, and the 214 hp all-wheel-drive models 228 miles and 222 miles. Those numbers are average to middling for the class, and partly due to a relatively small 71.4 and 72.8 kilowatt-hour battery packs they use, while the Ioniq 5 wrings up to 303 miles per charge in the same price range from its 77.4 kilowatt-hour pack.
Turning the heat on dropped the indicated range by about 30% whenever I tried it. Not entirely unusual for an EV that doesn’t use an efficient heat pump, but the change is dramatic to see on the screen. Charging at a public DC Fast charging station to 80% takes about 30 minutes with a front-wheel-drive bZ4X, but the all-wheel-drive version runs at a lower rate and needs twice as much time.
In between charges, the bZ4X drives as well as any of its competitors. The power delivery and ride quality are both perfectly smooth and it operates at luxury levels of silence. The fruits of the Subaru connection are also evident if you head down a dirt road. Despite the low roof, the bZ4X has a healthy 8.1 inches of ground clearance and the suspension can soak up some serious ruts. It’s also equipped with Subaru’s X-Mode traction control system and Grip Control low speed cruise control for use on trails.
Overall, the bZ4X feels very much like a Toyota in all the best ways. The range is definitely an issue, but mostly because vehicles with more can be had for a similar price. A lot of EV owners who charge at home every night have proven to be satisfied with 250 miles or less.
Unfortunately, the bZ4X is made in Japan, which means it isn’t eligible for the current federal tax credit for EV purchases that the Chevrolet Bolt EUV, Ford Mustang Mach-E and, and some American-made VW ID.4 models, to name a few, qualify for.
It also costs nearly the same as a Rav4 Prime plug-in hybrid, which can go 42 miles per charge before you go the wrong way beyond zero. It's estimated to cost $950 annually in electric and gas compared to $700 for the bZ4X. Stay close to home in the Rav4, though, and you could end up getting more for less, while spending less time at charging stations on long trips. Maybe Toyota has a point about the hybrid thing.
2023 Toyota bZ4X
As tested: $52,468
Type: 5-passenger, 4-door, all-wheel-drive SUV
Motor: dual electric
Power: 214 hp
Transmission: Single-speed automatic
Range: 222 miles