New Lexus RZ electric car reinvents the wheel

Lexus is a comparatively new player in the prestige game. So it comes as a surprise to see Toyota’s luxury arm not only reinvent the wheel, but the entire steering system of its next car.

Priced at about $100,000, the electric Lexus RZ shapes up as a medium-sized, five-seat alternative to the Audi e-Tron or Mercedes-Benz EQC. It’s a sharp-looking coupe-like crossover based on similar EV underpinnings to Toyota’s bZ4X and the Subaru Solterra.

With a 71.4kWh battery that delivers about 450 kilometres of range, the Lexus is powered by front and rear electric motors that deliver a combined 230kW of power through a computer-managed all-wheel-drive system.

The system delivers unflappable traction when sprinting to 100km/h in less than six seconds, even if Lexus has carefully massaged pedal responses so that it doesn’t slap your head into the seat with the same ferocity as more aggressive rivals.

It has advanced driver assistance tech, fast-charging electric hardware, adaptive suspension and handsome 20-inch wheels. Impressively quiet on a smooth test track, the RZ shapes up as a premium SUV worthy of a space in Lexus showrooms.

There are gorgeous interior displays, interesting mood lighting elements, an electronically tintable sunroof and an impressive hi-fi system. We’ve seen all of that before but we haven’t seen a yoke-like steering wheel on the road in Australia.

Normally found on a variety of machines ranging from racing cars to civilian aircraft, this type of wheel forgoes the conventional hoop found in normal cars in favour of an oblong with hand holds at either side. You hold the wheel at nine and three – there is nowhere else to put your hands.

As with a modern Ferrari, controls for the lights, indicators, wipers and other ancillaries are mounted on the wheel, turning with it rather than staying fixed to the steering column. Tesla introduced something similar overseas, where the Model S has a yoke-type wheel mounted to relatively conventional steering. But the RZ is anything but conventional.

As with a Formula 1 car, it has precious little steering lock – less than one full turn from its left to right extremes. This means your arms never cross and it is never necessary to reposition your hands on the wheel.

You use a similar amount of steering input to change lanes at highway speed, negotiate an intersection, or parallel park.

This is made possible by “steer by wire”, an entirely digital link between the steering wheel and front tyres that eliminates conventional mechanical hardware.

Like a PlayStation game or commercial airliner, the system interprets your desired intention based on the vehicle’s speed, chosen mode and driver input, continuously adjusting its ratio of driver input to steering angle.

It feels natural at highway speed, when you rarely use much more than a quarter turn of lock. But low-speed manoeuvres are less intuitive. Reverse parking situations that normally require you to spin the wheel through 500 degrees of movement are completed with the flick of a wrist.

It feels reasonably light at low speed but gathers weight at pace, imbuing confidence with meaty responses.

The catch is that there’s not a lot of feel through the wheel. You don’t get much sensation for what is happening where the rubber meets the road. That’s partially due to the lack of physical hardware between your hands and the road but also due to software Lexus uses to filter out “unwanted” sensations – the bumps, harshness and tremors drivers experience every day.

It felt odd at first but we quickly got to grips with the steering during a brief test of a left-hand-drive example at a private test facility.

Lexus assures us that a redundant back-up system will take over to make sure drivers retain control in the unlikely event that the primary system fails. The tech will be available as an option when the RZ goes on sale mid-next year. Expect similar features to be at the centre of cars with semi-autonomous driver tech in a future where steering wheels might fold away into the dashboard, transforming the car into a loungeroom on wheels.


PRICE About $100,000

ON SALE Mid-2023

WARRANTY 5-yr, unlimited km

MOTORS Front and rear, 230kW combined

RANGE About 450km

Originally published as New Lexus RZ electric car reinvents the steering wheel

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