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Toyota bZ4X electric car.

Behind the wheel of Toyota’s new bZ4X electric vehicle, I’m given to a bit of reflection as to why this car has come to be. After all, Toyota is a specialist in hybrid vehicles and is noted for its focus and leadership here, not battery electric cars. But these days Toyota is feeling the pressure – actually, lots of it – to bring all-electric vehicles to a wanting market.

In between Toyota’s hybrid offerings and its emerging focus on electric vehicles are the  automaker’s plug-in hybrids that blend characteristics of the two. The Toyota brand has a pair of these now – the RAV4 Prime offering 42 miles of electric driving and 640 miles total range, and the Prius Prime offering 25 miles on battery power with a total driving range of 600 miles. We expect other models to join in soon enough.

A Timely EV Introduction

So why the bZ4X battery electric vehicle? Because it’s time, and also because it’s a critical link to Toyota’s ‘Beyond Zero’ (bZ) future and an array of battery electric, plug-in hybrid, and hybrid Toyota models in the pipeline. The automaker is serious about this. To support its growing electrification effort, Toyota has announced massive investments in battery manufacturing for its electrified vehicles, including $3.8 billion alone for a new battery manufacturing facility in North Carolina.

Toyota has made some earlier forays into the electric vehicle field in the States, but it’s been a while. The automaker fielded its first RAV4 EVs here from 1997 to 2003 in response to California’s zero emission vehicle mandate, and then a newer generation RAV4 EV from 2012-2014, developed with Tesla. It’s been hybrids and plug-in hybrids ever since, plus of course the Toyota Mirai hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle, though most don’t view that model as a battery electric vehicle competitor at this time.

Toyota bZ4X electric vehicle and night skyline.

Toyota bZ4X Design

Segue eight years ahead from Toyota’s last battery electric vehicle experience and here we are with the bZ4X. It’s been worth the wait. What we have in the bz4X is a stylishly modern intro to Toyota’s coming line of battery electric vehicles, sized similarly to a RAV4 but just a bit longer and lower. Its body design features disparate elements like a distinctly flat ‘hammerhead’ front fascia combined with sharp angles, pronounced fenders, sculpted sides, and a flowing roofline. All come together nicely as an appealing whole…a design not too conservative, and not leaning too far into the future.

Low-profile headlamps are accented by a dark contrast band that flows from the front fenders and across the front end. Matching contrasts are found at the rear fenders as well, with black accented rocker panels running from well to well. At the rear, the bZ4X innovates with a pair of aerodynamic roof extensions at either side of the upper hatch, lending the impression of a future-esque roofline spoiler. The bottom of the glass features a slight lip-of-a-spoiler with a thin fender-to-fender running light below, along with distinctive angular taillamps.

Toyota bZ4X cabin.

Familiar Cabin, With a Twist

Inside is a comfortable and modern interior featuring all the necessary elements for a satisfying driving experience, leaning a bit towards the spartan side. While much is familiar to the breed, there are design elements that align with the forward-thinking theme embodied by the car’s distinctive exterior. In particular, we’re thinking of the dashboard and instrument panel design ahead of the driver, which features an unusually long expanse between the steering wheel and MMI information display. Additional information and multimedia features are presented in a 12-inch widescreen display in the center dash position. Driver and passenger seats are comfortably bolstered for support and plenty of room is provided both front and rear, with rear legroom what one would expect in this size of vehicle. A panoramic roof is optional.

The bZ4X is well-equipped with the advanced driver assist features expected in today’s new models. It features the first use of Toyota’s latest TSS 3.0 Safety Sense suite, which includes advancements like improved pre-collision with guardrail, daytime motorcyclist, and low-light cyclist detection, and enhanced lane recognition. Other tech features include cloud-based navigation offering real-time traffic information and parking space availability, over-the-air software updates, and a digital key feature enabling drivers to lock, unlock, and start their bZ4X with their smartphone.

Rear seats in Toyota bZ4X electric car.

Single or Dual Motor Models

Drivers can choose single- or two-motor bZ4X variants. The former achieves an EPA estimated 119 combined MPGe with a 252 mile driving range, and the latter a combined 104 MPGe with a 228 mile range. Output for the single front-wheel drive model is 201 horsepower with the two-motor AWD version adding just 13 additional horsepower to the total. Energy is supplied by 71.4 and 72.8 kWh lithium-ion batteries, respectively. Both versions deliver a fun driving experience with confident ride and handling, quick torque at the ready, and plenty of power for anyone’s every day driving needs. With the dual-motor version delivering a 0-60 mph romp in the mid-seven second range, acceleration is brisk but does not approach the performance realm of some electric vehicles.

Toyota’s bZ4X is clearly an important introduction for this automaker that reinforces its continuing journey towards electrification. However, it does not mean that Toyota is convinced battery-powered vehicles are a proper all-inclusive strategy. The world’s largest automaker has been clear that it is not ‘all in’ with electric cars in the same way as some of its high-profile competitors, and the company has caught a lot of heat because of this. Rather, Toyota’s well-reasoned take is that multiple approaches exist to solving the interconnected issues of personal transportation and environmental sustainability.

A Balance of Electric Offerings

Electrification is a big part of this. It’s just that Toyota’s strategy does not embrace a tunnel-vision approach in which all roads lead to a plug, or a model without a gas cap. Some take form as hybrid, plug-in hybrid, hydrogen fuel cell, and yes, even battery electric vehicles. There is a balance here because one is needed since not everyone’s needs are the same.

An earlier Green Car Journal perspective shared by Toyota’s chief scientist, Dr. Gill Pratt, adds food for thought. Considering the finite resources available for worldwide battery cell production, and the carbon emitted in their production, charging, and use over time, it’s important they are used in the best way possible. Optimum use achieves a higher carbon return on investment (CROA) as cells are used closer to their full potential. EVs with large battery packs regularly making use of their range potential make sense and offer a higher return.

Toyota bZ4X charge port.

Best Use of Battery Cells

In Dr. Pratt’s illustrations, however, a fully electric vehicle with hundreds of miles of range primarily driving a short daily commute offers a poor return, since the majority of the cells are unneeded most of the time and are simply carried along as dead weight. Using this same number of cells in numerous plug-in hybrid models requiring smaller battery packs would offer a much more favorable carbon return, if these PHEVs are driven in ways that make best use of their more limited battery electric range.

This isn’t to say that plug-in hybrids are an inherently better choice than electric vehicles, or the other way around. It just means that needs vary, and pairing needs with an electrified vehicle’s capabilities makes the most environmental sense.

With hybrids and plug-in hybrids covered in the Toyota lineup, the missing link – the all-electric bZ4X – is now here to fill the need. Those seeking a crossover SUV offering expected zero-emission driving range, eye-catching style, and a comfortable and confident driving experience should look into Toyota’s new electric crossover. At a base price of $42,000, it provides what the brand promises – quality, thoughtful design, and user-friendliness, and no doubt the satisfying ownership experience the Toyota brand is known to deliver. Plus, of course, zero emission driving every mile you travel.