The verdict: If you like the simple, hassle-free operation of the Toyota RAV4 Prime or Venza Hybrid, the easy-to-use bZ4X SUV is a natural step into purely electric life.
Against the competition: It doesn’t have the range or charging speed of rivals like the Hyundai Ioniq 5 or Kia EV6, and it doesn’t offer as much information about what the vehicle is doing at any given time, but it feels good suitable for Volkswagen ID. 4 for practicality and is more comfortable than the Ford Mustang Mach-E.
There seem to be two schools of thought emerging on how to make a mainstream electric SUV. The first says, “Make it a starship with all sorts of whiz-bang technology, crazy styling, magical holo screen effects, and enough information displays to simulate the Starship’s bridge. enterprise.” Vehicles that fall into this category are the Ioniq 5 and EV6, as well as the Mustang Mach-E, to some extent. But then there’s the school saying, “We should make the experience as invisible as possible, making the electric vehicle feel as close to a conventional gasoline-powered car as possible.” That’s the strategy Chevrolet has taken with the Bolt EV, and what VW seems to be trying with the ID.4. And having driven the new 2023 Toyota bZ4X (ugh, that name), I can attest that this is exactly the strategy Toyota is also pursuing with its first-ever electric vehicle available in 50 states.
Related: Up close with the 2023 Toyota bZ4X: Terrible name, decent effort
Looks modern, but not weird
The first part of this plan seems to have taken root in the styling department. The bZ4X is bold, modern and definitely a head-turner, but it’s no more remarkable in its design than any of Toyota’s other SUVs and crossovers. It’s an attractive design that effectively hides its true size – it’s plenty roomy for five occupants and also has significant cargo space that feels considerably more accommodating than the Ioniq 5 or EV6. The most controversial aspect of the bZ4X are its dark gray painted front bumper panels, but that doesn’t bother me at all. They offer some visual interest when you get a bZ4X painted in a contrasting color, like red or silver, and you can make them blend in effectively with the car if you opt for a darker shade, like black.
Worth noting: there are two bZ4X trim levels, the well-equipped XLE and the Premium Limited. The XLE comes with 18-inch wheels, while the Limited comes standard with 20-inch rims. It’s more than just a style difference, however, which will become important later in this story.
Drives like… Well, a Toyota
In my experience, most Toyota vehicles stand out, frankly, for their innocuous driving characteristics. If you’re not driving a GR Supra or GR86, you’re probably driving a front-wheel-drive family vehicle: a quiet, comfortable driving device that’s meant to get occupants from A to B with minimal of hassle and discomfort. People buy such vehicles by the millions because they are simple, uncomplicated machines that do what they are told.
This is probably the experience you will have in the bZ4X; just replace the gasoline engine found in most other offerings with a quiet electric powertrain. This thing drives, goes, stops and turns like any of Toyota’s other conventional offerings, which is the whole point. There are no hard-to-understand controls, bleating warning chimes or weird graphic displays to distract you or even remind you that you’re behind the wheel of a new EV. In fact, the only EV-related display you get is the high-mounted gauge cluster, which provides minimal EV-related information, such as range and fuel consumption. There are no fancy graphs showing energy flows or messages to tell you how your car’s charge is progressing. If you want that kind of information, the Toyota mobile app will give you a bit more information and control, but compared to the Ioniq 5 the bZ4X feels like you’d almost rather forget you were driving a electric vehicle.
Acceleration with FWD — which uses a single motor and 71.4 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack, producing a relatively modest 201 horsepower and 196 pound-feet of torque — is quick enough, especially if you put your foot down for a few quick moves. The all-wheel-drive model uses two motors and an entirely different 72.8 kWh battery, but the horsepower and torque figures aren’t all that different from the front-drive ones: 214 total hp and 248 lb-ft of torque combined . This allows for a slightly faster acceleration experience, but the bZ4X is certainly no slouch with FWD.
Braking generally feels vague for electric cars, but not as artificial as in some other models. There’s no one-pedal drive option, however, only a slightly more aggressive regenerative braking setting that can be activated by a button on the center console. This seems like another nod to keeping the bZ4X as conventional to drive as possible – the Ioniq 5 has multiple levels of progressively stronger regenerative braking, but the Toyota doesn’t.
The steering is pretty conventional Toyota too – there’s not much feel or feedback, but it’s not a sports car or SUV pretending to be a sports car (looking at you, Mustang Mach-E) , so the handling, braking and steering characteristics are perfectly good when measured against the bZ4X’s mission to be a harmless family runabout. The only factor I found that made a noticeable difference in the performance of the bZ4X was when I went from the Limited with 20-inch wheels to the XLE with 18-inch rims: the Limited’s ride is busy to the point of being almost jerky. It wasn’t as bad as any Mustang Mach-E, but still noticeably choppy, even on the slick roads around San Diego, California. But the smaller wheels with taller sidewall tires on the XLE soften that up considerably, and this improvement doesn’t come at the cost of handling prowess (because there really wasn’t much to it to begin with).