The verdict: If you like the simple, no-brainer operation of the Toyota RAV4 Prime or Venza hybrid, the easy-to-use bZ4X SUV is a natural step into pure-electric life.
Versus the competition: It doesn’t have the range or charging speed of competitors like the Hyundai Ioniq 5 or Kia EV6, nor does it offer as much info on what the vehicle is doing at a given time, but it feels well matched against the Volkswagen ID.4 for practicality and is more comfortable than the Ford Mustang Mach-E.
There seem to be two emerging schools of thought on how to make a mainstream electric SUV. The first says, “Make it a spaceship that has all kinds of whiz-bang technology, crazy styling, magic holo-screen effects and enough information displays to simulate the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.” Vehicles that fall into that category are the Ioniq 5 and EV6, as well as the Mustang Mach-E, to some extent. But then there’s the school that says, “We should make the experience as invisible as possible, making the electric vehicle feel as close to a conventional gasoline car as possible.” This is the strategy Chevrolet took with the Bolt EV, and what VW seems to be trying with the ID.4. And after having driven the new 2023 Toyota bZ4X (ugh, that name), I can attest that this is exactly the strategy that Toyota is pursuing with its first-ever 50-state-available EV as well.
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 hold in the styling department. The bZ4X is bold, modern and definitely turns some heads, but it’s no more out-there in its design than any of Toyota’s other SUVs and crossovers. It’s an attractive design that effectively hides its actual size — it’s very spacious for five occupants and also has a sizable cargo area that feels considerably more accommodating than the Ioniq 5’s or EV6’s. The most controversial aspect of the bZ4X are its dark-gray-painted front bumper panels, but I don’t mind them at all. They provide some visual interest when you get a bZ4X painted in a contrasting color, like red or silver, and you can make them effectively blend into the car if you go for a darker hue, like black.
Of note: There are two bZ4X trim levels, the well-equipped XLE and the premium Limited. The XLE comes with 18-inch wheels, while the Limited features 20-inch rims as standard equipment. This is more than just a styling difference, however, which will become important a little later on in this story.
Drives Like … Well, a Toyota
Most Toyota vehicles are notable, frankly, for their inoffensive driving characteristics, in my experience. If you’re not behind the wheel of a GR Supra or GR86, you’re likely piloting a front-wheel-drive family vehicle: a calm, comfortable driving appliance that’s meant to get occupants from A to B with minimal fuss and discomfort. People buy such vehicles by the millions because they’re simple, uncomplicated machines that do what’s asked of them.
That’s likely the experience you’ll have in the bZ4X; just replace the gas engine present in most other offerings with a silent electric powertrain. This thing drives, goes, stops and turns just like any of Toyota’s other conventional offerings, which is the entire point. There aren’t any hard-to-figure-out controls, bleating warning chimes or weird graphical 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 one on the high-mounted gauge cluster, which provides a bare minimum of EV-related info like range and rate of consumption. There are no fancy graphics showing energy flows or messages to tell you how your car charging is progressing. If you do want that kind of info, the Toyota mobile app will give you a bit more information and control, but compared with the Ioniq 5, the bZ4X feels like it would almost rather you forgot that you were piloting an EV.
Acceleration with FWD — which uses a single motor and a 71.4-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack, producing a relatively modest 201 horsepower and 196 pounds-feet of torque — is acceptably quick, especially if you put your foot down for some rapid motion. The all-wheel drive model uses two motors and a totally different 72.8-kWh battery, but the power and torque numbers are not that different from FWD: 214 hp in total and 248 pounds-feet of torque combined. It makes for a slightly quicker acceleration experience, but the bZ4X is certainly no slouch with FWD.
Braking feels typically electric-car vague, but not as artificial as it feels in some other models. There is no one-pedal-driving option, however, only a slightly more aggressive regenerative-braking setting that can be activated by a button on the center console. This seems to be another nod to keeping the bZ4X as conventional to drive as possible — the Ioniq 5 has several progressively stronger levels of regen braking, but not the Toyota.
The steering is also pretty conventionally Toyota — there’s not much in the way of feel or feedback, but this isn’t a sports car or an SUV pretending to be a sports car (lookin’ at you, Mustang Mach-E), so the handling, braking and steering characteristics are perfectly fine when measured against the bZ4X’s mission to be an inoffensive family runabout. The only factor I found that made a noticeable difference in how the bZ4X performed was when I switched from the Limited equipped with 20-inch wheels to the XLE with 18-inch rims: The Limited’s ride is busy to the point of almost choppy. It wasn’t nearly as bad as any Mustang Mach-E but still noticeably unsettled, even on the smooth roads around San Diego, Calif. But the smaller wheels with taller-sidewall tires on the XLE smooth that out considerably, and this improvement doesn’t come at the detriment of any handling prowess (as there really wasn’t much to begin with).
Comfy, Quiet, and Spacious Interior
Inside the bZ4X, it’s a very Toyota-like experience — it’s comfortable, visibility is good, materials quality is well matched to the price and there’s plenty of headroom and legroom in front and back. The dashboard design is unusual in that the gauge cluster is mounted quite high. This eliminates the need for a head-up display, but it also means you’re looking over the top of the steering wheel while driving instead of through it. You get used to it pretty quickly, and it becomes a nonissue — but I do wish the gauges were a bit brighter and bolder. The speedometer and other displays use a rather slim font that’s not always easy to see, given how far away the screen sits from the driver.
The center console joins the dashboard and houses a standard 12.3-inch touchscreen running the latest and greatest Toyota Audio Multimedia system first introduced on the new 2022 Toyota Tundra. It’s a significant improvement on the old Entune system, to be sure, but it still could use some tweaking (a “home” screen would be welcome, for instance), and its voice commands tend to work only sporadically. The climate controls are also entirely capacitive-touch controls, which are never our favorite, but they admittedly seemed to work quickly and easily during our brief time in the bZ4X. Overall, the bZ4X feels more like a familiar family crossover than a high-zoot spaceship, which is exactly what Toyota was going for.