There is something rather special about driving around the deep dark south of New Zealand, the endless flowing curves, the unpredictable gradients and cambers, and the long stretches of traffic-free tarmac that head towards a backdrop of the snow-peaked southern alps. In fact, the only thing that can make the experience better is when you’re behind the wheel of two brand-new luxurious (and electrified) Lexus R’s – RX and RZ.
In actual fact there are four new Lexus R models being introduced to the NZ market, two RX’s (350h and 500h) and two RZ’s (core and Dynamic) but I’m getting ahead of myself.
For those that don’t know (me included) when it comes to the nameplate, the R stands for Radiant, the X stands for Xrossover and the new addition to the Radiant family the ‘Z’ is for Zero-emissions. Both variants have an electric bent, with the X only being hybrid and the Z being a BEV (battery Electric vehicle), and both come oozing with the brand’s renowned Japanese craftsmanship and luxury – just modernised.
The RX nameplate first began production in 1998 and so as not to understate its importance, has helped forge the brand. It pioneered the luxury SUV segment with refinement and craftsmanship, and over 3.6 million RX’s have been sold (around 30% of Lexus sales) since its introduction.
New Zealand jumped on the RX bandwagon in the model’s second generation in 2003 with a V6 heart and then extended the range with the first-ever hybrid powered luxury vehicle (RX400h) in 2006. The third-generation hit our shores in 2009 and with it came the F-Sport performance grade and then the fourth generation arrived in 2016 with its edgy design, the spindle grille and advanced tech and safety (oh and was the largest selling model in the Lexus line up). This is the 20th year of RX production and hence the introduction of the fifth-generation – phew.
As pointed out earlier, the new R’s are only coming with some form of electric heart, which in turn supports the brand’s commitment to reducing its environmental footprint, but it also aligns with what Lexus sees as its overall customer preference. And as with other nameplates, the R comes with a number of grades to suit different customer needs and lifestyles, there are no complicated upgrade packages, however, they can all be ‘customised’ with different colours and trims.
With the spindle grille now well and truly part of the Lexus design language, for the fifth generation R’s, Lexus has extended this out to the rest of the exterior, with the introduction of a spindle body. It may sound rather funky but it offers a unique look, more athleticism and greater aerodynamics.
And while on the subject of the spindle grille, the RZ has evolved this design feature to the next chapter, merging it more into the bodywork than ever, (as there’s no requirement for air intake) and therefore further optimising airflow.
There are, of course, different drivetrains under their respective bonnets. In terms of the RX, the 350h has the signature Lexus series parallel hybrid system, however, for fuel and emission-saving reasons it’s been downsized but the 2.5L-based system still offers 184kW.
The 500h sets a new benchmark with the debut of the first Lexus turbo-charged performance hybrid. It’s a completely new hybrid system with a 2.4L turbo mated to a 6-speed auto gearbox, and assisting these are two electric motors that all combine to offer 270kW and AWD traction.
The RZ however, is the first production model to feature the new e-Axle system designed for BEVs. It’s a modular set up that includes the motor, the gearing and the power control unit located between the driving wheels, and yet still works with the Direct4 AWD system to provide stress-free EV performance. Total system output is 230kW.
The 71.4kWh battery is placed beneath the cabin floor and is part of the RZ’s structure without compromising interior space. It is liquid cooled and boasts a WLTP range of 395-435km. It has AC and DC charging capability, with an 11kW onboard charger and type-3 charging upto 150kW and Lexus will also help support home charging systems plus throw in ChargeNET keyfob for those that like to travel (you will have to pay for the power usage though).
As the old adage goes, ‘power is nothing without control’, and with that in mind Lexus has introduced a new Direct4 system to the 500h (eFour on the 350h’s). Direct4 is a clever torque control system that provides improved traction, comfort and ride quality. Added to this, DRS (dynamic rear steering) on the 500h, further compliments the stability and performance of the vehicle. The 4-degree movement in the wheels makes for a tighter turning circle at low speed and more confident cornering at higher speeds.
I’ll save the interior walkaround for when we get the follow up ride but rest assured the Japanese craftsmanship is there in spades and the R’s have adopted the NX models Tazuna ‘rein of horse’ theme with direct yet intuitive controls, the driver can keep their eyes on the road and hands on the wheel with the multimedia screen, multi-information display, single-dial meter, and centralised gauges all grouped together to ensure minimal eye and head movement.
Our drive route began in the hustle and bustle of downtown Dunedin and EBB hotel, alright it was early morning and the city had yet to wake up. We would be heading north to Queenstown with a number of designated stops for vehicle and driver changes along the way. We would begin with the RX’s, both 350h and 500h and meet up with the RZ’s in Cromwell for the final burst to the airport.
The RX 350h is instantly easy to get along with. Seating is comfortable with a high position for great visibility. Navigating around town (in a follow the leader style) was easy due to the vehicle’s compactness and its insulation from the outside world is Lexus good. Steering was well-weighted with reasonable feedback from the road below.
Out on the open road, the pick up from the 2.5L powertrain was even and considered, not throw back in your seat quick, but probably enough for the majority, but I’m still not the biggest fan of CVTs – regardless of how advanced they are getting.
Cornering was good, despite the elevated ride height and the Lexus suite of driver and safety aids (for which there are many) didn’t interfere too much, for which I was grateful.
The RX500h, however, is a totally different kettle of sushi – less cc’s but way more hehe’s. From the get go, the increase in power makes itself known. 0-100km/h is 6.2 seconds (almost 2 seconds faster than the 350h) and it has a gearbox that feels like it’s stepping up and joining you for the ride.
Cornering is notably better and the ride feels more secure, as the Direct4 (sounds like a kids game) and DRS work in harmony – the F-Sport badge is not just for show.
The 300 or so km drive to Cromwell went by in a flash, even with our snack and lunch breaks, one of which included a rest at the Blue Lake in St Bathans (you should go and see that).
Waiting for us the Clyde Dam was a line up of the new RZs – time for another vehicle change. The RZ sits on a dedicated BEV platform and is the latest fully-electric model to the Lexus line-up. There are two new variants, Core and Dynamic, and both are zero-emissions (remember the Z in RZ?).
The RZ looks somewhat different to the RX and in many ways it should. The grille makes the whole SUV look sleeker and even more modern than its hybrid counterpart. A standout on the Dynamic grade is the Panoramic roof, it extends back over the rear seat and at the flick of a button will dim the glass roof – it’s a trick that I feel will take ages to tire of.
The cabin is more minimalist, with more of the functions and buttons being included into the infotainment screen, but it’s all still very Lexus in its presentation.
Cleverly, the RZ now features ‘radiant heating’, a system that compliments the seat heaters while minimising the power consumption used by traditional AC units – it’s more efficient to heat you rather than the cabin. The heaters are located on the bottom of the steering wheel and where the glovebox would be and act like a heated blanket – a very cool (or is that hot) idea.
Another cool feature is the interior lighting, rather than having a regular ambient light system, the RZ has ‘Shadow illumination’ that projects colours and designs onto the door cards, think puddle lighting for the interior. The one-gear transmission is engaged through a dial type shifter, for a shift by wire drive the paddles are used for various regen settings.
Our first drive was to Bannockburn Hotel that overlooks Cromwell (for more food) and then an enthusiastic ride to Queenstown airport from there.
The RZ happily gets you from 0-100km/h in just 5.3 seconds and it feels even quicker than that thanks to its EV instant torque. It feels heavier than the RX 500h (although it’s actually over 100kg lighter) and that makes for a vehicle that feels confident in the corners and more weighty in the steering – both good things in my book.
The range is a bit of a consideration, or rather the consumption, as the expected 15.2kWh/100km increases rapidly if you decide to drive it with vigour, meaning that we would have probably needed to recharge had we commenced our journey in the RZ from Dunedin.
The Radiant Lexus has certainly evolved, with this fifth generation offering all things to everyone, and all underlined with fuel and planet saving efficiency. The styling is more eye-catching and technology is even more state of the art. My pick of the three rides would have to be the RX 500h but I am still a petrolhead – the child in me wants to keep playing with the RZ’s panoramic roof dimmer though. Either way, I’m looking forward to the follow up drives.