Once seen as the greenest automaker on the market, Toyota’s enviro-friendly halo has been tarnished by its slow embrace of battery-electric technology. Now, the Japanese giant hopes to revive its reputation with the debut of the all-electric bZ4X at the LA Auto Show today.
Shown in production form for the first time, the bZ4X is Toyota’s first battery-electric vehicle in nearly a decade — and the first ever to deliver long range, an estimated 250 miles per charge. It also will be the first of seven upcoming models to flesh out Toyota’s new “Beyond Zero” sub-band.
“We’re pro-BEV,” declared Mike Tripp, Toyota’s vice president of vehicle marketing for the U.S., during a background briefing earlier in the week. But that remains a matter of sometimes loud debate.
Taking a different path
Toyota’s global CEO Akio Toyoda has forcefully spoken out against government mandates that would have Japan and other markets fully ban internal combustion engines. The green-minded course he has laid out calls for a blend of four technologies, including not only BEVs, but plug-in and conventional hybrids, as well as hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles — or PHEVs, HEVs and FCVs.
That has triggered a strong backlash in some quarters, including California. The biggest auto market in the U.S., with a surging population of BEVs, plans to begin phasing out all forms of internal combustion power by the end of the decade.
During this week’s background briefing, Tripp and other Toyota officials insisted it’s not yet time to make a complete switch to BEVs. There are still technological issues, including cost and the lack of a broad public charging infrastructure, for one thing. For some buyers, hybrids — in one form or another — make more sense, Toyota believes, and hydrogen provides the best environmental alternative for others.
That said, Toyota’s strategy is clearly in transition. In 2017, it forecast conventional, gas-powered vehicles would account for about 45% of its global sales by the end of the decade, hybrids and FCVs another 45%, with BEVs just 10%. Toyota’s latest projection is that gas models will drop to barely 15%, with BEVs generating an equal volume. Hybrids and hydrogen models will dominate, accounting for more than two-thirds of worldwide sales.
During a question-and-answer session, however, company officials said the numbers could change yet again, especially if the bZ4X and subsequent Beyond Zero models click with consumers.
“We’re prepared for market adjustments. We can adjust,” said Tripp, with product planning chief Cooper Ericksen adding, “The key is remaining agile” enough to respond to both consumer demand and government mandates.
Is the future now?
The bZ4X will serve as Toyota’s first test. The carmaker is holding back on some details until the battery-electric SUV comes to market by the middle of next year. But it did confirm that the U.S. version will yield an estimated 250 miles per charge.
That’s down from the roughly 300 miles the electric SUV is supposed to get overseas. But the U.S. EPA rates BEVs using a stricter test than the WLTP standards used abroad. And the American version of the bZ4X will be sold in front- and all-wheel drive variants, with motors driving each of its axles — 150 kW on the front and 80 kW on the rear — for the AWD model.
The front-wheel model gets a 71.4 kWh battery pack while the all-wheel-drive version gets a 72.8 kWh pack. The range on both is the same.
Though it won’t be nearly the fastest of the new BEVs coming to market, the Toyota should hit 60 in a reasonably peppy time of around 6 seconds.
Based on recent surveys conducted for the company, Toyota officials believe the bZ4X and subsequent Beyond Zero models should find a ready market among U.S. consumers. That’s for the same reason its traditional products have gaining such a foothold in the American market: Toyota’s reputation for quality.
Gaining an advantage
Company officials privately said they think this could give Toyota a leg up on Tesla, which has had a long-running series of quality issues with its various products.
To help reassure potential customers concerned about the longevity of its batteries, Toyota said the packs used in the bZ4X will retain 90% of their initial range even after 10 years of use. That’s substantially higher than what other BEV manufacturers have targeted.
Like virtually all new BEVs, Toyota’s electric crossover gets an almost completely grille-less nose. Narrow, almost slit-like headlamps are framed by lacquer-black cladding that flows over the front wheels. The doors feature a high beltline and distinctive creases, while the relatively flat roof tapers into a high, wind-cheating spoiler.
The cabin is distinctively high-tech and features twin videoscreens, a large infotainment display and a gauge cluster that sits well above the steering wheel in order to minimize the time drivers will need to take their eyes off the road.
Toyota has not yet laid out details of the full Beyond Zero rollout but it will include a mix of larger and smaller offerings in a variety of body styles. All told, there will be seven bZ models, officials confirmed, with Toyota bringing out 15 all-electric models through its various brands, including Lexus.
But it isn’t ready to back away from PHEVs, FCVs and HEVs. By 2025, said Tripp, it will add another 15 “electrified models” to its line-up, for a total of 70 vehicles. By the end of the decade, these and others to come are expected to generate at least 80% of Toyota’s global volume.