Toyota has long been a master and exponent of the hybrid powertrain, having effectively started the eco-car craze with the original Prius. But the Japanese brand has been slow to jump on the electric car bandwagon, so the bZ4X is its first ever electric car for the European market. We've already driven the prototype, but now we've finally got our hands on this critical new model in production form. The question is, can it live up to expectations?
In the metal
Let's tackle the Toyota bZ4X name first, which is more than a little bit odd. The 'bZ' bit stands for Beyond Zero, which is the umbrella under which Toyota hopes to shelter all its eco-friendly, e-mobility schemes. The 4X bit comes from the SUV-ish, off-road-inspired nature of the car, which brings us neatly to the vehicle in question.
A RAV4-sized family SUV with a slightly coupe-ish slant to the rear window, the bZ4X looks slightly different to anything currently gracing the Toyota range. The bZ4X looks like Toyota's sister brand Lexus rebadged a shrunken Jaguar I-Pace and stuck the Subaru Outback's body cladding on the sides - but it isn't offensively ugly. Yet for all the talk of a new attitude, the car looks a little bit restrained compared with the Kia EV6 and Hyundai Ioniq 5. And it's about to get more generic when the new Subaru Solterra comes to the market, because that's an almost identical car with a different logo on the nose.
The interior is equally modern and slightly more distinctive, with a futuristic digital instrument display and a massive touchscreen that make it feel a little other-worldly. In a good way. It has a more interesting look than most Toyotas, but the build quality is every bit as good. Everything feels solidly constructed and all the switchgear has a reassuring heaviness to it, but some of the materials leave something to be desired. Fortunately, it's all either low down in the cabin or in places you're unlikely to touch very often, as in the bZ4X's rivals.
That said, the technology is a vast improvement on anything that's gone before in any Toyota products. The bZ4X's massive touchscreen is particularly good. The display is crisp and up-to-date, and the system responds quickly when you touch any of the icons. This should all be the minimum standard for a modern family car's screen, but a surprising number of manufacturers can't get it right. Don't get us wrong - Toyota's system is not the best on the market - but it's a million times better than the screen in a RAV4.
So too is the digital instrument display, which is positioned above the steering wheel and provides a clear readout of all the car's vital stats. Even our top-of-the-range test car didn't come with a head-up display, but the high-set display is the next best thing. Even if it is a little on the small side.
Although the design and technology top the billing in the bZ4X highlights reel, a special mention should go to the cabin space. There's a massive amount of rear legroom, and headroom is better than you might expect considering the low roofline. Really tall passengers might find it a little bit tight, but most will have plenty of clearance.
However, the boot doesn't stack up quite so well when it's compared with key rivals. With 452 litres of capacity when the rear seats are upright, it looks smaller than that of the Skoda Enyaq and the Volkswagen ID.4, but it's still in the same ballpark as a Nissan Qashqai or VW T-Roc. You aren't going to be desperately short on luggage space, it's just that other cars in this class have more room. And before you ask, the bZ4X doesn't have a 'frunk' under the bonnet.
Nor does it have a glovebox, with the designers preferring a kind of two-tier storage arrangement in the centre console. It's quite a useful space under the 'floating' console, but it isn't as private as a proper glovebox, which allows you to stow items out of sight of would-be thieves. Weirdly, the Solterra will have a glovebox.
Deep in the bowels of the bZ4X is a lithium-ion battery pack with a usable capacity of 74.1kWh. That's the same regardless of which model you pick, but there are discrepancies between the motors that battery can power. Basic front-wheel-drive versions of the bZ4X come with just one motor at the front, giving them a total of 204hp and a 7.5-second 0-100km/h time - more than adequate for most drivers' needs.
Crucially, that set-up also allows the bZ4X to cover up to 510km on a single charge, although more luxuriously equipped front-wheel-drive models will see that figure fall to 446km. And if you opt for an all-wheel-drive car, which uses two motors to produce 218hp, even the most efficient model will only cover 460km on a full charge. Our top-of-the-range test car came with a maximum range of just 414km, which works out at around 330km in the real world.
And to make life even more complicated, Toyota admits its range computers are not a great indicator of the charge available. When the range ticks over to zero, the company's engineers say the car could have up to 8 per cent battery remaining, giving a theoretical remaining range of between, say, 30- and 50km. Even so, as with all EVs, the car is unlikely to manage the quoted range on Irish roads, particularly if it does a lot of motorway miles, the weather is cold or the driver has a heavy right foot.
To give you the best possible chance, though, Toyota has fitted a regenerative braking system that harvests energy while coasting, slowing the vehicle down in the process. It's either on or off, but once you're used to it, a little forward planning allows you to drive more or less without touching the brake pedal. And less braking means, in theory, at least, more efficiency.
Efficiency is certainly the target for this car, which manages to avoid any form of sportiness despite its commendable performance. The figures suggest our test car could race from 0-100km/h in 6.9 seconds, which is close to hot hatchback performance levels. A VW Golf GTI is only marginally faster, for example. And it feels fast, too, serving up a silent shove in the back as the instant torque propels the car forward.
Yet there's no real sportiness to the way this car drives. Toyota has set the car up to feel safe and secure, rather than deeply involving, and it has done a cracking job of it. The car doesn't lean too much in corners (the low-slung batteries and motors keep most of the weight down low) and there's plenty of traction to get that power down, even if lateral grip is not that plentiful. The steering is reassuringly heavy, and it elicits a rapid initial response, but that response seems to dull as the amount of lock increases, making it a little underwhelming for those who want to throw it into bends.
Not that many bZ4X customers will be queuing up to do that. Comfort is by far the more important consideration, and in that respect the bZ4X is incredibly good. The high-speed ride is outstanding, making motorways feel as smooth as a snooker table, and it only becomes slightly worse at lower speeds. There, the sheer weight of those batteries drags the car down into potholes, forcing the suspension to work that little bit harder. It isn't harsh, but you do feel the bumps that little bit more.
And the Toyota doesn't just perform admirably on the road. The all-wheel-drive versions offer a modicum of all-terrain capability, thanks in part to 177mm of ground clearance and a waterproof battery pack that allows it to wade through 500mm of water. Owners are unlikely to use that prowess, but it's good to know the car can cope with a large puddle or a bit of snow.
What you get for your money
Irish bZ4X prices start at €45,275, which makes the electric Toyota about the same price as a Skoda Enyaq iV. That money pays for an entry-level Advance front-wheel-drive model, but it'll still come with 18-inch alloy wheels, LED automatic headlights and a reversing camera, as well as an eight-inch touchscreen and navigation. Two-zone climate control and the Android Auto and Apple CarPlay smartphone integration systems are also included, but the car misses out on automatic windscreen wipers and the larger touchscreen.
Which is why we'd recommend spending a little more on a mid-range model that gets those goodies and allows you to choose between front- and all-wheel drive, rather than leaving you stuck with the single-motor, front-drive set-up. You don't have to go far up the range to get heated front seats, some leather upholstery and a 360-degree manoeuvring camera that gives you a top-down view of the car and its surroundings.
If you can get on with the looks, the Toyota bZ4X is a solid electric family car. The battery range isn't game-changing and the boot is hardly enormous, but the bZ4X is comfortable and it comes with the promise of Toyota's legendary reliability and durability. Opt for a front-wheel-drive model to maximise the range, and it'll be a dependable, comfortable choice for plenty of buyers.