Toyota TM -0.46%
finally has a product to compete with Tesla†
Despite an awkward name and mixed reviews, the bZ4X could well be the most sweeping electric vehicle launched this year.
Toyota’s first pure battery model designed from the ground up is now hitting showrooms around the world. Like Tesla’s Model Y, Ford‘s
Mustang Mach-E and Hyundai’s Ioniq 5, the bZ4X is a compact sport-utility vehicle built on a rolling bed or “skateboard” of batteries. It was designed with input from all-wheel drive specialist Subaru, which will launch a rival model called Solterra this summer.
How the bZ4X sells will be a critical test of Toyota’s potential to turn its more than twenty years of experience with gas-electric hybrids into success with the all-electric technology that most people in the auto industry expect to dominate in the future. , albeit on a very uncertain timeline. Given the scale of the company, its success or failure could also disproportionately affect consumer adoption of EVs in general.
Experts are not overwhelmed. The consensus seems to be that the bZ4X performs well enough, but offers little to push the boundaries or otherwise stand out in an increasingly crowded field.
“There’s nothing groundbreaking or particularly clever,” said Alistair Weaver, editor in chief at data provider and car reviewer Edmunds. He also laments the absence of a front case or “twinkle” where the engine would otherwise be, and the downplaying of “one-pedal driving” by a throttle that brakes when lifted — both signature EV characteristics. Drivers of the bZ4X can allow one-pedal driving, but braking is reportedly not as strong as on some models.
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Yet all this fits with the Toyota brand, which stands for very different things than that of Tesla. The Japanese company has long prioritized safety, affordability and reliability over excitement. A starting price of $42,000 is at the lower end of the range, and Toyota says the bZ4X’s battery should retain 90% of its capacity after 10 years. The company’s decades-long growth to become a global leader suggests it knows what many consumers want—perhaps better than car reviewers and early adopters, who like to have cool stuff to talk about.
If it proves popular, the bZ4X could give the company an easier time with EV-obsessed politicians. Toyota argues that focusing solely on battery-electric vehicles is not the best way to reduce CO2 emissions from driving. It has a point, given the restrictions on mining battery materials and rolling out renewable energy, but the argument is clouded by the impression Toyota has its own hybrid-heavy book.
Investors, too, were frustrated with the company’s cautious EV strategy, as Tesla’s market value soared to a peak of $1.2 trillion late last year — more than four times Toyota’s at the time. Chief Executive Akio Toyoda responded in December with commitments to invest more in EVs and accelerate their rollout. The company aims to sell 3.5 million electric vehicles by 2030.
Tesla’s market value has nearly halved since then, putting a bit of pressure on incumbents. But few doubt that batteries will gradually replace motors. A fifth of respondents to this year’s global survey by consultancy EY said their next car would be an all-electric car, up from 12% last year and 8% in 2020, although numbers are lower in the US.
The bZ4X offers investors the first real proof of how well equipped the world’s largest automaker is to handle the industry’s transition. Much depends on its success.
write to Stephen Wilmot at [email protected]
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