Toyota Introduces Beyond Zero Electric SUV At Shanghai Auto Show

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Car companies love to create new brands. The Japanese Big Three gave us Lexus, Infiniti, and Acura 30+ years ago when they wanted to go upmarket with high profit premium cars. People who would never consider dropping $30,000 on a Toyota were happy to spend double that on a Lexus. Such is the power of branding.

In the electric car era, several companies have have created new brands for their battery powered cars. Mercedes has its EQ division, Volkswagen its ID branded cars, BMW uses a simple “i,” while Hyundai is employing the Ioniq moniker for its battery electric cars. While all those companies have been ramping up EV offerings, Toyota has been largely content to hang out in the background and sell variations of its Synergy hybrid powertrain, cars it often misleadingly characterizes as “self charging electric cars.”

Toyota Beyond Zero Electric SUV

Toyota Beyond Zero Electric SUV, image courtesy of Toyota

But now the wheel has turned and Toyota must either join the EV revolution or risk being left behind by the likes of Volkswagen, Hyundai, Kia, Peugeot, FIAT, and even (gasp!) General Motors! Despite the protestations of Akio Toyoda, grandson of the founder, who disparages electric cars every chance he gets, certain adults in the top management echelon of the company have been quietly developing a flexible, scalable electric car platform known as e-TNGA. along with Subaru. That platform can be used for front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive, or all-wheel drive vehicles.

At the Shanghai Auto Show this week, Toyota introduced its new bZ brand, which stands for Beyond Zero. The first offering will be the bZ4X, an electric SUV about the size of the hot selling RAV4 which appeared in concept form at the Shanghai auto show this week. Toyota claims it will have 7 electric vehicles in its bZ lineup soon, along with 8 more BEV vehicles that will be sold under other brand names.

Toyota has every intention of continuing to bang the drum for its proprietary Synergy hybrid drivetrain it introduced in the Prius 30 years ago, which now accounts for a quarter of its passenger car sales. It also has 4 plug-in hybrid models like the Prius Prime and RAV4 Prime. It proudly proclaims that all its hybrid cars together have prevented 140 million tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere. No doubt that is true, but think how much more could have been accomplished if the company had embraced battery electric cars sooner.

Toyota revealed almost no specifics about its forthcoming bZ4X, but Car and Driver suggests it will have to compete on size and price with the Ford Mustang Mach-E, Volkswagen ID.4/ID.5 twins, and the Tesla Model Y. The car is about the same size as a current RAV4, but has a longer wheelbase and more interior space. Battery size, range, charging speed, price, and other specifics will have to wait for another day.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, of course, but for my tastes the bZ4X tries way too hard to look different from conventional cars. Some people like that; others don’t. Too me, it has angles and creases that don’t flow together. Instead, they collide with each other. The interior looks down right clunky in comparison to the competition. This is a concept car, so perhaps some smoothing of details will take place before production begins. Note to Toyota: Just because a car is electric doesn’t mean it has to be ugly.

When we know more, you’ll know more. In the meantime, feast your eyes on the photos of the (very gray) concept. Apparently Toyota couldn’t find anything brighter in the paint locker at Toyota City. It’s almost as if it deliberately choose a color that would allow the car to hide in plain sight, a curious characteristic for a show car.

Toyota is a very large corporation that does not change course easily. The bZ4X indicates the rudder on this colossus has moved ever so slightly toward the electric car future. With luck, the company will be able to chart a new course in time to avoid a slow slide into oblivion. For such a risk averse company, the future could be very challenging indeed.


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