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Alternating Currents: Toyota is playing it too safe

Auto Shanghai 2021

This week Toyota launched a near-production “concept” electric SUV. Toyota has produced two generations of electric RAV4 in the past, with the first available from 1997 to 2003, then again in 2012, but it has been seven years since you could purchase one new. Neither sold in large numbers, and both were too typically-Toyota conservative to make any waves. While Toyota has promised seven new electric vehicles under its new “Beyond Zero” brand name, the first of those to make its way into the world — the BZ4X shown here — doesn’t do anything new or exciting. It may as well be a third-generation RAV4 EV. 

Toyota bZ4X Concept 001 2
Toyota’s bZ4X Concept that debuted in Shanghai. Photo credit: Toyota

One of the primary benefits of electric vehicles is the ability to manipulate the packaging to suit consumer needs in a way that gasoline engine cars cannot. If Toyota is going to spend untold billions developing a new electric modular platform, something upon which it can bet its future, why does the first vehicle on that platform look more or less like the FT-AC concept unveiled four years ago? It looks to me like Toyota is already building EVs for the past, not for its future. It’s a disappointing, but not altogether unsurprising, move for the massive automaker. Ships this big can’t turn on a dime. 

Toyota’s golden age was perhaps twenty years ago at this point. There was a time when the company was forced to innovate its way to the front of the pack. Quality small cars, the first mass-market hybrid, competitive pickups, and world-class daily drivers were once the kinds of things Toyota innovated to keep the market on its toes. Over the last twenty years, the company has doubled its global output, but has halved its innovation. It feels a bit like pre-restructuring General Motors, simply doing the bare minimum, catering to the lowest common denominator, and resting on its laurels. 

In that era of GM, Toyota built a better proverbial mousetrap and ate big blue for lunch. Now the Toyota seems to have stepped into that blasé and lackadaisical large company doldrum vacated by GM. If it’s not careful, the Koreans are waiting in the wings to shove the top players out of the way and make a serious play for volume sales. The stuff coming out of the Korean Peninsula these days is exactly what Japan needs to be paying attention to. Those brands are innovating, building new, building quality, building affordability, and holy smokes are they ever stylish. 

The Bzacks, as I’ve taken to calling it, is a baby step in the right direction, but I think it’s coming far too late. Toyota could have convincingly launched an electric model at scale long ago. It already had all of the marketplace green goodwill from its efforts with the Prius, and could easily have parlayed that into an electrified future. Just look to the fact that the RAV4 Prime is selling faster than Toyota can keep the dealerships stocked, and you’ll know that there is an underserved market for electrified Toyotas. 

Toyota had any number of paths to take in the launch of its new electric-focused future. I really hope that it builds a successful Beyond Zero brand and can really bring a mass-market electric vehicle for the everyperson, but why did it take this long? Nissan has been selling the Leaf for over a decade now, and Toyota is just now jumping on board? Given just that one simple fact, I’d trust the upcoming Nissan Ariya to be a fully-baked EV before this BZ4X. There’s a chance Toyota can make this right, but I’m not optimistic. Not yet, anyway. 

For decades Toyota has been known for its ability to build its own new trends in automotive manufacturing, distribution, sales, and marketing. The company was practically founded on the principles of continuous improvement. This doesn’t feel like continuous improvement to me. The BZ4X feels like an also-ran in a field of genuinely innovative machinery. If Toyota can’t come out of the gate swinging, why is it even bothering to fight?


Written by Bradley Brownell
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