Lexus and Mazda bite the EV bullet

Japan’s great electric U-Turn. For years Mazda and Toyota/Lexus refused to give up their engines. But at the Tokyo show both finally made the jump to electric power – and in some style. By Ben Miller.

If Nissan was Japan’s battery-electric early adopter, blazing a trail with the Leaf (430,000 sold to date), Toyota and Mazda have been reluctant to let go of the combustion engine, even as rivals raced to catch Tesla’s spectacular (if infamously loss-making) head start.

Lexus and Mazda bite the EV bullet

Lexus and Mazda bite the EV bullet

No longer. At the Tokyo motor show Mazda unveiled the production MX-30 electric crossover, due in the UK in early 2021, and Lexus the spectacular LF-30 electric concept – while also confirming an imminent production electric crossover. Toyota’s EV misgivings to date have been founded on the shaky economics of battery-electric production. ‘Why are we introducing EVs now? To preserve the global environment and because CO2 regulations need to be satisfied – Europe in particular is very stringent,’ Toyota executive vice-president Shigeki Terashi tells CAR in Tokyo, while refuting the notion that the company has some catching up to do.

Both firms share serious engineering credentials and Le Mans-winning tech

‘Our EV technology is not behind,’ Terashi continues. ‘We have long been a lithium-ion battery manufacturer, and we will commercialise [far more energy-dense] solid-state batteries within the next decade. Besides, our hybrids also have motors, batteries and power control units. We are not behind.’

As if designed to shatter the notion that its EV tech is off the pace, Toyota’s premium brand Lexus stole the Tokyo show with its LF-30 concept, a four-seat future study on 24-inch wheels, each containing its own drive motor. Yes, there’s the promise of full hands-off autonomous driving, a drone to carry your briefcase and gullwing doors so big the LF-30 might make a decent glider were both left open – so far, so concept car. But there are also clues here as to where Lexus is headed.

In design terms it showcases the best elements of the marque’s contemporary aesthetic amplified to a new level of visual drama, particularly the way the car’s exterior surfaces transition from curvaceous at the front to shard-like and crystalline at the rear.

In terms of technology, solid-state batteries make for outlandish performance (a fictional 310-mile cruising range, 529bhp output and 3.8sec 0-62mph time) with less weight and bulk than lithium-ion cells. Lexus executive vice-president Koji Sato explains that the in-wheel motors aren’t a mere show-car gimmick: ‘We are developing that technology right now – it is on the way.’ They’re key to what Lexus calls ‘posture control’ – essentially torque vectoring and independent wheel control exploited to open up a new world of dynamic possibilities.

‘Posture control is the big opportunity for us,’ continues Sato. ‘Not just the powertrain but many technologies combined to change vehicle performance. To achieve it we have to go back to basics, changing the fundamental package. Here we can differentiate from others; from both Toyota [with which Lexus shares componentry] and our European luxury rivals.’

The MX-30 battery-electric Mazda crossover also debuted at Tokyo. Previously adamant that clean combustion technology would see it through, Mazda has – like Toyota – concluded that imminent regulations make a BEV essential. It is collaborating with Toyota on a future bespoke electric platform but the MX-30, which is set for a 10-year life cycle, sits on a platform related to that of the CX-30.

The modest 35.5kWh battery sits under the floor, powering a single e-motor on the front axle and offering a range of around 125 miles. Contrast that with Hyundai’s Kona Electric, with its 64kWh battery and 245-mile range. Mazda insists the MX-30’s range is enough for most customers, and that a smaller battery is both more environmentally responsible and lighter, which in turns makes for livelier driving dynamics.

Four years ago, at the 2015 Tokyo show, Mazda pulled the covers off the gorgeous RX-Vision, and at the same time confirmed work on its beloved rotary engine was ongoing, with an electric-rotary hybrid in development. That R&D effort will reach fruition with the range-extender MX-30, due on sale a year later than the pure BEV, with its single-rotor generator able to both recharge the battery and power the e-motor directly.

The MX-30’s design language uses Mazda’s familiar face and elegant, fuss-free surfacing, together with an arcing, coupe-like roofline. In time-honoured Mazda style there’s some nicely quirky engineering in the form of the suicide rear doors, last seen on 2003’s RX-8 rotary sports car and saluted by BMW on its ground-breaking i3. Ordering for UK buyers will open in the spring, with first deliveries in early 2020. Final pricing should come in under the £30k mark with the government grant.

Two Japanese companies – both with serious engineering credentials, colossal collaborative resources at their disposal and Le Mans-winning tech (Mazda’s rotary in 1991, Toyota’s LMP1 hybrid in 2018 and 2019) – racing to reel in and overhaul the EV early adopters? You’d be brave to bet against them.


Nissan R&D boss Kunio Nakaguro spoke of ‘transformational times’ at Tokyo, and post-Ghosn Nissan has a lot of work to do – all of which means the Ariya EV can’t come soon enough. Visually it promises to kick on from underwhelming reboots like the new Juke, while underneath sits a new, more serious electric platform with a flat under-floor battery and twin electric motors, one on each axle, for all-wheel drive.

Mazda’s first EV, the MX-30 Mazda’s MX-5 is a sports car; the new electric MX-30 is not… But Mazda says the MX name is apt on both since they share the same pioneering spirit.


‘LF-30 is a glimpse of our future design language,’ says design boss Ian Cartabiano. ‘Lexus is only 30 years old so we can be forward-thinking. We also wanted to avoid the trap of doing a traditional luxury car that just happened to be electric…’

Wedge profile harks bark to the concept car’s golden age Bucket seat? Retractable wheel? It’s a show car


‘Air is twisted and rotated as it flows past the headlights and through the wings,’ explains Lexus design’s Ian Cartabiano. ‘They’re effectively actual wings – a nod to Akio Toyoda’s statement that maybe some day Lexus could move into aircraft.’


‘It’s a wedge; sleek and fast at the front, peaked towards the rear for passenger comfort. The wedge shape also gives us good aero flow, extending our EV range by cutting drag.’


‘The wheel spokes extend into the tyre sidewalls – we worked with Goodyear on these; they’re a first. The design of the wheel and tyre is optimised to flow cooling air onto the in-wheel motors.’


‘Think of the body like water; it starts off fluid at the front of the car, freezing to ice towards the rear.’

Wedge profile harks bark to the concept car’s golden age Bucket seat? Retractable wheel? It’s a show car

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