Notes from an Otago highway: We test drive the luxe new fully electrifed Lexus RZ

Luxury sparkles in the clear Central Otago air

OVER A ONE-WAY bridge on a state highway between Lake Hāwea and Queenstown, a line of vehicles slows to a crawl in the autumn sunshine. Their drivers’ collective attention is captured by a sight foreign to this group of city-slickers: four huntaways expertly herding a flock of scrambling sheep up a steep hillside slope.

The cars are also watched, this time by three slightly surprised farmers in the paddock. One luxury electrified vehicle gliding the backroads of Central Otago is fairly unusual — a fleet of seven, quite unheard of. The city-slickers in question are journalists trialling Lexus’ redesigned and reimagined hybrid and fully electrified cars.

Because the Lexus team are generous folk, they’ve treated the drivers to test them away from Auckland’s crammed gunnels. Instead, we find ourselves gliding smoothly through the South Island’s mountainous terrain. After all, where better to test low-emission and zero-emission rides than the part of the country most often associated with the nation’s clean green image?

Today, there is less green than startling red, orange and ochre as Central Otago dons its autumn livery. We drive from Gibbston Valley Winery, over the Crown Range to Wānaka’s Rippon Valley, past the blustery white-capped Lake Hāwea for a quick lunch at Cloudy Bay’s Otago Cellar Door, before moseying back to Queenstown.

While we each get a turn in Lexus’ 2023 hybrid electric RX, the jewel in the crown is the 2023 Lexus RZ 450e, the luxury car brand’s first entirely dedicated battery electric vehicle (BEV). My driving partner and I practically dance into our model — a sleek and sexy two-tone variant. For drivers unaccustomed to a BEV, the unexpected magic of a car starting silently takes a minute to get over.

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The gear knob is rotated to drive, and the cockpit interface assures us that it’s ready to take off. The speed is even reflected unobtrusively onto the windscreen via a head-up display so there’s no need to take your eyes off the road. Perhaps the greatest change is where there once was a fuel tank gauge is now an indicator of how much charge is left in the battery. But for those of us used to checking phone batteries, it’s not much of an affront to our usual lifestyle. And bonus: the RZ and most RX variants boast wireless device chargers, which come in handy as we rush to capture the incredible scenery all day.

As we cruise through Cardrona, the sight of the world-famous pub catches our eyes. For turning to glimpse the postcard-picture view for a few seconds longer than pertinent, I’m gently chastised by the Lexus Driver Monitor, which detects if the driver isn’t paying full attention to the road. The beep is noted: I guiltily straighten up and return my hands to 10 to 2.

In the coming years, electric vehicles will be road users’ bread and butter. The RX and RZ are advancing an impressive Lexus portfolio of hybrid and electric-powered cars. By 2035, the brand hopes to meet a goal of 100 per cent BEVs. But for now, it’s still a novelty for this impressed driver — and the locals who stop to admire the fleet driving past. It’s also a hopeful glimpse into an electric-powered future, one where the car doesn’t let you sleep on the job but will patiently pause roadside so you can snap yet another picture of those mountain views.

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Little touches for luxury lovers in the new RZ 450e include: 

Radiant Heating: Available on the bottom of the steering column and lower instrument panel instead of a glove box. Think of the heat as a warm blanket around the legs. (available in the Dynamic grade only). 

Interior and Shadow Illumination: Projection lights cast a pattern across the door panels, creating different effects as the surrounding light conditions change through the day. 

Panoramic Roof: The glass roof can reflect infrared radiation to reduce radiant heat on sunny days and keep heat inside the cabin when it’s cold outside. Prefer to keep the light out? The roof can be dimmed to opaque to block exterior light (available in the Dynamic grade only). 

Mindful Materials: The RZ 450e Core comes with NuLuxe™ synthetic leather on the doors, seats, and steering wheel instead of animal-sourced leather. In the RZ 450e Dynamic, Utlrasuede™ upholstery gives a suede finish using sustainably sourced materials made from biomaterials and recycled PET.

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NZ Life and Leisure This article first appeared in NZ Life & Leisure Magazine.

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