Awkward name aside, the Lexus LF-ZC Concept that debuted at the Japan Mobility Show last week is a very big deal. When it goes into production in 2026, it will be the first electric vehicle on an all-new, ground-up Toyota platform; will do some very next-level things with the company’s steer-by-wire technology; and an alleged 620 miles of electric range.

It is not, however, going to do that with some huge battery pack that weighs as much as an apartment building. Instead, it’s going to rely mostly on chemistry to deliver on those big range claims. 

As part of the auto show festivities, Toyota invited several international media outlets, including InsideEVs, to Japan last week. There, the world’s largest automaker previewed a number of emerging technology concepts, including a simulated “manual transmission” for electric cars, an advanced in-car AI assistant and its EV battery plans for the next few years. 

But on the latter front, executives and engineers alike were simultaneously cagey on details, while being adamant that Toyota doesn’t plan to go the route of massive kilowatt-hour battery packs to boost range like many competitors are doing. The LF-ZC is said to have a range of 1,000 kilometres, which is about 620 miles, on China’s Light-duty-vehicle Test Cycle, which is different from America’s EPA testing cycle. 

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Lexus officials, including International President Takashi Watanabe and Chief Branding Officer Simon Humphries, show off the LF-ZC.

“The debate about whether 1,000 kilometres is right, or appropriate or not, is not really what we’re looking for,” Lexus International President Takashi Watanabe said in a roundtable discussion with reporters through an interpreter. “But if we had 1,000 kilometres, what would become possible? It’s a statement of our development technology establishing that standard…  within the development process, we need to set one up one kind of target, one kind of goal, or else everything else doesn't fall into place.”

Watanabe added that this idea is predicated around something like an 80-kilowatt-hour battery – what you might consider a medium-to-large battery pack, but still vastly smaller than something like a GMC Hummer’s massive 200-kilowatt-hour battery

“If we say we can get 1,000 kilometres out of this car, but we're going to slap more batteries in it and it's going to be heavier and more expensive, there is no technical challenge involved with that,” Watanabe said.

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It’s controversial whether drivers “need” that much EV range or not – the average American driver only puts an average of about 40 miles on their car daily. But much of that discussion is also tied to battery materials, resource concerns and sustainability issues. Although EVs are proven to create far less life-cycle carbon emissions over time than internal combustion engine vehicles, larger EV batteries need more resources to create and more energy to charge, so they’re less efficient and sustainable than more reasonably sized packs. 

In Japan, Toyota elaborated a bit on the battery development strategy it unveiled in September. To show where it wants to go, the automaker used its current Panasonic-made, lithium-ion 64-kilowatt-hour batteries, which get up to 615 km (382 miles) of range on the CLTC rating system, as a baseline. Toyota said those batteries can fast-charge from 10 percent to 80 percent in about 30 minutes.

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But future Toyota batteries are said to include next-generation prismatic “performance” lithium-ion batteries with twice as much range as that bZ4x, a 20 percent cost reduction overall, and only 20 minutes to charge from 10 to 80 percent. Toyota said those “performance” batteries will launch in 2026 and come in two pack sizes, one for SUVs and one for smaller cars and sports cars.

Among other things, Toyota is working to improve those batteries’ energy density and use new packaging options like relocating the terminals. Next, Toyota seeks to launch a “popular” version of those batteries that use cheaper lithium-iron-phosphate (LFP) cells, much as Rivian, Tesla, BYD and Ford are doing. Those LFP batteries are targeted to 20 percent better range than the bZ4x while being 40 percent cheaper, while offering a similar 30 minutes to fast-charge. Those are also said to launch in 2026 and 2027. 

As for how Toyota plans to get there, that remains something of a mystery, chemistry-wise. But they are said to use a more compact “bipolar structure”  than today’s monopolar batteries, with a high nickel cathode on the performance batteries. 

Eventually, Toyota’s ultimate goal is solid-state batteries; it’s chasing that elusive but potentially game-changing target along with automakers like BMW and Nissan. The goal is 20 percent better range than even the “performance” lithium-ion batteries and fast charging in just 10 minutes. Beyond that, Toyota says it’s aiming for just “better” solid-state batteries, ones that have 50 percent better range than the performance lithium-ion batteries too. The targeted costs of both planned solid-state units have not been revealed. Toyota aims to get its solid-state batteries ready for commercial use by 2027 or 2028. 

Granted, the criticism here is that Toyota has said this sort of thing before. The automaker has made big claims around solid-state battery advancements in 2014 and 2017, always with plans for production in mind. Clearly, they have not materialised yet, and it’s one more example of how Toyota needs to catch up on the EV front in general. 

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But Toyota officials also said that one key to its range goals will be reducing the size of many components involved in the car itself – something that may be the LF-ZC’s secret superpower. 

Simon Humphries, Lexus’ Chief Branding Officer, said that a saloon design was chosen on purpose by the automaker; this forced engineers to think about how to achieve that wild range goal within strict packaging constraints. By “minimising all core components,” as Lexus calls it, including the steering system (hence the digital-only steer-by-wire system) and HVAC unit, engineers can craft more interior space and accommodate flatter, thinner batteries with more energy density. This will also be the first Toyota EV made with gigacasting and self-driving through an assembly line for faster, leaner production. 

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Watanabe added that he knows Lexus, and Toyota as a whole, are behind the curve compared to some competitors; indeed, the LF-ZC feels a lot like a Mercedes EQE, in some ways. But he insisted that’s changing faster than people realise now, and that even with some uneven adoption globally, the company doesn’t intend to get left behind in the EV race.

“The discussion on the market right now, the acceleration, as well as in-house discussions regarding product cadence, is something that I believe is speeding up,” Watanabe said.

Contact the author: patrick.george@insideevs.com