In many ways the Lexus RX450h is the best of both worlds. The CUV / SUV has the size to hide the extra weight and the price point to bury the added cost of a hybrid system.
Top that off with Toyota’s experience with gas-electric technology and you have a mid-size luxury vehicle that drives like a conventional vehicle at all times, one with the added utility of all-wheel-drive. And, it has the added benefit of fuel-saving technology that helps offset the fuel consumption associated with vehicles of this type.
The RX450h is the hybrid version of the popular RX350, which first hit the road in 2006. Combined, the duo hold a comfortable lead in the sales race in this segment with the hybrid version easily the top selling luxury SUV in the country. The hybrid version came to market in 2010 and for 2013 Lexus has given it a mid-life makeover.
Mechanically it’s the same as the 2012 model; most exterior updates occur at the rear end, with some on the interior.
One trim level only
The donor RX350 starts at $45,000 and is available in an F Sport trim at $58,000. The RX450h comes in one trim level only.
And while it has a vast array of standard equipment and features, the bottom line can be increased significantly through a number of option packages.
The test vehicle had the least expensive and extensive of them: the $4,100 Touring package that includes a 12-speaker audio upgrade with DVD player and subwoofer, voice-activated navigation system, power folding self-dimming mirrors and a tire/wheel upgrade. If you wish to add to that, your local Lexus store will be happy to put you into one with one of three “Ultra Premium” packages that will add $10,000-$15,000 to the tag.
Top of the charts
With a bottom line that tops $60,000 you expect a lot, regardless of the drivetrain. As a luxury brand, Lexus has made it a point to top the charts in areas of initial and long-term quality and reliability as well as industry leading levels of NVH (noise, vibration and harshness). The RX450h comes with these same credentials and the full array of luxury-features and equipment expected at this price point.
The exterior styling, largely unchanged from the previous iteration, retains the fastback profile with a steeply sloped roofline.
The signature Lexus “spindle” grill that made its debut on the GS-series sedans is carried here along with a new headlight design that incorporates LED running lights, a feature that is pretty much becoming de rigeur in the luxury segment. In this case, perhaps as no surprise, they are used to form the letter L.
That same motif is used for lighting at the rear; it will be fascinating to watch as designers take advantage of the ability to use LEDs for all lighting purposes in practically any shape.
It is inside where the luxury becomes evident. Lexus does interiors as well as anyone in the industry in terms of fit, finish and quality and choice of materials. It also tends to stay away from the dull all-black interiors favored by the European competition makers. Changes for the 2013 model are slight, restricted to a new steering wheel and some changes in trim. The 450h has an interesting center stack design that incorporates the shift lever in a vertical position, freeing up the console for the controller, cup holders and storage provisions; it transmits an upscale feel throughout.
The front buckets are wide, provide plenty of support in all the right places and are adjustable 10 ways, which should suit practically any shape or preference, especially when used in conjunction with the power-operated tilt and telescope steering wheel.
Second-row seats split 60/40 and slide fore-aft, recline and fold. There’s ample room for three but two are more comfortable, with the possible exception of leg room if front seat occupants use all of theirs.
Cargo space average
Cargo space aft of the second row is an average 40 cubic feet; double that with the second row seats folded. The cargo area is readily accessed through a power-operated tailgate.
Like a few of its competitors, Lexus uses a joystick-like controller instead of touch screen technology to navigate through the features available on the screen above the center stack.
The RX450h uses the corporate 3.5-litre V6 engine as the source of its gasoline power. In this Atkinson Cycle guise (valve timing altered for maximum fuel efficiency rather than power) it produces 245 horsepower. That lesser power is more than made up by the use of a 167-horsepower electric motor.
Total power output is 295-horsepower; you can’t simply add the two because they peak at different times. A second electric motor acts as a starter and generator, charging the battery pack and powering other devices. On all wheel-drive models – the only ones sold in Canada – a third electric motor is used to power the rear wheels instead of using a solid shaft to connect the transmission to the rears.
The engine and main electric motor are paired with a continuously variable automatic transmission. A 288-volt nickel-metal hydride battery pack lies under the second row seats. The RX450h is a full hybrid in that it can run off gasoline or electric power or a combination of the two. In some low-speed situations the driver can select EV mode to ensure electric power only for up to 1.5 km.
As a result of all this, the RX450h can be relatively frugal in daily use. I averaged 9.7 litres/100 km on a 350-km mixture of city and highway driving. It gains most of its city mileage numbers through a start/stop system that shuts off the engine when you stop for more than a second, and that instantly restarts when you lift your foot from the brake pedal.
One area where Toyota’s vast experience with hybrids shows is in how seamlessly the RX changes between electric and gasoline power, and how the stop/start system works without its occupants realizing it.
New for 2013 is a Sport mode for the Drive Mode Select system whereby the driver can chose normal, ECO, EV or Ssport modes via a console-mounted rotary dial. The system defaults to normal each time the ignition is turned off.
ECO is for maximum fuel mileage and minimum fun; it slows throttle response, reduces engine output and minimizes A/C use. EV is for electric-only operation and Sport gives the hybrid a breath of life, tightening the steering, sharpening throttle response and forcing the electronic nannies (stability and traction controls) to relax just a little bit.
You know you are having more fun than “normal” because the instrument panel lighting switches to red from blue.
The amount of power realized is sufficient to keep the RX at or near the head of the pack, performance-wise, and the highway ride is Lexus-like. That is meant as a compliment; it is soft and supple in most conditions, yet stiff enough to prevent healing over badly in the corners, and quiet under all conditions.
Like all hybrids, it is difficult to make a financial case for driving one; it would take many years to recoupe the extra costs through fuel savings.
But rest assured, the Lexus RX450h is probably the smoothest and most luxurious hybrid on the market, if that is your choice.