– Superb fuel economy
– Cabin space and features
– Fairly comfortable ride
– Relatively expensive
– Limited offroad ability
– Some hard cabin plastics
The Lexus RX is a best-seller for the Japanese brand in the United States, single-handedly making Lexus the top luxury marque there at one time. However, the RX never caught on in the Middle East, overshadowed in sales by, of all things, the LX 570. But big things are happening for the RX in 2013. One is that angry new face. The other is the hybrid version.
The hybrid RX 450h has become the flagship of Lexus’ crossover line-up, not least of which is due to its steep price. But it is more of a “stealth” hybrid, appearing pretty much like a regular RX on the outside, aside from badges. That new grille gives the RX some much-needed cojones, so it doesn’t appear docile next to the likes of Infiniti and BMW any more. With new LED-lined headlights and fresh 19-inch wheel designs, the overall look is much nicer than before, even though the styling hasn’t changed in any other aspect.
The interior remains the same as before, random curves and all. The dashboard and door panels, all coated in premium soft-touch materials, form random asymmetrical shapes that may not appeal to all, but keeps things lively in this 5-seater crossover. The trim is largely excellent, but we weren’t too keen on the obvious hard plastics that made up the centre-console panels.
The RX 450h retains the abundant cabin space that has made its non-hybrid siblings a hit with soccer-moms. It has almost as much rear legroom as a spacious midsize sedan, with generous headroom as well. And while the luggage boot loses some upper space due to the sloping rear, it is still more voluminous than many of its premium rivals. The rear-bench split-folds to increase space even more. There are also numerous covered cup-holders and storage cubbies spread about, including a hollow area under the gear-shifter area, between the front passengers.
Our Lexus tester was loaded to the gills with gadgets, including the unique Lexus multimedia system with a high-mounted screen on the dash and a little joy-mouse thingy near the central armrest to control a mouse pointer. It remains unintuitive to control while driving, but everything in it worked as expected, including the solid CD/MP3 stereo, the navigation and the Bluetooth phone.
Other features include a strong multi-zone auto a/c with rear vents, powered rear tailgate, HID headlights, rear headrest-mounted DVD screens, power-adjustable ventilated seats, camera-based parking assist, intelligent keyless entry with starter button, heads-up display, adaptive cruise control and a huge panoramic glass roof that extends from the front to the rear in one piece, with a powered sunshade to boot. Safety features include multiple front, side-curtain and even knee airbags. Minor niggles include the lack of rear a/c controls and the lack of a sunroof opening within the huge glass roof, although these did not bother us.
Lexus claims the RX 450h offers the power of a V8 without the fuel-economy penalty. That’s only partially true. This h-bomb features a 3.5-litre petrol-powered V6 paired to three electric motors that are powered by batteries which automatically recharge by capturing energy normally lost during braking. The combined power output is 295 hp at 6200 rpm, and from what we can figure out from the stupidly-vague specs, around 335 Nm of torque at 4800 rpm though nobody seems to be sure. These are figures that any regular direct-injection V6 can match nowadays, and the real performance was confirmed by our as-tested 0-100 kph time of 8.1 seconds in October weather.
The hybrid only has 25 hp over the normal RX 350, and comes exclusively with a CVT automatic and all-wheel-drive in the GCC. While the numbers are poor, the hybrid really does feel very strong on rolling acceleration, great for overtaking, merging and such. But while it has more practical juice than the RX 350, the hybrid is only 0.1 seconds quicker in our 0-100 kph tests.
The only way you can justify the Yaris-sized price premium over the regular RX is the excellent fuel economy. You can run in complete electric-only “EV” mode under 40 kph in parking lots or in traffic, where the petrol engine completely shuts down, automatically restarting with a noticeable judder only when you speed up or turn up the a/c. We got 10.5 litres/100 km with the hybrid, compared to 14.3 litres/100 km with the RX 350, both with aggressive driving. You’d have to do a lot of city-driving to get your money back in fuel savings, unless you’re doing it out of love for the environment.
The Lexus RX’s cabin is one of the most serene places to be in, isolated from the noises of the world. Indeed, it has among the quietest cabins ever, with wind and road noise kept to a bare minimum at up to 120 kph. It also helps that the suspension is compliant, easily smoothening out bumps, but there is none of the springy rebound that plagued Lexii from just half-a-decade ago. The engine is muffled at higher speeds, or completely off when it’s not needed, even while the car is still turned on.
Where it falters slightly is in handling, but only just. The RX exhibits a moderate amount of body roll in sharp turns and sudden movements. However, the body roll subsides instantly once the manoeuvres are over, instead of bouncing around like other certain SUVs. The 235/55 tyres wrapping the optional 19-inch wheels also offer a solid amount of grip, so the 2185-kilo RX never felt outclassed when it came to corners, even if it did understeer eventually. And while the power steering is silky-soft and lacks feel, the ABS-assisted four-wheel-disc brakes are superb, bringing the hefty vehicle to a quick stop in a straight line and without drama.
Be advised that the RX is not an off-roader in the slightest. While its all-wheel-drive can cope, it does not have the ground clearance, the low-range gearing or the underbelly protection to safely traverse pointy terrain. Where it does serve well on is rain-soaked roads and flat-sandy beaches. It is a very safe all-weather wagon for picnics, as long as you remain close to civilisation.
The Lexus RX is an all-round great car that has greatly benefitted from just a nip-and-tuck facelift. The regular RX 350 is a very competent vehicle in itself, but as nice as the RX 450h hybrid’s additional fuel-saving driving dynamics are, we’re hard-pressed to recommend it. Lexus is very brave for introducing this excellent hybrid in the Middle East, and it is definitely the future of motoring, but petrol isn’t pricey enough yet to justify a pricey fuel-sipper, even with a luxury badge.
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