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Driven: Lexus RX 450h. Image by Lexus.

Driven: Lexus RX 450h
Lexus offers the alternative to a premium diesel SUV with the angular RX 450h.

 



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Lexus RX 450h

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Good points: Looks like nothing else in class, refined hybrid drivetrain, comfortable ride.

Not so good: No seven-seat option, clunky infotainment controls, not hugely economical.

Key Facts

Model tested: Lexus RX 450h F Sport
Price: RX from 39,995; 450h F Sport from 52,995; 54,935 as tested
Hybrid system: 3.5-litre V6 petrol engine mated to twin electric motors with nickel-hydride battery pack
Transmission: all-wheel drive, electric continuously variable transmission (CVT)
Body style: five-door, five-seat SUV
CO2 emissions: 127g/km
Combined economy: 51.4mpg
Top speed: 124mph
0-62mph: 7.7 seconds
Power: 313hp combined drivetrain (193kW engine - 262hp at 6,000rpm - plus 123kW front electric motor and 50kW rear electric motor)
Torque: no system maximum quoted; 335Nm at 4,600rpm, petrol, 335Nm front electric motor, 139Nm rear electric motor

Our view:

Now, if you've read a variety of our reviews on Lexus and parent company Toyota's hybrid models, you'll know there's one thing that constantly irks us about these part-electric Japanese cars. And that's the group's insistence on using a continuously variable transmission (CVT) in all of them. Selected for reasons of economy - CVTs are said to always keep the engine at its optimum operating revs and thus minimise fuel usage - they are nevertheless sorely lacking in refinement. Chiefly because, when you ask for anything between half and full acceleration, the CVT allows the engine to rev out to practically its redline and then it just holds those revs. Imagine driving a normal manual car at 60mph in second gear everywhere and you'll have an idea of the unpleasant, monotone screech this generates. It also leads to a feeling akin to 'clutch slip', in that the excruciating volume of the drivetrain doesn't match up to the modest rate of acceleration.

However. All the Toyota/Lexus hybrids we've driven before have had a variety of normally aspirated four-cylinder engines. These do not sound pleasant when being thrashed to within an inch of their lives. But this Lexus RX 450h premium SUV is a little different, because the combustion motor is a 3.5-litre V6; presumably, the one the company gives to Lotus to put into its Exige and Evora models, minus the supercharger, or at the very least closely related to it. And because a normally aspirated petrol V6 always sounds good, the RX 450h passes the refinement test.

Yes, if you input large doses of throttle to get the RX moving briskly, the CVT still ramps up the revs in a manner unlike a car fitted with either a conventional torque converter automatic or a dual-clutch system, but it also keeps building the revs rather than holding one note. And in the Sport setting of the drive select modes, the Lexus CVT even mimics gears to make it feel more natural. It also has impressively decent performance at all times, the 7.7-second 0-62mph figure feeling a little bit conservative, if anything. The long and short of all this is that, after a few initial miles acclimatising to the 3.5 and CVT combination, you soon forget about it entirely. That's a very positive thing, we can tell you.

Which means the RX 450h must surely be in with a shout of taking class honours, then, given that, with other Lexus products, we like everything else about them bar the gearbox? Well, it's not quite that cut and dried. The RX's chief weapons are its striking appearance and its magnificent levels of comfort and refinement. So let's start with the former. We absolutely accept that not everyone is going to like the mishmash of angles, curves and creases that make up the RX 450h's almost otherworldly bodywork, but we completely love it, especially in F Sport trim.

Although it's a physically larger car than its similarly sharp NX sibling, the RX seems to wear this origami design better - and as a result, it looks like nothing else in its class, which are all in essence smoothed-off 'soap bars' of similar style. Choose the RX in a bold colour, like Mesa Red, and you'll have a thoroughly up-to-date, individualistic SUV. We don't even mind the fact that large 20-inch alloys (on 55-profile tyres) look quite small in the squared-off wheelarches.

Then we have one of the best rides in the segment. The Lexus doesn't rely on air springs or adjustable dampers or any of that malarkey. It simply has a really well-calibrated suspension set-up -featuring MacPherson struts front and double wishbones rear that works whether it's ambling along a motorway, shuffling through town in heavy traffic or traversing a bumpy country road. Furthermore, there are no clonks or thumps from the springs and dampers as they do their thing, while the engine's exertions, tyre roar and wind noise are all well suppressed.

This makes the Lexus RX 450h a supremely comfortable and hushed machine in which to travel, which in turn makes for a relaxing driving experience. If that's your priority from a big SUV, and for many people it will be, the case can be made that the RX 450h is up there as class leader alongside an air-sprung Volvo XC90.

What prevents us from unreservedly recommending it are the handling and the interior. Maybe it's the use of F Sport terminology in the model name, which brings to mind the RC F and GS F high-performance Lexus models, or maybe it's the fact that when we drove a GS 300h F Sport recently, we found it to have a great chassis; but, disappointingly, the RX is at no point a sharp machine to drive. That comfy suspension leads to a lot of body roll, while the steering lacks feel and weight. The RX doesn't like to be hustled, so after a few attempts at spirited cornering, you soon give it up as a bad job and revert to the relaxed style the Lexus is more comfortable with.

The interior is a mix of the good and bad. The good bits are that it's absolutely cavernous for five people, the legroom in the back being particularly generous. It's also beautifully put together and has some nice design touches, while the boot is a useful 453 litres rear seats up and 924 litres with them folded away. But that sloping rear hatch, which does limit cargo capacity, also means there's no potential for a seven-seat RX option, and while the materials used for the dash are generally of a high quality, some of the plastics look a little bit old-fashioned.

Another Lexus bugbear of ours surfaces with the infotainment control. The company seems to have about three different designs of controllers on the go with its cars and none of them are brilliant - the 'mouse'-style item in the RX is particularly infuriating. Don't ever bother trying to use it on the move, because you need to give the screen your full concentration when operating it in order to see where the cursor is wildly flitting to on the display.

We also have to touch upon Lexus' (and again, by extension, Toyota's) hybrid policy. All the electrified rivals in this class are plug-in hybrids with lithium-ion battery packs. That means the likes of BMW, Mercedes and Volvo are all claiming fully electric, zero emissions-running ranges in the order of 19-31 miles on a full charge. The RX, on the other hand, is only a mild hybrid with no plug-in charging capability, while its battery pack is of the older nickel-hydride variety. This means that EV driving is a very sporadic affair in the Lexus, because it can't do much more than a mile or so without resorting to its petrol engine.

On the flip side, the combustion unit and the brakes are always charging the battery, so the Lexus switches off the V6 quite a lot on a long journey, meaning it ekes out its fuel to good effect. Nevertheless, the quoted combined figure of 51.4mpg - which Lexus also states for urban and extra-urban returns - is surely wholly unattainable. We drove the RX 450h for 484 miles at a modest 36mph average speed, with one 240-mile motorway journey included, and we were getting around 31.5mpg while driving sedately around rural lanes, before that number increased to 32.9mpg overall following the motorway run. OK, 33mpg from a 300hp+ V6 petrol SUV that weights two tonnes isn't bad, but there are a lot of PHEV and diesel rivals that will return much better economy than that.

There's one last thing that helps the Lexus' cause, which is price and specification. The F Sport starts at 52,995 and comes with 'kitchen sink' equipment, with only a superb head-up display, metallic paint and a panoramic roof adding to the list price of our car. That means it's a good deal cheaper than either of the two big Range Rovers it competes against, while it also significantly undercuts its Volvo and Mercedes PHEV rivals. The BMW X5 xDrive40e is about the same price, but not as well-equipped.

So it's a bit of a mixed bag with the Lexus. If you like sharp driving manners, a flawless drivetrain, you've got five kids and you want at least 40mpg on a regular basis, you'll need to look elsewhere. We're also waiting for Lexus to work out, once and for all, what it wants to do with its infotainment controls. However, with a charismatic V6 engine, exceptional levels of comfort, a competitive list price and toy count, and the sort of styling that ensures it stands out from the crowd, there's much to like about the RX 450h. And we do like it; rather a lot, as it happens. It's probably the best Toyota/Lexus hybrid vehicle we've yet driven.

Alternatives:

BMW X5 xDrive40e: All of the rivals we list here are plug-in hybrids, not mild hybrids like the Lexus. The BMW is competent but its 2.0-litre engine is a bit coarse. No seven-seat option.

Mercedes-Benz GLE 500 e: Again, a seven-seat layout is not possible here, but then such seating isn't available in any GLE. Superb drivetrain, yet the 500 e costs from 64,995.

Volvo XC90 T8 Twin Engine: Volvo's interior absolutely clouts the Lexus cabin, and the Swede comes with seven seats. It's a bit pricier, but it's our preferred large hybrid SUV.


Matt Robinson - 2 Jul 2016









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2016 Lexus RX 450h. Image by Lexus.2016 Lexus RX 450h. Image by Lexus.2016 Lexus RX 450h. Image by Lexus.2016 Lexus RX 450h. Image by Lexus.2016 Lexus RX 450h. Image by Lexus.

2016 Lexus RX 450h. Image by Lexus.2016 Lexus RX 450h. Image by Lexus.2016 Lexus RX 450h. Image by Lexus.2016 Lexus RX 450h. Image by Lexus.2016 Lexus RX 450h. Image by Lexus.








 

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