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Bump and greened. Image by Mark Nichol.

Bump and greened
On paper the Lexus RX 450h is a tech-laden, eco-friendly smooth operator. The reality, however, is a little more turbulent.

 



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| First Drive | Budapest, Hungary | Lexus RX 450h |

Poor SUV. Always getting it in the neck. Disparaged, vilified and pilloried for nothing more than being imperious, profligate and a bit, well, pointless... ok, so maybe the haters have a point? But anyone who owns an SUV knows that, as all-rounders, a good one can be close to perfect: space, safety, comfort and an unequalled ability to tackle rough stuff like grassy verges. Add a dash of prestige and voila! Pure monolithic satisfaction.

So how about all that plus running costs that even a regular hatchback owner would consider reasonable? Well, this Lexus could be for you. Or maybe not; Sir Mixalot fans read on, because there are a lot of big buts...

In the Metal

Imagine a Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback crossed with a Mazda6 Estate, then augmented a bit; that's the back done. At the front, though, there's actually a sort of swooping dynamism about it, particularly the way the grille curves out towards the rakish headlights, each comprising a trio of circular lamps. The side swage lines that swoop from the front lights to the rears sharpen things up too. Apparently it's a flavour determined by Lexus's 'L Finesse' design language, though what exactly that means isn't clear.

Inside, however - and let's be blunt - it's pretty appalling. Some of the plastics are exceptional, but it's bereft of any sort of design coherence or flair, from the randomness of the button placement, to the 1980's digital clock, to the incongruous Rover 600-like wood inserts. The touch screen satnav of the old car has gone too, replaced by a 'Remote Touch' control that works like a computer mouse. It's a brilliantly intuitive system, but the bit you actually touch on the centre console is big and ugly. Ultimately, the best interiors are those that mate form with function so that every button and switch is both beautifully and intuitively placed; Lexus has got the RX cockpit very wrong on both counts.

What you get for your Money

Kit, and plenty of it. For the RX, Lexus has taken a position unique among its peers in that it's loaded the car with kit but then set the list price slightly higher than the Merc ML 320/BMW X5 3.0d/Audi Q7 3.0 TDI triple that it's gunning for. Spec one of the Germans up similarly and the balance is redressed, though. There are four spec levels, but you'd need to spec satnav specifically with your boggo SE model to get the nice remote touch thing. That'll set you back 43,570. Opt for a top whack one, though, and you're looking at a 55k car, which is expensive despite its clever tech.

Still, that outlay unleashes the full fury of Lexus's technological lexicon, including an absolutely mega Mark Levinson 15-speaker stereo, a height adjustable head-up display, 'soft close' windows, adaptive cruise control, a pre-crash safety system (that detects an imminent collision and applies the brakes), side and rear view parking monitors, and heated and cooled ventilated seats.

You also get one of the best and most purposeful hybrid drivetrains ever committed to a dirty big 4x4, and by purposeful we mean that it gives the Lexus a tangible environmental and financial advantage over all the other cars in its class, rather than just being about the same as a diesel. Its miserly 148g/km of CO2 and 44.8mpg combined fuel economy mean you save hundreds - thousands, according to Lexus - over the diesel Germans across three years' ownership. Its benefit in kind rating, for example, is just 14 percent.

Driving it

Unfortunately, you'll have to decide whether that's a saving worth making in exchange for a driving experience about as delicate and graceful as Eric Bristow running a marathon with a drawing pin stuck in his shoe. The RX can be had with three types of suspension: a height-adjustable air setup, or standard springs with or without an 'active stabiliser' that uses an electric motor to stiffen up the anti roll bars when the car starts to roll, thus keeping things level. It works, too, but why bother, because on either air or standard coils the RX has about as poor a ride as any SUV we've ever tried. It refuses to settle down, wallowing and shaking about the place, yet thumping down even small potholes like they're buckets. Imagine being pushed down a hill on a space hopper mounted on top of a skateboard and you're about there. Dreadful.

And really, that ruins the whole thing - though it's not the only flaw; the CVT gearbox sounds like Doc Brown invented a vacuum capable of sucking up the whole of 1985; the steering is over light; getting comfortable behind the wheel is strangely difficult; and there's the gushing din of wind to deal with from the A-pillars at anything over 60mph.

Yet the engine-drivetrain partnership is a truly great one. Stick it in EV mode and you've got silent, CO2-free progress on your hands - albeit for less than two miles before the battery runs out. The good thing is, though, that because the electric motors (there are two of them, with the rear one providing 'intelligent' four-wheel drive) can work either alone or as part of a team with the V6 petrol engine, the RX manages to be both clean and brisk. There's plenty of torque there, and it uses its 295bhp total output nicely to keep things moving rapidly well beyond motorway speeds.

Worth Noting

The 450h is the only version of the new RX that will be available in the UK, ever; there'll be no non-hybrid version and no diesel. It's because Lexus wants to be known as a premium brand with an environmental conscience. And in case you're thinking Lexus would still be better off working on a really frugal diesel instead of going the hybrid route, know that the RX 450h has NOx emissions (the stuff that's harmful to humans but that no one really talks about) of just 0.0129 - a figure that no diesel, not nowhere, not no how, can get close to.

Summary

The new Lexus RX 450h is the SUV-loving company car owner's dream, or, in fact, the dream of any parsimoniously minded 4x4 fan for that mater. However, that's really its sole redeeming quality, because it's frustratingly lacking in the main qualities you could, and should, expect of a car costing this much and wearing a Lexus badge. The ride is appalling, it's noisy, the interior design is no better than in a Toyota hatchback and the quality, though largely decent, is patchy. Basically, Lexus SUVs should waft about the place with a monolithic presence that says, "I've made it." This doesn't. It'll jiggle you about until you wished you were taking your kids to school in something else.

Mark Nichol - 1 May 2009









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2009 Lexus RX 450h. Image by Lexus.2009 Lexus RX 450h. Image by Lexus.2009 Lexus RX 450h. Image by Lexus.2009 Lexus RX 450h. Image by Lexus.2009 Lexus RX 450h. Image by Lexus.

2009 Lexus RX 450h. Image by Lexus.2009 Lexus RX 450h. Image by Lexus.2009 Lexus RX 450h. Image by Lexus.2009 Lexus RX 450h. Image by Lexus.2009 Lexus RX 450h. Image by Lexus.



2009 Lexus RX 450h. Image by Mark Nichol.
 

2009 Lexus RX 450h. Image by Mark Nichol.
 

2009 Lexus RX 450h. Image by Mark Nichol.
 

2009 Lexus RX 450h. Image by Mark Nichol.
 

2009 Lexus RX 450h. Image by Mark Nichol.
 

2009 Lexus RX 450h. Image by Lexus.
 






 

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