As we mentioned in the beginning of the Toyota Prius review, the hybrid technology has been around for over a hundred years, with the first innovations in this area being made by none other than a young Ferdinand Porsche. Oddly, although they had brought "peace" and co-existence between electric motors and internal combustion engines, hybrids didn't caught on until the "we're running out of oil" pressure began to really show its fangs at the end of the twentieth century.
It was the year 1997 when Toyota unveiled the world's first mass-produced hybrid car, in the form of the first generation Prius. A bit over eight years later, the Japanese released their first crossover/SUV
hybrids, represented by the Lexus RX 400h and the Toyota Harrier Hybrid, consequently.
Basically identical cars, but with different badges and features, these versions of the RX/Harrier twins took everyone by surprise by being the first modern all-wheel drive hybrids. As expected, the Lexus RX was the premium car of the two, with the Toyota Harrier being sold only on the Japanese market at first, to a more... "popular" clientele, especially since the Lexus brand was exclusively American at the time.
Being officially launched at the 2004 North American International Auto Show, in Detroit, the hybrid version of the Lexus RX became commercially available the following year. Technically, its Hybrid Synergy Drive system was a beefed up version of the one found on the second generation of the Prius, but with the aid of a 3.3-liter V6 instead of a puny four-cylinder.
A bit unexpectedly for some, the RX 400h managed to sell so well that it convinced Toyota to offer another hybrid version of its premium crossover for the third generation of the Lexus RX as well. They didn't rest on their laurels though, and the resulting RX 450h is more powerful and it has even better fuel economy than its predecessor.
Since we were rather curious about how the latest premium hybrid crossover from Lexus stacks up on its offerings, especially since the competition has began to heat up, we took an RX 450h for testing and managed to find out quite a few interesting things. Read on to see what we liked and what we didn't about this urban premium crossover.
For the first time during its lineage of three generations, the Lexus RX no longer shares its bodywork with the Toyota Harrier. There are two reasons for this. First of all, when the Lexus brand was finally launched in Japan, it would have become a bit redundant to offer two almost identical cars under different badges.
In other words, the Toyota Harrier was discontinued, along with its hybrid version. Second of all, after more than a decade of sharing designs with "regular" Toyota models, Lexus was finally given a design language of their own, with the RX being the fourth international model to benefit from this move.
The so-called "L-finesse" design language, as it appeared on cars like the GS, the LS and the IS is interesting to say the least, with much more than a handful of people considering it very elegant and proper for a premium car maker. The way it was implemented on the RX, on the other hand, is a bit questionable.
Even though the car is still not an SUV in full letters, but a mid-size crossover, it has increased in size quite a lot over the years. To be more explicit, applying a design language called "L-finesse" on a bloated car like the third-generation RX is like dressing a girl with the physique of Homer Simpson in sexy lingerie. Cute, but it doesn't quite remind you of watching Victoria's Secret commercials, does it?
Taking them individually, pretty much all the design elements present on our test car were gorgeous, to say the least. The front grille is very elegant and in touch with the versions found on RX's sedan brothers, which of course finally brings cohesion between all the Lexus models. The headlights' shape is both classy and evil, all these making for a pretty good looking front-end.
The side and the rear view on the other hand remind us of a number of things, except a good-looking car. The sporty-hatchback-on-stilts look of the first and second generation is completely gone, instead being replaced by an amalgam of "L-finesse" details entangling each other with the gigantic pieces of metal Lexus calls "doors".
The "Hybrid" lettering on the side is nicely integrated into the rear door now, but the height of the doors is simply amazing, making the whole lateral arrangement remind us of the "Short Bus". A nice touch at the rear is the spoiler, which integrates the rear window wiper. The squared "Altezza" taillights on the other hand are a bit "against" the sleekness of the headlights, giving the rear of the car a very blocky look. Thing is the RX cannot be called ugly, but its latest design proportions and the integration of certain elements are controversial to say the least.
Taking all the stories about Lexus comfort without any pinch of salt, when we got inside the RX 450h for the first time we were expecting to sit on fluffy pillows, while a couple of naked Thai masseuses would jump from the glove compartment to provide a nice and... cozy atmosphere. Well, the truth is that our high expectations were a bit let down by a number of factors. No, it wasn't because the lack of car-integrated-Thai-masseuses...
First of all, the so-called wood inserts on the doors and on the center console are so blatantly made of wood-imitating plastic it actually hurts the eye. We would expect and almost be OK with plastic "wood" inserts on cheap econoboxes trying to rise up in the world, not on a 70,000+ euros premium crossover/SUV. Second of all, the quality of the [rest of the] plastics found on the center console isn't much better than that found on a 25,000 euros Toyota Prius, which we believe is saying something about the subject of "premium versus popular" in the Toyota group.
Leaving these two troubles behind, the rest of the RX's interior is pretty much top notch. The beige aniline leather looks very "Camry" at first glance, but its softness is of Bentley quality. We're not kidding about this bit. Also, every seat feels like it belongs to a living room, not to a car. The comfort they provide to every one of the maximum of five passengers is simply astonishing, while the interior features can make almost anyone feel at home.
Th overall interior space is more than adequate for four or even five fully-grown passengers, as long as they're not all like our 6 foot 6 (200 centimeters) colleague we're "using" to measure the inside of most of the cars we test. Also, despite the car using a pretty large set of batteries and another electric engine for the rear wheels, the luggage compartment is pretty large, with almost 500 liters (17.7 cubic feet) of available storage.
Another bit we really liked about the interior was the availability of small but useful storage spaces everywhere around the car. You can put your keys, your Coke (the soda, not the sniffing kind), your coffee, your papers, your glasses and a bunch of other stuff you need with you in the car. All in all, the practicality and the comfort of the interior almost made us "forgive" the two drawbacks we first mentioned about it. Still, we may forgive, but we don't forget.
Although this is a two-tonne crossover that runs on gas, with all-wheel drive and all the interior amenities of a premium SUV, we were expecting a pretty good performance from the RX 450h in the city. First of all, it's much easier to park than you would expect just by looking at its rather large size, even though our test car wasn't equipped with the optional side-view camera.
Whenever we would put the car into reverse, it would automatically change the position of both of its side mirrors to point more downwards, while the rear view camera would also activate to show you what's going on behind the car. On top of that, there are front and rear parking sensors to guide you between cars in the unfortunate case when you can't see how close you are to another vehicle.
Unfortunately, there are only two front parking sensors and not even those do their job very well. In other words, don't rely on them as much as on other cars.
As far as visibility goes, it is excellent in almost every direction. Huge rear view mirrors coupled with the very high seating position and the addition of an extra side-window take care of almost any blind spot, while the addition of [mildly] good all-round parking sensors and a rear view camera takes care of the rest.
What about the fuel consumption, you say? Well, this was actually the most pleasant surprise during our test drive. But first, the bad news. If you're going to drive the RX 450h just like your average crossover/SUV you're not going to get near the official fuel consumption figures. We did that at first and we achieved almost double the 6.6 liters per 100 kilometers (US 35.6 mpg) claimed by Lexus.
If you let yourself be "trained" by the center console display when "how-the-hybrid-system-works" is shown on it, the fuel consumption will amazingly drop to about 9 liters per 100 kilometers (US 26.1 mpg) or even closer to the official numbers, but it all goes down to how much you're willing to change your driving style. The good (or bad, depending on how you look at it) part is that you don't feel guilty or making a compromise by changing the way you drive.
With a combined total of 299 horsepower available from all the engines aboard the car, the Lexus RX 450h shouldn't exactly be a slouch outside the city limits, right? Wrong. It won't die on you when attempting a highway pass, but this is no Ferrari. The 7.8 seconds required to go from naught to 100 km/h (62 mph) feel a more like 9 or 10 in real life, "thanks" to the way the E-CVT
"transmission" behaves and the softness of the seats and the suspension.
Even though the maximum torque available from its three engines at a given moment can easily exceed 500 Nm (368.8 lb ft), the car feels rather sluggish when accelerating at higher speeds. We suspect this is of course a result of the aforementioned "transmission" and the fact that the Lexus RX 450h has a dry weight of almost 2200 kilograms (4580 pounds), which isn't exactly featherweight class.
Another downside, but only if you're a sportier driver, is the utterly dead feel of the steering. It's like the steering input given by the driver gets lost on the way to the front wheels. There was more than one occasion when we were feeling like being part of a 1950s American road-trip movie, where the central character is driving an ol' Cadillac on a desert road in a straight line, but constantly making steering corrections for no reason whatsoever.
Also, the softness of the suspension and the large height of the cockpit are completely inappropriate for dynamic driving, even though our test car was equipped with an active sway bar in the rear. But enough with the bad stuff on the open road section of our test drive, what about the good stuff? Well, despite its rather sluggish acceleration feel and the fact that the steering is as anesthetized as someone having a lobotomy, we also liked a lot of features from the RX 450h during a longer trip outside the city.
First of all, the plush seats and the suspension settings are enough to put almost anyone sitting in the rear to sleep. The suspension comfort is not as great as the one in the BMW 5-Series Gran Turismo we tested a while back, especially if the BMW's suspension is on the softest level, but that is mostly a subjective feeling probably caused by the shorter wheelbase on the Lexus. Still, there is no way someone would say something bad about the suspension comfort of an RX, since it's simply majestic. Plus, if you want something even more comfortable you can always opt for the pneumatic suspension, which is available on the European RX 450h "President" trim level.
Another immense plus is the acoustic comfort at high speeds. To put it simply, you can have a relaxed conversation and understand your passengers without the need to yell at up to... let's say highly illegal speeds. In other words, the sound proofing is probably best in class.
As far as driving over rougher roads, the RX 450h sports a ground clearance of only 175 mm, so you shouldn't put its off-road capabilities on the highest pedestal. This is a premium crossover based on a sedan after all, not a thoroughbred 4x4. Speaking of which, the only time when the RX 450h actually behaves like an all-wheel drive vehicle is on very slippery surfaces or when accelerating hard. In 99% of normal driving, the electric motor in the rear will only be used to charge the batteries during braking.
The fuel consumption figures during our open road stint were around seven liters per 100 kilometers (US 33.6 mpg). This was of course achieved while on a more relaxed driving session, since that is the type of driving the car pushes you to anyway. Not too shabby, considering the official 6.3 liters per 100 km (US 37.3 mpg), but especially taking into account the car's humongous weight.