Test Drive: 2013 Lexus RX 450h

By Kevin Harrison

There’s now a trend within Toyota’s premium division: make your top trim level a hybrid. It’s an interesting concept. Usually top trim levels have the most power coming from either a V6, a V8 or even bigger. You want a bigger engine -you gotta pony up the cash.

But Lexus justifies making their top tier trims as hybrids because, believe it or not, they are almost always more powerful than their regular gas engined counterparts. It’s almost as if they’re trying to make hybrids the new ‘Hemi’ in terms of appeal.

Toyota is known for having the most hybrid vehicles available in their line up of any manufacturer so it’s clear they believe in the technology. Hybrids have been on our roads for close to 15 years now and to be honest, there still are a few among us who are not quite convinced.

This is where Lexus is hoping to sway the opinions of the skeptics. You can have your cake and eat it too, they claim. How about a mid-size luxury sport utility that gets, according to them, “the fuel efficiency of a non-hybrid compact sedan and significantly lower smog-forming emissions”.

Sound too good to be true? I thought so too. So I tried one to find out.

For 2013 the RX, one of the most popular and most recognizable vehicles in the Lexus lineup gets a corporate family look. Now it has LED running lights matched with Lexus’ signature ‘spindle’ grille. On the RX 450h you’ll also get a much tamer looking grille as opposed to the eye-catching RX 350 F-Sport’s black honeycomb grille. In my opinion, if you’re going to pony up the cash for the top of the line trim of any vehicle, the superior visual cues should go with it. I parked the RX 450h next to a black 2013 RX 350 F-Sport and it was quite obvious which was the better looking variant -as evidenced by the attention the F-Sport was getting from the public. But I digress. The RX’s design still holds the overall shape it had when it debuted about 17 years ago. Yes, the RX has been around for that long and the design remains fresh.

Step inside the RX 450h and you’ll immediately be greeted with upscale appointments, soft touch surfaces and top notch build quality – this is a Lexus after all. With that said, the GS 450h I tested last year felt much more luxurious and upscale. I can’t quite put my finger on why, however little things like the cheap sound of the turn indicators, the clunkiness of the gearshift and the late 90′s looking dash all contrasted the GS’s interior to the point where the difference was noticeable. To be fair, the GS was a complete redesign and the RX just has a facelift.  Besides, the interior is still a very nice place to be especially thanks to the excellent sounding stereo system. There is a mouse-like feature on the centre console that’s meant to be an answer to system’s like BMW’s iDrive system. I’m not sure it’s any easier to use – just a different way of scrolling through endless menus and sub-menus. I did find the ‘mouse’ to be a bit sensitive at first, but I eventually got used to it.

The seats are quite comfortable however there is an obvious lack in side-bolstering and I found the bottom part of the seats to be short. I found my thighs needed a little extra support in that regard. The rear passengers on the other hand have it made in the shade with good head and legroom matched with the ability to recline the seats. There’s no third row seating which makes way for ample cargo room with the rear seats up – 40 cubic feet worth to be exact. That number doubles with the seats down.

The RX 450h comes with a 3.5-litre V6 Atkinson-cycle engine with three electric motors. Yes, that’s right, three. On front wheel drive RX models the two electric motors help power the front wheels. All-wheel drive adds a third motor for the rear wheels. The end result when combined is 295 horsepower. That power is mated to a CVT transmission and is good enough for a 0-100 run in 7.5 seconds. Just as an FYI – the regular gas engined RX 350 can run from 0-100 in pretty much the same time. The RX 450h can run on all three electric motors alone up to 50 km/h though which the RX 350 obviously cannot do.

There are four driving modes available on the RX 450h: sport, normal, snow and eco. Obviously I used sport mode more often than not and a big reason why is because it stiffens up the suspension, tightens up steering feel and gives all the juice available from the electric motor. Normal is, well, quite normal, and eco-mode is quite yawn inducing as you’d expect. One of my gripes with this kind of set up is having to scroll through the menu every single time to find the sport setting. Since I prefer performance to anything else I drove this vehicle in sport mode 90% of the time. That meant that I had to physically go through the menu each time I started up the RX just to get to my preferred driving mode. It also means that, if I were a buyer, I’d have to do this several times a day for several years. Chances are, if you prefer sporty driving characteristics, you won’t suddenly have a wave of schizophrenia and change modes week after week. So why not just keep it in the mode I originally set it in until I say otherwise?

Anyway, let’s get to fuel efficiency which really is supposedly the cherry to the RX’ 450h’s cake. Well, it’s a cake in sport mode anyway. With the other modes you’ll just find sluggish acceleration, terrible steering feel and the general sense that you are driving a barge. But I digress. The official fuel efficiency numbers are 6.7 L/100 kms city and 7.2 L/100 kms highway. If you’re at all a regular reader of this site (which you really should be) then you will have noticed that I recently reviewed the micro-car Chevrolet Spark. It’s rated at 7.1 L/100 kms city. Even though the Spark’s poor gas mileage is the fault of nonsensical engineering, it’s still quite impressive that this mid-size luxury SUV gets better mileage than a tiny city commuter.

And perhaps that’s the main reason why the RX 450h remains so appealing even at the upper trim level. It has great room, great luxury, good driving dynamics (in sport mode anyway), and very very good fuel efficiency. The only real issue I see is the price.

Everyone says the Germans are bad for bundling up options. Why is bundling bad? Well let’s say you want a sunroof. With most car manufacturers nowadays, a sunroof is no longer a stand alone option. You need to buy a package which includes a sunroof but also a whole host of other things you might not want or not. And not only might you not need those extras, but you’ll be paying a lot more for them than you normally would for just a regular sunroof. It’s frustrating for the consumer but believe me, you haven’t even seen frustrated until you’ve seen Lexus’ packaging options. Lexus offers packages on the RX 450h anywhere from $4,100 to $15,000. Yes, you read that right, a $15,000 option package. Now, let’s assume you buy your RX 450h bone stock. You’re looking at a $6,000 premium over an RX 350 (which is just as fast, remember) so that means you’re looking at around an eight year payback in gas savings before you break even. Ouch.

But let’s compare the RX 450h to its competition a bit more. If you look at the BMW X5 diesel, the Mercedes-Benz ML 350 Blutech and the Porsche Cayenne Hybrid, well, the RX undoubtedly comes up on top for least amount of time for payback as it is the cheapest. So it’s all relative.

If you examine the RX 450h on its own without those variables, then it is without a doubt a fine achievement in engineering, luxury and innovation.

Base Price: $56,750

Pros:

  • Luxurious interior
  • Quiet, comfortable & smooth ride
  • Superb fuel efficiency
  • Good head, leg and cargo room

Cons:

  • Package pricing is unbelievably expensive
  • Having to cycle through the driving modes each time you start it up
  • Not any quicker than the less expensive RX 350
  • RX 350 is definitely more eye catching

Immediate Competition:

  • BMW X5 diesel
  • Mercedes-Benz ML 350 Blutech
  • Porsche Cayenne Hybrid
  • Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid/diesel

Overall: 7/10

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