Toyota may be the undisputed leader in hybrid sales both worldwide and in the United States but so far its plan to eventually expand hybrid availability to almost its entire lineup isn't resulting in huge market rewards for its premium Lexus brand. Lexus now offers four different hybrids, (with the compact CT200h joining as the fifth next year) but so far only the original mid-size RX crossover has achieved any significant measure of commercial success.
Even the dedicated hybrid HS250h has less than half the sales volume of the RX450h with the GS450h and LS600h only finding 15 buyers each in August 2010. The RX450h is actually Toyota's second best selling hybrid behind the iconic Prius. We just spent a week with the RX450h to learn more about its appeal.
The current RX is the third generation of the Lexus luxury crossover and it remains far and away the best selling vehicle in the segment. The latest edition is essentially the same length and height as the previous edition but about two inches wider. The styling of the RX is a clear evolution of the second generation model but not all of the changes are improvements. The weakest element of the design is the nose with a bumper that appears to be too high up and then immediately disappears as slopes back toward the front wheels. The effect is the appearance of a missing chin especially from the front three quarter angle. Our tester was equipped with the optional LED headlamp package that provides outstanding lighting of the road ahead while consuming less energy than the standard halogens. The LED lamps also incorporate the adaptive lighting system that tilts the lamps into a corner when the steering wheel is turned to aid nighttime visibility.
The extra width of the new model is manifested in a new broad shouldered appearance with a groove just below the window line. The side glass shape is almost identical to the old model and the biggest difference at the rear is the slimmer tail light cluster design that has been pulled away from the lower edge of the glass. Like the GS and LS hybrids, the RX450h is barely distinguished from the conventional RX350. A slim air intake slot has been added just below the grille, discreet hybrid badges are added in the trim along the lower edge of the rear doors and the background of the "L" badge is filled with a blue gradient rather than the usual black.
Inside the RX has a sweeping, slightly futuristic looking dashboard covered in premium soft-touch materials. The seats, steering wheel and shift knob are all covered in high quality looking leather and unlike the LS460L we drove recently, there weren't and visible adjacent surfaces with mismatched leather and plastic. The large central navigation screen proved to be glare free and unlike the similar looking display in the Toyota Venza doesn't disappear if the driver is wearing polarized sunglasses.
One of the more innovative features that Lexus debuted simultaneously on the latest RX and the HS sedan is the haptic control interface for the infotainment system. The controller in the center console has a stubby joystick with a flat square top. Moving the joystick controls a cursor on the central display just like moving a computer mouse. However, this device provides feedback that a mouse can't. When the cursor approaches the edge of a click-able button the display, the joystick suddenly provides some resistance so the driver can "feel" their way around the screen without having to concentrate on precise placement of the cursor. The system actually works quite well and in some ways is preferable to a touch screen.
In order to physically reach a touch screen it needs to be mounted closer to the driver which also means more of a change of focus for the driver to look at it. Mounting the screen further out on the top of the dash means that the driver's focus doesn't have to change as much and it's easier to see in the driver's peripheral vision while still looking at the road.
The RX450h we reviewed was also equipped with the optional Mark Levinson 15-speaker surround sound audio system, and the premium package that includes the power moon-roof and USB audio inputs. In an era when almost everyone carries multiple personal electronic devices, climbing into the RX and looking for power and USB ports proved immediately frustrating. After spending a good ten minutes crawling around trying to find somewhere to plug in the phone and iPod we finally resorted to the manual. It turns out that the liner in the center console bin under the armrest is actually removable. Way down in the bottom underneath that liner are two 12 volt sockets, the auxiliary audio and USB inputs. Why these couldn't simply be integrated into the bin without having to remove it seems to be a dubious design decision.
Aside from that most of the rest of the interior is pretty functional. Both the front and rear seats are roomy and comfortable and the fronts are both heated and cooled if the comfort package is selected. The transmission shift lever sticks out almost horizontally from the center stack and offers a slot for manual tap-shifting although few RX drivers are likely to use it. As a hybrid the RX actually has its electric motors integrated into an electronic continuously variable transmission so any "fixed" gear ratios are just programmed in anyway. With the rear seat backs in place the RX offers 40 cubic feet of storage capacity which was more than enough to accommodate most of this reviewer's daughter's possessions for her move to Michigan State University. With the seats folded flat cargo space doubles to 80.3 cubic feet.
This second generation hybrid RX still uses Toyota's smooth running V6 but the displacement has been bumped from 3.3 to 3.5-liters with a corresponding boost in total output (engine plus electric drive) from 268 to 295 horsepower. Like the latest Prius, the RX has Eco, Normal and Sport driving modes which modify the responses of the throttle and transmission to driver inputs. The Eco mode filters out small inputs to the gas pedal which tend to increase fuel consumption and also lets the cruise control system vary the speed over a wider range.
Just as in the latest generation Prius, Toyota engineers have refined the powertrain control system to the point where the transition between engine on and off is virtually undetectable. There is no longer any shudder when the engine shuts off while cruising or stopping and restarts simply blend in. Aside from being eerily quiet when cruising in electric mode at 40 mph, the RX450h feels just like a conventional RX350. Acceleration was ample although not exciting regardless of the operating mode. Similarly the steering was well weighted but didn't seem to provide any noticeable feedback when cornering. Overall the entire driving experience was exceptionally ordinary.
The front-wheel-drive RX450h that we drove has no towing capability at all and the all-wheel-drive model only has a capacity of 3,500 pounds. If you need to do some more serious towing or prefer a livelier, sportier driving experience with similar fuel consumption, Audi's Q7 TDI is definitely the preferred option with it's diesel-powered 6,600 pound towing capability.
For those that don't need any towing capacity and mostly drive around town, the RX450h is an excellent choice for a luxury crossover for up to five passengers. The EPA rates it 32 mpg city and 28 mph highway. In our week driving it, the RX returned about 29 mpg in city driving and 27 mpg in combined overall driving with a heavier mix of highway miles, numbers that would have been scoffed at in a 4,500 pound crossover a decade ago. The base price for the front-drive model is $41,660 and our tester had a bottom line of $51,685 including destination and delivery charges.