Published on Wednesday 16 April 2014 16:58
Ten Second Review
Large, plush SUV motoring suits hybrid technology perfectly, but only Lexus has brought us a package that delivers running costs low enough and a driving experience desirable enough to make the whole concept really worth considering. In the RX450h, the Japanese brand showcases a decade of experience with petrol/electric powerplants and with this smarter, sharper revised version, has polished the package still further.
If ever a category of car cried out for a more efficient means of forward motion, it's the luxury SUV. For most of us, such a vehicle is only viable to own when equipped with a diesel powerplant - but even that attracts quite a bottom line running cost penalty. You'd expect then, that by now, hybrid engines would be common in this segment. They're not - and it's still only Lexus that can provide one with running cost returns that really do offer a significant advantage over diesel power. In this car, the RX450h.
Since 2005, the brand has been largely unchallenged in offering customers hybrid power in this sector, first with the RX400h and, since 2009, with its replacement, this pokier but more efficient RX450h model. Lexus though, is well aware that competition is about to get a lot tougher as rivals finally get their act together, hence the need for the far-reaching package of improvements introduced to RX450h buyers in the Autumn of 2012. Supposedly sportier, certainly more luxurious, even better looking and offering the same astonishing supermini-style running costs as before, this is, more than ever, the thinking person's luxury SUV. Let's check it out.
So what's it like? Well you get in, luxuriate in the beautiful leather seats and enjoy the commanding SUV-style driving position before pressing the starter button to be greeted by.. nothing. The engine's running, true enough. It's just that at this point, it's doing so silently under battery power alone and if you've a gentle right foot, that's all it will continue to use at speeds of up to 30mph before the 3.5-litre V6 petrol engine kicks in, controlled via a six-speed CVT auto gearbox. But before I go any further, time perhaps, for a recap on hybrid technology.
In case you're still unfamiliar with it, essentially this is a method of power that uses a combination of an internal combustion engine and electric motors. The petrol unit in question here is the 246bhp 3.5-litre V6 I've just mentioned and is supplemented by no fewer than two electric motors, both now torqier than before with one located on each axle. The first 165bhp unit sits on the front axle driving the front wheels. Another smaller motor at the rear contributes a further 67bhp and is thus able, somewhat nominally, to make this Lexus into a four-wheel drive car, though one with a very pronounced frontward power bias.
It's all enough to take this 2.2-tonne SUV from rest to sixty in 7.8s on the way to 124mph. While this doesn't place the car in the league of the quickest V8 petrol luxury 4x4s, it remains pretty rapid for a car of the RX450h's size and weight. This isn't the most dynamic car in its class but an extra 'Sport' drive mode has been added that sharpens up the steering and throttle response if you're in a hurry. And the range also offers a more focused F Sport derivative with a neat lateral damping system that's supposed to improve stability and corner turn-in. The top Premier version gets air suspension.
Design and Build
Brand followers will recognise this improved RX450h by its smarter front end incorporating the spindle-shaped arrangement for the upper and lower front grilles that's a central element in current Lexus design.
At the wheel, owners familiar with the original RX450h model will find fewer changes to catch the eye, with a dashboard divided, as before, into upper and lower zones and marked out by an 8-inch colour LCD screen controlled by a unique mouse-style controller.
Through the lovely leather-stitched wheel, you glimpse instruments that have a beautifully choreographed lighting sequence when you enter and exit the car, the lefthand dial, as usual with Lexus hybrids, being a hybrid indicator rather than a rev counter, encouraging the driver to keep the needle in the blue 'Charge' and 'Eco' segments rather than the white 'Power' section above.
As usual in the rear, two passengers will be comfortable but three will need to be on friendly terms. Out back, the 496-litre boot isn't especially big by class standards but with all those batteries having to be stowed somewhere, I was expecting a lot worse. With everything flat, up to 1,760-litres of total space is available.
Market and Model
List prices suggest that you'll pay somewhere between £45,000 and £55,000 for your RX450h. Decide that you want one and your remaining choices aren't too onerous given that this design comes only in petrol/electric hybrid form with the same combined 295bhp Hybrid drive system output, whichever variant you select.
The SE model is the starting point, but you'll need a £4,000 premium to graduate up to the 'Luxury'-spec level that gives you satellite navigation, with a further £3,500 on top of that if you're to get the sportier looks and sharper driving responses of the F Sport model I've been using here with its lateral damping system and neat head-up display. To experience everything this RX has to offer though, you'll need more than £55,000, the budget required for the flagship Premier variant, the only one with air suspension and the full-house 15-speaker suround sound Mark Levinson stereo system that Lexus folk love so much.
All RX models are pretty well equipped, including a number of items that would cost extra on rival German models. Expect to find alloy wheels, High Intensity Discharge headlamps, auto wipers, a rear parking monitor, leather upholstery, heated and powered front seats, dual-zone climate control, cruise control, Bluetooth connectivity, 10 airbags and a nine-speaker sound system with a six CD-changer.
Cost of Ownership
The returns on offer from this RX450h - 44.8mpg on the combined cycle and 145g/km - look very good indeed, the world's lowest from a premium SUV. In fact, only one diesel alternative in this segment - the Mercedes ML250 CDI BlueTEC - gets close to this kind of showing, actually matching this Lexus' fuel figure, but its performance is more leisurely and it still puts out 20g/km more CO2. And it's that CO2 figure that'll really make the difference when it comes to the bottom line figure on your tax return.
Of course, much of the time - when you're waiting at a traffic crossing for example with the engine seamlessly disabled and battery power in motion - you won't be emitting any CO2 at all, plus it helps in this respect that cold weather operational efficiency has been improved by 30%.
Electric-only use doesn't just eliminate CO2 dirtiness: it also gets ride of NOx exhaust emissions too, green-friendliness today's government wants to incentivise. As a result, Lexus reckons that ownership of this car could save higher-rate tax payers up to £9,734 a year judged against some less efficient diesel rivals, while at the same time, the companies they work for will benefit from a handy 20% write-down allowance against tax.
This isn't the most capable luxury SUV you can buy. It isn't the sportiest to drive. And it's not the most affordable to buy. But despite all of that, it's the only one an increasing number of well-heeled buyers can justify owning. Once you've bought the thing, after all, its running costs are hugely less than even the most frugal of its diesel competitors.
While other manufacturers dithered over hybrid technology, Toyota's Lexus division got on and developed it. Their first hybrid RX was an impressive achievement and this one has added a significantly improved driving experience to existing strengths of comfort, refinement and a high specification.
This improved version has a smarter look and a slightly more dynamic edge but the reasons you'll want to buy one really haven't changed very much. Quite simply, it's the only car of this kind you can drive with a clear, green conscience. And that's something it's hard to put a price on.