Upscale crossover blends luxury, power and economy
With gasoline prices hovering below $3 a gallon, how are manufacturers selling hybrids, which cost more than equivalent gasoline-only models? If fuel prices were higher, the pay-back period would be shorter. But as things now stands, it's much harder to justify paying thousands more for better mileage, at least on an economic basis.
Lexus has one answer - make the hybrid a version of something people don't mind paying more for. There are plenty of midsize crossover SUVs that cost less than the best-selling 2010 RX 450. Buyers are willing (even eager) to pay the higher price, however, because they are so refined. To many of them, the hybrid version is just another must-have option.
As the most upscale model, the RX 450h has all the positives of the gasoline-only version, including slick styling, voluminous interior space, a powerful 3.5 V6 engine and options that range from all-wheel-drive to heated and ventilated front seats, a dual-screen rear seat entertainment system and a 15-speaker Mark Levinson surround sound stereo.
The hybrid version builds on those features by adding 20 horsepower will increase fuel economy by eight miles per gallon. This is accomplished by dual electric motors that provide power around town and kick in when needed for accelerations, like freeway passing situations.
The shift of power between the gasoline engine and electric motors is barely noticeable. A slight shudder is occasionally felt when the engine fires up for the first time or pulling away from dead stops. The transition is too smooth notice most of the time, however.
There's a simple reason why the hybrid system in the RX 450h is so unnoticeable - the rest of it is just so good. The RX 450h is one of the quietest, most comfortable and best-mannered vehicles on the market, including all luxury cars and premium SUVs. With the windows rolled up, outside sounds barely intrude. The seats are well-bolstered and supportive. Interior fit and finish is excellent, with little hard plastic and a well-designed center console and numerous storage bins.
On the road, the RX 450h feels solid and isolated from uneven road serves. Acceleration is leisurely when only provided by the electric motors, but plenty of power is on tap from the V6 when needed. The Electronically-Controlled Continuously Variable Transmission is beyond smooth, and also features a manual shift mode from more spirited driving. The four-wheel disc brakes are responsive and effective.
Some reviewers have complained that the handling is lackluster. The truth is, Lexus engineers have clearly tilted the RX 450 models more towards comfort than sport. Given the sales figures, they seem to know their market pretty well. Maybe that's why the shift lever looks like a golf club.
Out test vehicle was not without its quirks, however. The navigation system had one of the most informative mapping systems we've ever seen. But using the mouse-like controller to access other information thorough the view screen requires drivers to take their eyes off the road too long - especially since some of them, like climate and stereo settings, are already available through the conventional dash buttons. The controls for the heat and ventilated from seats were also hard to find and use, although they performed well.
The other Lexus hybrid, the all-new HS250h, is under supicion these days because it is based on the 2010 Toyota Prius. Both have been recalled because of brake problems. No such problems have yet surfaced with the RX 450h, which uses a different system. During a week of sometimes spirited driving around the Portland area, we experienced no braking problems with our test vehicle.
The basic styling of the RX line has been around for more than 10 years now, beginning with the 300, first introduced in 1999. The sleek lines have been copied by numerous other manufacturers, included Kia and Hyundai, which have incorporated them into their newest SUVs. As a result, although the RX 450h is attractive, it is beginning to look somewhat generic these days.
The Lexus excels in quality and sophistication, however - including the availability of a hybrid system that increases both horsepower and mileage without sacrificing drivability.
Facts and figures
• Model: 2010 RX 450h.
• Manufacturer: Lexus.
• Class: Midsize crossover.
• Layout: Front engine, front-wheel and all-wheel-drive.
• Style: Four-door, five passenger wagon.
• Engines: 3.5-liter V6 with VVT front and rear electric motors (294 hp.).
• Transmissions: Elecronically Controlled Continuously Variable Transmission (ECTV).
• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 30/28
• Price: Beginning at approximately $43,250 (as tested $59,553).