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Published on Monday 20 May 2013 23:33
Ten Second Review
The Lexus RX 450h has evolved. While the hybrid drivetrain remains largely unchanged, the car has come in for some styling tweaks, it now rides better than ever before and there's a lot more standard equipment included in the deal. Best of all for those who like to enjoy their driving, there's now also the option of a sharper handling F Sport version.
Even the most experienced motoring writers get it wrong sometimes. When the Lexus RX400h first appeared in 2005, many felt that this was a clever and intriguing technical achievement, but a hybrid SUV was something that didn't really have much of a market. Others felt that it was Lexus building something just because they could while some claimed it was because the company didn't have access to state of the art diesel engines so had to build these silly hybrids instead. All wrong, as the benefit of years of hindsight have afforded us.
With virtually every SUV manufacturer worth its salt now rushing to develop a hybrid model, Lexus has the satisfaction of being first by a very long way. Still, that satisfaction will count for nothing if it's overtaken and squeezed out of the market by arriviste rivals who can build better products, hence this updated and improved latest generation range that crucially includes a variant with a more dynamic handling edge, this one, the RX450h F Sport.
RX450h F Sport customers don't get any extra power than is offered elsewhere in the range. So customers still get that wonderful 246bhp 3.5-litre V6 supplemented by an electric motor on each axle, which gives the four-wheel-drive Lexus a maximum potential output of 295bhp. Still, this is enough to endow it with quite a crisp turn of speed, resulting in a 7.8s sprint to 62mph and a top speed of 124mph. Like every hybrid RX, you'll get a creamy smooth pull away even first thing on a cold morning, with none of the chugging and clattering you'd associate with a big-banger of a diesel.
What F Sport customers do exclusively get is a clever lateral damper system that increases stability and improves ride comfort by absorbing small vibrations. One damper is mounted like a strut brace at the front and there's another at the back that adjusts in line with changes in the body rigidity, noise and vibration of your surroundings to give the best possible absorption of body torsion, flex and vibration. Lexus has also introduced an additional Sport mode for its Lexus Hybrid Drive system. Selecting Sport by using a switch on the redesigned steering wheel modifies the throttle and electric power steering settings to gain faster responses, and also programmes the Vehicle Stability Control and traction control for less intrusive operation, letting the driver further exploit the car's dynamic abilities.
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. Both front and rear lighting is revised too and features the blue tinting that marks out Lexus hybrid models. This F Sport model goes a stage further still, with a deeper, more vertical front bumper and a dedicated mesh treatment for the grilles.
There are also a number of detail improvements throughout the cabin. There's a revised steering wheel, incorporating a new selector switch for the hybrid system's drive modes, and the operation of the Remote Touch controller has been revised so that it works more like a computer mouse. The Lexus attention to detail even extends to increasing the opening angle of the centre console box lid to make it easier to reach items inside. It's still not the biggest SUV inside, but the 496-litres of boot space with the seats in place is respectable.
As usual in the rear, two passengers will be comfortable but three will need to be on friendly terms. The bench conceals the three battery packs that power the Hybrid drive system but that doesn't stop it being extremely flexible, sliding backwards and forwards so that either luggage space or legroom can be prioritised and reclining for greater comfort on longer journeys.
Market and Model
RX450h pricing starts at around £45,000, but you'll need well over £50,000 for this F Sport model. Like the F Sport version of the GS, this is no fire-breathing beastie, instead getting sharper styling and lightly tuned suspension. Style-wise, the F Sport differentiates itself with a deeper, more vertical front bumper and a dedicated mesh treatment for the upper and lower grilles. Customers also get 19-inch alloy wheels and F Sport badging on the exterior, while inside there are aluminium-effect pedals and trim inserts, F Sport smooth leather upholstery and scuff plates with the Lexus logo in black. There is also a black roof lining and a bespoke steering wheel with a stitched leather trim. Other equipment features include a head-up display, and LED headlights with the I-AFS adaptive system that angles the light beam in line with the vehicle turning angle through bends and at junctions.
As with all RX 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 and a nine-speaker sound system with a six CD-changer.
Cost of Ownership
The cost issue will be central to determining whether the faith Lexus has shown in hybrid technology is justified and the figures attached to the RX 450h are certainly encouraging. Lexus claims the car can achieve a creditable 44.8mpg on the combined cycle and emits just 145g/km of CO2, the kind of returns that you might expect from a 1.6-litre family hatchback. If it can replicate this showing in the real world, the omens will be very good.
The electric motors assist the petrol engine when the RX 450h is operating at lower speeds or when extra acceleration is called for but the car is capable of operating solely on electric power for short periods. Drivers are able to select ECO, EV and SNOW modes which assist the driver in different circumstances. EV is the fully electric setting which shuts down the V6 petrol engine, while ECO smoothes out throttle inputs and encourages a smoother, more economical driving style. SNOW mode works to increase stability and maximise traction on slippery surfaces but it's not an off-road mode. Lexus is very clear that the RX 450h is a road-going 4x4, to the extent that it usually refers to the car as a crossover in its promotional literature.
The F Sport tweaks offer a sharper edge to the RX450h package but they don't noticeably change its overall appeal which remains sensible rather than sensual. This Lexus' hybrid package is one of those ideas that many people only realise is a winner when other manufacturers validate the concept through imitation. And while this Japanese brand might well be flattered by the fact that the likes of Volkswagen and Porsche have introduced hybrid SUVs of their own, it only serves to make the RX 450h's lot that much more difficult.
Still, one thing the RX has in its favour is a lack of a diesel sibling to steal sales from it. If you want a Lexus RX, you buy with one a hybrid motor. That keeps the proposition simple. Volkswagen Touareg and Porsche Cayenne drivers increasingly step to the cheaper diesel models. So would Lexus RX buyers do the same if there was a really strong diesel model on offer? I'm guessing they would, but we can only judge the vehicles that are put in front of us and the RX has developed into a car with a specific character of its own, that doesn't try to be a rufty-tufty off-roader, especially in F Sport guise. This low-profile, high concept style is what has attracted many buyers around the world. Expect that to continue..