2012 Lexus RX 450h Road Test Review

Simon Hill - CAP staff
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First introduced in 1998, the Lexus RX was one of the earliest luxury crossovers on the market. It is also one of the most successful - in the U.S. it has been the best-selling vehicle in the segment since its launch, and is now into its third generation.

With a track record like that, Lexus could have been forgiven for resting the RX on its laurels, but instead the company launched another first in 2005: the RX 400h luxury crossover hybrid. Like the rest of the RX lineup, the 400h was redesigned for 2009, donning the new third-generation bodywork and becoming the RX 450h. And if ever there was a car for the times, the RX 450h would certainly qualify. It offers the kind of space, practicality and luxury that buyers have grown to expect, while maintaining the kind of efficiency that today's high gas prices demand.

For 2012 Lexus has made only minor adjustments to the RX 450h prescription, making the USB audio input standard throughout the range and dropping the Smokey Granite Mica and Cerulean Blue Metallic paint colours in favour of Mercury Grey Metallic and Satin Cashmere Metallic. I tried out a 450h in Tungsten Pearl Metallic for a week, and thoroughly enjoyed its sumptuous frugality.

Now you might argue that no crossover weighing 2,110 kg (4,810 lbs) is truly frugal, not even a hybrid; especially when you consider that a gasoline-powered RX 350 equipped similarly to my $66,700 hybrid test car would clock in at $59,450  - a full $7,250 less than the RX 450h. But that's before you look at the city/hwy fuel economy numbers: 11.8 / 8.3 L/100km for the RX 350, and 6.7 / 7.2 L/100km for the RX450h. The RX 450h's city rating is better than a Toyota Corolla, and yet it achieves that while carrying you (and several friends if you desire, plus luggage) around in opulent luxury. If, like me, you do a lot of stop-and-go city driving, this is of huge significance.

Look at it this way: The RX 450h uses only 57 percent as much fuel to get around the city as the RX 350. If you're a typical crossover driver who uses $80 of fuel per week ($3,840 per year), the RX 450h should have more than justified its price premium before a standard 5-year loan is paid off, and still have higher residual value. I drove the RX 450h all week, racking up a fair number of kilometers, and still didn't break $30 at the gas station.

You certainly can't argue about the RX 450h's sumptuousness, especially when equipped with my test car's Ultra Premium 1 options package. The standard trim includes the full range of expected safety equipment (airbags, ABS brakes, all-wheel drive, stability control and such) and an already impressive array of convenience and luxury features: Perforated leather power-adjustable seating (heated and ventilated, of course), dual-zone climate control, 9-speaker audio system, walnut or bird's-eye maple wood trim, smart key with pushbutton start, backup camera, split-fold reclining rear seats, power windows, power moonroof, auto-leveling headlights, and more.

The Ultra Premium 1 package replaces the standard 18-inch alloys with 19-inch alloys, and adds an upgraded 15-speaker Mark Levinson surround sound audio system, upgraded premium leather upholstery, extendable thigh supports, intuitive parking assist, voice-activated navigation system with Remote Touch, leather and wood shift knob/steering wheel, wide-view side monitor, and the list goes on. What's not on the list, but which struck me every time I settled into the driver's seat, was how good the RX 450h feels and smells inside: Everything you touch seems to be deeply padded, and there's nary a scent of plastic - just rich leather and luxury.

Under the hood, the RX 450h gets an Atkinson-cycle 3.5L 6-cylinder engine mated to a constant-velocity CVT transmission and augmented by three high-torque electric motors to produce a combined 295 horsepower. During braking, the electric motors act as generators to recapture energy and store it a nickel metal hydride motive battery. Thanks to the generally low-revving nature of the Atkinson-cycle engine, the smoothness of the CVT transmission and the abundant sound proofing in the RX 450h, the powertrain whisks you around in your wood, leather and surround-sound cocoon in an impressively quiet and unruffled manner. A side benefit of this is to encourage the kind of mellow, relaxed driving that helps produce outstanding fuel economy, though if you do stomp on the accelerator in a moment of impatience the RX 450h rewards you with a burst of surprisingly authoritative acceleration and a pleasantly throaty growl.

In keeping with the RX 450h's sumptuous nature, the suspension is tuned more for compliance and isolation than for handling, but it produces decent grip in the corners and remains competent and well-behaved when driven smoothly. If you unsettle the suspension by changing lines mid-corner the RX 450h will remind you that it's a heavy vehicle with a soft suspension, but even then it's not a harsh reminder, just a bit of inevitable wallowing.

So, is there anything not to like about the RX 450h? Well, the styling isn't to everyone's taste: The hybrid gets a slightly different front-end treatment than the RX 350, but in either case the bodywork has a somewhat hunched appearance at the back and a large amount of overhang at the front. I'm also not sure how I'd feel over the long run about a car that so effectively isolates the driver from the the road - sometimes I'd prefer a little more engagement with the driving process (that said, I'm the kind of driver whose own car has a manual transmission by preference). I certainly can't fault the RX 450h's mouse-style Remote Touch menu control system: The haptic feedback feature is absolutely stellar, letting you "feel" buttons on the screen as you roll over them, and the menu system is impressively intuitive.

Overall, if you're shopping for a well-appointed crossover you should definitely put the RX 450h on the list of candidates to consider. Suggested pricing starts at $59,700 (plus $1,950 in destination charges) and tops out at $72,200 if you select the $12,500 Ultra Premium 2 package. With the $7,000 Ultra Premium 1 package, my test car clocked in at $66,700. While this is certainly a premium over the standard RX 350, the RX 450h offers a winning combination of sumptuous luxury, on-the-road refinement and real-world fuel economy, particularly in stop-and-go city driving.

©(Copyright Canadian Auto Press)

Topics: Crossover, Hybrid, Lexus, 2012, RX 450h, $50,000 - $74,999,

Organizations: Lexus

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