For 2015 the RX 450h hybrid carries forward as an alternative in Lexus’ best-selling line of vehicles.
Like low-calorie cake, the highly contented RX 450h in all-wheel- or front-wheel-drive lets drivers oxymoronically indulge without the gas-guzzling guilt assuming they can justify its $6,650 premium to get an extra 9 mpg over RX 350 compatriots.
The two-row suburbanite cushmobile gets the fuel mileage of a four-cylinder sedan while providing more room, the power of a V8, and it outsells the also fully contented three-row Toyota Highlander Hybrid by nearly three-to-one.
The RX hybrid actually originated the luxury crossover hybrid sub segment a decade ago. It saw a facelift for 2013 and revisions since, and is close to getting a thorough redesign but still stands strong.
Competitors have risen to challenge it, but for now combined mpg of 29 for AWD and 30 mpg for FWD remains best in class, and is among the best the EPA rates for all SUVs sold, and with legendary reliability and customer service baked in.
This year the RX 450h gets a few updates including standard seven-inch display audio, new wheels and paint, optional HID and LED headlamps, and updated navigation system.
Lexus Hybrid Drive
The primary distinguishing feature between the RX 450h and RX 350 is of course, under the hood. There you’ll find concealed under expanses of plastic beauty covers what is essentially Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive full parallel/series hybrid system albeit re-named because this is a Lexus.
The system has four modes of operation from low-speed pure EV to Normal to Eco and Sport and the RX 450h can operate in electric-only or gas-engine-only modes as well as a combination of both.
It’s also a more powerful system than found in a 200-horsepower four-cylinder Camry Hybrid or Lexus ES hybrid. Specifically, an Atkinson cycle 3.5-liter V6 is merged up front with a 116-kilowatt electric motor generator adds to 295 system horsepower with robust but unspecified total torque. Out back for the “all weather drive” model is an additional 50-kw motor that helps in slippery conditions and adds to the acceleration.
Incidentally, Tesla just made public relations hay with its all-wheel-drive P85D version of the Model S which uses front and rear motors. The Tesla EV is special in other ways, but the principle of its AWD system is not original, as Lexus has had something like it for years, as has the Toyota Highlander Hybrid.
Unique is there’s no mechanical driveshaft between front and rear and nothing for the RX driver to do to engage rear wheel drive. On one hand, that makes the RX ill-suited for off-roading, not that matters for whom this car is catering. On the positive side, those same targeted drivers will be happy it just works when the need is sensed.
Power is otherwise routed for the RX’s front-wheel drive portion by a planetary-type continuously variable transmission (CVT). A 288-volt nickel metal hydride (Ni-MH) battery pack under the second-row seats stores power from brake regeneration and a third motor generator.
Pod On Wheels
Americans tend to love their SUVs and crossovers and this one with the big “L” on the updated spindle grille is just so much more rich than a humble Honda CR-V, or other work-a-day five-person people hauler.
The exterior design of the RX is otherwise less than ostentatious, and it blends well enough into suburban landscapes like camouflage garments do in the woods. Most people are not bothered by it. Others have said it’s a bit feminine, or neutered, or best suited for soccer moms and grandparents.
It is unique with its ovalized lines pretending to be a truck, but it is really more like a Camry or ES with the dimensions enlarged. Cargo area is the same as the RX 350 at 40 cubic feet and 80.3 with seatbacks folded.
Packed With Features
Driver and occupant accommodations are quite plush, and the RX comes standard with a laundry list of infotainment, creature comforts, and with plenty of space for people.
In the standard car are touches like bird’s eye maple and dual automatic climate control as well as heated front seats. Also included is a Display Audio with Rear Backup Camera, a 12-speaker sound system or optional 15-speaker Mark Levinson Surround Sound system with 330 watts and 0.1 percent total harmonic distortion.
Options include dual rear seven-inch LCD screens for passengers, and the RS includes Safety Connect which is subscription based, optional navigation, end Enform with Safety Connect to communicate with 24/7/365 response centers. Subscription-based features come free the first year.
Also packed in is Apple’s Siri Eyes Free Mode technology to connect with compatible devices and phones.
Why is the RX line Lexus’ best seller? Because it’s the quintessential have-it-all car, with good power, economy, ride, and decent handling, if not super sharp – something has to give.
As for that power, 0-60 for the quicker AWD has been clocked on a good day as low as 6.7 seconds, and the quarter mile has gone by in 14.9 seconds. That’s pretty sporty, and should put to silence other publications that have said this vehicle is suited for the AARP set.
Even at a more-realistic 7-plus-second 0-60, the RX 450h is a virtual lightening bolt next to an utterly sensible choice like Toyota Prius v which may be 3-seconds slower to 60.
But that’s only part of what the car is about – especially this one, being a hybrid. Most of the time, that power can be used simply as needed and it’s just as happy to mozy and sip fuel. We got 26-28 mpg without taking much care, and in mixed driving once in a while using the quickness to enter a roadway and keep pushing drivers off our back.
Better mpg is certainly attainable, and we’ve seen as high as 31.6 on a previous long test drive. Officially the AWD is rated 30 mpg city, 28 highway, 29 combined. The FWD is 32 mpg city, 28 highway, 30 combined.
Unfortunately fuel tank size is smaller at 17.2 gallons next to the RX 350’s 19.2 gallons, so estimated driving range is only 499-516 for the hybrid next to 384-403 for the non-hybrid.
Meanwhile, the drive is ordinarily quiet and road comfort is as much as most people would want. The taller 235/60R18 tires or 235/55R19 tires on two optional alloy wheel packages combined with sufficient suspension travel make soaking bumps no problem.
Handling rough roads with truck-like security in this car in disguise is the RX’s forte. However, a Porsche Macan, it is not.
Although there’s a “Sport” mode, the torquey gas-electric powertrain with CVT in car approaching 5,000 pounds with driver makes using that of less value than an SUV truly positioned as a sporty driver.
Several German utes will blitz through a slalom course with more poise than the RX, but it’s not so soft as to be a safety hazard. It is actually able to hustle with decent, if not exciting or fun, ability – assuming you have decent ability as a driver.
And around town or on the highway – where most people think to use vehicles not preening for an excursion to a track day – the RX is just the prescription the doctor ordered. So there’s how one could stretch definitions and call this sporty: it will sprint to pick up the kids, or groceries, and gallop cross country on vacation. That is its natural habitat, ordinary usage, and that’s where it can best satisfy.
Like every car ever purchased, its pros and cons are something to be gotten used to. It’s otherwise predictable and manageable, and for the target car buyer, its benefits outweigh its drawbacks.
Thumbs Up Or Down?
Those looking for a do-everything vehicle from a brand with reputation for reliability that regularly ranks high in customer satisfaction will take a shining to the RX.
As for that hybrid price premium? We think the extra $6,550 is a bit steep for 9 mpg rated improvement over the RX 350 non-hybrid version, and is not as good a deal as the hybrid Lexus ES sedan’s 16 mpg improvement for $2,880 difference.
Payback for the “hybrid upgrade” will be longer for the RX 450h, but at this level, will that matter? Truth is, folks pay extra for luxury after objectively and subjectively perceiving the sum package for the outlay, and fuel economy is being treated as a luxury item in this case. And the RX 450h AWD versions do also add more value as well as hardware with their sophisticated three-motor powertrain with drive-shaft-free AWD. However even between the FWD RX 450h and RX 350 without the AWD hybrid’s fancy rear drive, Lexus asks the same $6,550 premium. Given how Lexus prices things, the $1,400 extra for AWD looks relatively reasonable, and it’s a no-brainer for those who drive in inclement weather and snow.
And how does it price the RX 450h? Lexus lists the base FWD at $48,545, and the AWD at $49,945 including $925 destination. The AWD model we drove had a bottom line of $59,709 with the heaviest up-charge coming from a $6,115 comprehensive luxury package including the semi-aniline leather and $1,915 voice-commanded navigation package.
Aside from mentioned competitors from Germany, one more could be the smaller, less powerful, Lexus NX hybrid crossover being launched for 2015 in the U.S. which has been a hit in Japan since launching earlier this year. This more-efficient vehicle presents a more edgy and youthful counterpoint – and is all new.
Meanwhile, the RX 450h is smaller than the Mercedes ML and BMW X5, and lacks a third row like the X5, Acura MDX, and even nicely-appointed Toyota Highlander Hybrid. For its redesign, Lexus is reportedly mulling whether a longer three-row RX 450h may be in order, especially with product overlap from the new NX, and otherwise lacking this seven-eight-passenger capacity other automakers now offer.
As it is, the RX 450h is a nice crossover that delivers what a lot of people want. It’s a useful but cozy vehicle and will insulate drivers on the road in comfort for nearly every situation they will ordinarily encounter.