The Lexus RX 450h is a gas-electric hybrid version of the RX 350 crossover sport-utility vehicle. By any standard, it has been a smash success for Lexus since it first launched as a 2006 model. A significant number of Lexus SUV buyers have opted for the “hybrid upgrade,” making the Lexus RX 450h the most popular hybrid sport utility in 2012.
After leaving the original RX hybrid series dormant in 2009, Toyota came back in the 2010 model year with the 450h, which offered more power and significantly improved fuel economy. The current model may only be three years old, but with competitors rolling out updated or all-new premium crossovers, it’s already high time for the RX to be refreshed. Mechanically, this is the same vehicle as its previous model.
For 2013, Lexus has given the RX 450h and its gasoline sibling a mild face-lift, revisions to the backside and a modest interior makeover. The RX 450h is available in a front-wheel drive (FWD) model with a base price of $45,910, an increase of $675 over the 2012 model, and an all-wheel drive (AWD) version starting at $47,310, up $465.
Under The Hood
The gas-electric RX 450h features a 3.5-liter V6 Atkinson-cycle engine (a more fuel-efficient version of the conventional four-stroke Otto-cycle engine) that is rated at 245 horsepower and 234 pound-feet of torque. The front-drive model’s hybrid powertrain employs two motor-generators. One is an engine-driven generator that operates as an engine starter and can charge the battery pack or power other electric motors as needed. The second is a 167-horsepower motor that works with the gas engine to deliver power to the front wheels. Total output of this pairing is 295 horsepower. And no, the combined horsepower rating of 295 is not a typo. Peak output for the RX 450h’s gas engine and electric motor occur at different rpm ranges. Therefore, combined power ratings represent peak power delivery in real-world operating conditions and take into account the unique rpm when each peak occurs.
The engine and drive motor are connected to a continuously variable transmission, which is engineered to manage the various sources of power in a way that maximizes the RX 450h’s efficiency. Beyond the engine and the motor, there’s a 288-volt nickel metal hydride battery pack tucked neatly under the second-row seats. When the vehicle brakes, some of the energy is captured and sent to the battery pack.
A third, rear-mounted motor-generator is added on the AWD model to drive the rear wheels. Though the luxury hybrid SUV is an all-wheel drive vehicle, it is not suited for off-road driving. The system does not have a mechanical driveshaft from the front to the rear, and doesn’t require power-transfer gearing. Instead, it simply demands more torque from the rear electric motor as road conditions demand.
Like all Lexus hybrids, the RX 450h can operate in electric-only or gas-engine-only modes as well as a combination of both. Under certain circumstances, a driver-selectable EV mode can allow the vehicle to be driven short distances (read: a mile or so) using only the electric motors. And, with the batteries sufficiently charged, the hybrid system can shut off the engine when the car is stopped, and then turn it on again when the brake pedal is released.
The result of this electronic wizardry when combined with the V6 is an EPA fuel mileage rating of 32/28 city/highway and 30 combined for the FWD model, while the AWD version has estimates of 30/28/29. As for emissions, the RX 450h achieves California’s Super Ultra Low Emission Vehicle (SULEV) certification.
The 2013 Lexus RX 450h’s signature styling feature is its sewing spindle-shaped trapezoidal grille that’s already made its debut on the GS sport sedans. The upper grille and slanted lower grille have been combined and integrated into a single element that projects an aggressive frontal design. A new headlamp shape incorporates LED daytime running lights that reflect the Lexus “L” design motif, as do the redesigned combination rear lamps, an as do also the combination rear lamps.
The fastback profile hasn’t changed and the RX 450h continues with pronounced front fenders that flow into the doors, along with integrated rear fender flares that neatly sweep around to pull together the taut rear corners of the vehicle.
Changes to the interior are subtle, including a redesigned steering wheel that Lexus says has a more comfortable and relaxing grip. The glove box receives new metallic accents and designers squeezed more storage room in the center console. The cabin also gets new Ebony Bird’s-Eye Maple wood trim and available Saddle Leather interior. In addition to ECO mode, for 2013, Lexus added a Sport mode that modifies the steering effort, throttle mapping and transmission shift priorities to provide a quicker response to driver inputs.
Inside, the RX 450h is everything you’d expect from a luxury SUV, but some features you might expect to come standard will cost a little extra. The 450h comes standard with a power tilt/telescoping steering column, a nine-speaker sound system, an interactive information screen, dual-zone climate control and a power liftgate among others. But if you really want the full luxury car experience you’ll have to pay more. Leather seating is now extra; a 15-speaker sound system is available, as are video monitors for blind spots, and most importantly, Lexus’ Remote Touch control system, which is packaged with the optional navigation system.
Lexus believes Remote Touch is the technology that will replace touch-screen consoles, which require too much attention and reach from the driver. With Remote Touch, the driver can navigate the vehicle’s onboard computer using a small touch-activated joystick located at the base of the center console. Though there is a bit of a learning curve, once you get the hang of it remote touch is a revelation.
Like the luxury brand’s other hybrids, the RX 450h’s display screen can display the power flow between the drivetrain’s electric motors, engine and battery. In place of the RX 350’s tachometer is a gauge showing electric motor assist versus battery recharging.
Standard 10-way power front seats are shaped and cushioned for long-haul comfort, and abundant seat and steering wheel adjustments make it easy to tailor a comfortable driving position. Rear seats mimic the fronts’ comfort plus, they slide fore and aft, as well as recline.
Behind the rear seats, the RX 400h has an average amount of space for a five-passenger midsize SUV. It provides 40 cubic feet with the seats up and 80.3 cubic feet with the rear seats folded down.
On The Road
The hybrid powertrain is seamless in operation and the engine stop/start function is imperceptible. Overall, the RX 450h delivers a very quiet and a comfortable, car-like ride. Power delivery is immediate, but smooth, and merging, passing or moving through fast traffic is effortless.
When it comes to handling, the RX is no corner carver. It is a tall, heavy vehicle, with the suspension dialed toward comfort resulting in noticeable body roll, even on gentle curves. In other words, exciting performance is absent.
But the “fun factor” isn’t the whole story when it comes to the RX 450h. Sure it’s what gets people who test drive cars for a living out of bed every morning, but most drivers are looking for something smooth, safe and fuel efficient – qualities the RX 450h has in spades.
And about that fuel efficiency; our 127-mile test drive of an AWD model a couple years back yielded 31.6 mpg, easily beating EPA numbers.
The RX 450h is quite expensive. The starting price of $45,910 means that the added fuel economy comes at a cost of $6,600 over its non-hybrid sibling, the RX 350. For city driving, this efficiency boost is 14 mpg, on the highway the difference is a much more modest 3 mpg. Even with fuel prices where they are, it may not be possible for this hybrid to recoup its higher cost from its overall efficiency.
For about $1,500 less than the base FWD RX hybrid, a Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited comes with a host of luxury standard features, including leather seating, which is optional on the 450h. Plus, it seats seven, all-wheel drive is standard and its 28/28/28 fuel mileage rating isn’t that far off the Lexus.
If you’re set on a luxury crossover but sporty performance is more important than fuel economy, check out BMW’s X5. It’s one of the sportiest in the luxury SUV segment, and each of its turbocharged engines packs plenty of punch. Starting at $47,500 the X5 is expensive compared with the rest of the class, but not much more expensive than the Lexus RX 450h.
Want luxury, good handling and above average fuel economy? The diesel-powered Volkswagen Touareg shouldn’t be overlooked. The interior is spacious, comfortable and the quality of the materials and fit and finish are top drawer. The VW’s twin-turbocharged diesel engine spools out 225 horsepower and a massive 406 pound-feet of torque while delivering an EPA fuel economy rating of 19/28/22. Priced starting at $46,875, it’s more fun to drive than the Lexus but not more than the BMW.
Bottom line: There are more powerful, entertaining and attractive means to transport five people and their weekend gear, but that’s not what the RX hybrid is about. It’s about the destination, not the drive. And, finances aside, this crossover appears to have more value as a green, eco-conscious alternative for people with money, who want to do their small part to mitigate climate change or reduce oil dependence.
Prices are manufacturer suggested retail price (MSRP) at time of publication and do not include destination charges, taxes or licensing.