When hybrid vehicles first started hitting the streets, all of the offerings were compact cars with very little practicality and quirky designs. Exactly 10 years since the first hybrid vehicles were offered in the U.S., the current market has a much different landscape ranging from small sedans up to full-size luxury SUVs. Fitting in right in the middle, Toyota Motor Corporation found quite a lucrative niche by introducing a hybrid version of its luxury crossover, the Lexus RX. With a new look and upgraded powertrain for 2010, the all-new Lexus RX 450h is more luxurious and more fuel efficient than its predecessor.
In terms of the hybrid model, the RX 450h is literally in a class by itself as no other luxury automakers came up with an answer for the fuel-sipping Lexus, but scale things back to the basic RX and the market is flooded with competitors that include the Acura MDX, Cadillac SRX and BMW X5. The base 2010 RX 450h has a starting MSRP of $41,660 (almost a $5,000 premium over the base RX 350), but the model we drove added a handful of pricey option packages to take the as-tested price up to $51,165. After a week behind the wheel in a broad mix of city and highway driving, we were very impressed with the new RX despite its price tag that creeps up very close to a handful of full-size luxury SUVs.
2010 Lexus RX 450h Exterior
Like almost every other Lexus model offered, the third-generation RX still uses conservative design, but it has a more athletic look and stance than its predecessors thanks to the incorporation of Lexus' 'L-finesse'? design language. The D-pillar is about the only design cue shared between the second- and third-generation RX designs, but the new model adds a more aggressive face with a larger grille and narrow headlamps to help and has subtle shoulder lines to eliminate the slab-sided effect of the outgoing model. Although the new RX has improved in terms of styling, Lexus worked hard to keep clutter to a minimum as evident by the rear window wiper blade being hidden behind the liftgate spoiler. Even the lower edges of the RX feature stylish chrome accent strips that act to better tie the painted surfaces and the matte gray, textured plastic surfaces together.
Visual cues that are specific to the 450h are limited in number but are effective enough to allow the trained eye to distinguish between the hybrid and non-hybrid models. Besides the obvious hybrid badges incorporated into the lower side chrome trim, the 450h also gets unique headlamps, taillights, and front and rear Lexus emblems that feature a subtle hint of blue. Our test model just happened to come in a Black Sapphire Pearl that tied in quite well with these dark blue accents.
2010 Lexus RX 450h Interior
Inside, the RX offers a near-flawless atmosphere that is achieved with a stylish, ergonomic design, a full array of soft, luxurious materials on every surface and in the case of our test vehicle, about $9,000 in option upgrades. Compared to the previous generation RX, the 2010 model is slightly larger, but the layout of the instrument panel and center console is what really helps to open up the interior. The two-tone instrument panel is accented with dark wood and light aluminum accents, and it puts most of the controls within an easy reach of the driver. We say most of the controls because our biggest gripe (ok, maybe nitpick) about the interior is the location of the stereo channel tuning knob which is half way across the instrument panel from the driver. Then again, who listens to the radio anymore? For those people, there is a USB port in the lower trenches of the center console storage compartment along with a pair of power outlets - the USB port was part of a $2,400 package that also included the power moonroof, power liftgate and three memory positions for the driver's seat. Our test model also upgraded to a 12-speaker premium sound system that included a six-disc, in-dash CD/DVD player for an additional $610.
Once behind the wheel, the RX is easy to get comfortable in thanks to the 10-way power front seats and the power tilt and telescoping steering wheel, but the atmosphere it provides is amazing thanks to the abundance of rich, soft leather and one of the softest surfaces imaginable wrapping the A-pillar trim. Even the distinguishing blue accents outside the RX 450h are carried over into the interior in the instrument gauges with a soothing blue backlighting. For rear seat passengers, this model had a rather pricey ($4,980) package that lumped dual-screen rear seat DVD entertainment system in with the satellite-based navigation system. Heated and ventilated front seats finished off the option packages at just $640.
If it sounds like we're a huge fan of this interior, it's because we are, but the biggest news inside the new RX is Lexus' new Remote Touch Controller that blows away BMW's iDrive, Audi's MMI and Mercedes-Benz's COMAND driver control systems. Pretty much if the driver knows how to operate a computer mouse, then he or she can operate Remote Touch Controller. Not only does the controller look and feel like a computer mouse, but the cursor is also able to lock on to certain on-screen buttons when rolling over menu options to make selections easier. All RX models get the large, high-mounted display screen to show basic vehicle functions, but the models equipped with navigation also use the display for a rearview monitor as well as XM's NavTraffic and NavWeather.
Some hybrids place the batteries in usable cargo space, eliminating part of the 'utility'? in SUV, but with the batteries mounted under the rear seat in the RX 2010 450h, cargo capacity is not affected in comparison to the RX 350. With the rear seats up, the RX holds 40 cubic feet of cargo, but with the 40/20/40 split rear seat folded flat, capacity doubles up to 80.3 cubic feet. The seats can either be released from the side door or from the rear cargo area making the conversion from passenger compartment to cargo storage an easier task.
2010 Lexus RX 450h Performance & Handling
Both RX models use a 3.5-liter DOHC V-6 which is tuned to produce 245 horsepower and 234 lb-ft of torque in the hybrid model we tested, while the electric motor helps to increase the overall system output to a respectable 295 horsepower. In addition to the 167-horsepower electric motor that drives the front wheels and enables regenerative braking, the Lexus RX 450h also employs another motor that acts as a generator that, among other tasks, restarts the engine and allows the air conditioning and power steering to remain operational when the engine cuts off. The all-wheel drive models use a third electric motor (68 horsepower) to power the rear wheels. All motors are powered by a 37kW nickel metal hydride battery (Ni-MH) pack mounted under the rear seat. Shifting duties are performed by an electronically controlled continuously variable transmission that feels more responsive and connected than just about any other CVT on the market. In the end, the RX 450h's extra technology improves EPA fuel economy estimates to 32 miles per gallon in the city and 28 mpg on the highway (a gain of 14 mpg in the city and 4 mpg on the highway over the 2010 RX 350).
Although we were impressed with the smoothness of the RX 450h in most driving conditions whether electric or engine propelled, the transition from electric to gasoline operation was a bit harsh. To conserve fuel, the engine cuts off at low speeds under light acceleration and at stops. We were able to drive up to 30 miles per hour in electric mode only before the engine kicked in, and once it did, acceleration was surprisingly quick. Despite weighing almost 500 pounds more than the 2009 RX 350 we drove last year, the 2010 RX 450h actually feels more compliant thanks to stretched width and wheelbase as well as revised rear suspension that replaces the MacPherson strut setup with a double wishbone setup.
2010 Lexus RX 450h Safety
The Lexus RX has received top safety rating from both the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Although the NHTSA only tested the RX 350 (we're not sure if the added weight or electrical complexity of the 450h'has any bearing on the RX's safety), it gave the crossover quadruple five-star ratings for frontal- and side-impact protection and a typical (for crossovers and SUVs) four-star rollover rating. The IIHS gave the new Lexus RX (models were not specified) Good ratings in all three categories and named it a Top Safety Pick.
Lexus once again pushes the envelope of the luxury crossover segment with its all-new RX 450h by giving it a more luxurious cabin, a more powerful drivetrain and a more fuel-efficient hybrid system. The 2010 Lexus RX 450h is a perfect vehicle for people who drive mainly in the city but still desire high levels of luxury without opting for a full-size, gas-guzzling SUV or sedan.
Select photos by Jeffrey N. Ross