Having your hybrid, and luxury, too
Yes, enlightened 21st-century driver, sometimes you can have it all. The 2011 Lexus RX 450h uses some of the most sophisticated technology available on the planet to deliver the all-wheel drive versatility ushered in by the SUV era a couple of decades ago, while cocooning passengers in a shell of uplevel creature comforts. It also delivers better combined fuel economy than the average four-cylinder mid-size sedan.
This four-door, five-passenger upscale sport ute also happens to be easy on the eyes, with the sort of self-assured, strong-shouldered, scoop-waisted look that one expects from a modern crossover utility vehicle, although is understated in announcing its hybrid status, with small badges. Standard wheels and tires are 18 inchers and tuck into large wheel wells, while optional 19-inch wheels give the ute an even stronger stance.
We drove this fairly pricey mid-sized model as our daily driver for a week, clocking over 200 miles, and using it for a wide variety of tasks that ranged from pleasure to work, carrying goods and gear that loaded with ease into the well-proportioned cargo hold.
First, the History…
The Lexus RX hybrid came to market as the original premium offering in its class, when it was introduced as the RX400h in 2004, following on the heels of the gas-only RX330, which was unveiled in 2003. The current models, which were updated for 2010, are a tick taller, as well as longer, wider and heavier; comparatively, the petrol-only version is priced at a savings of approximately $5,000.
Basically carry-over from last year, changes include the repositioning of the 12-volt outlet from within the center console to the outside and the elimination of the Sport Package. Initially built in Japan, the stablemates are now assembled in Ontario, Canada, and are known for their interior quality, smooth ride and quiet cabin. They are the top-selling Lexus models and also top safety picks.
Now, the hybrid
Spawned from Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive, the RX 450h’s powerplant is a 3.5-liter V6 engine paired with electric motors and a power-control unit for fuel savings. The combination delivers 295 total horsepower and has been rated by the EPA at 30 mpg city, 28 mpg highway, 29 mpg combined on the all-wheel drive model. The Front Wheel Drive (FWD) version gets an EPA-estimated 32 mpg city and 28 mpg highway (30 mpg combined).
As a full hybrid, the RX 450h can operate in electric-only or gasoline-engine-only modes, as well as in a combined mode. The gas engine alone produces 245 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 234 lb.-ft. torque at 4,800 rpm. The electric motor is fueled by a compact 288V DC Nickel Metal Hydride (Ni-MH) battery pack, which fits neatly under the rear seat.
Low-speed and stop-and-go driving is powered primarily by the electric motor; a driver-selected EV mode can propel the RX for short distances using the electric motors only. When the RX 450h is coasting or braking, the electric motors function as generators, capturing energy that would normally be lost as heat through the brakes and transforming it into electricity to recharge the batteries.
The RX 450h FWD model’s hybrid powertrain employs two motor-generators: one is a starter and can charge the battery pack or power other electric motors as needed; the second is the front-drive motor. The all-wheel drive model adds a third, rear-mounted motor-generator (MGR) to drive the rear wheels.
Putting it to the Test
Think of slicing warm butter with a smooth table knife
With a thick stabilizer bar in front and rear double wishbone suspension, the RX 450h gives a silky, stable ride. A high seating position provides great visibility of the road, and an electric power steering system further increases fuel economy, while making steering easier.
Our on-demand AWD hybrid model felt planted at all times on pavement and graded dirt roads, but carried itself as slightly bulky and hefty, with a curb weight of 4,652, which is more than 400 lbs. heavier than its predecessor. Power is more than ample to move it quickly and, when needed, it has a launch boost under full throttle that feels turbo-like. The crossover moves through its gearing via a seamless electronically-controlled, continuously-variable-transmission (ECVT).
Lexus puts all of its safety and handling acronyms under one umbrella: Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (VDIM). Anti-lock Braking System (ABS), Brake Assist (BA), Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) and Traction Control (TRAC) – with electronic throttle control system are all controlled through the VDIM computer, but TRAC and VSC functions can be switched off to get out of snow or muddy situations. Notable are 10 airbags.
Brakes are vented front discs with two-piston front calipers and rear discs. Standard Hill-start Assist Control (HAC) uses brake pressure to help prevent the RX450h from moving backward, when starting on an incline.
Other cool safety and performance technologies include Intelligent Adaptive Front-lighting System (AFS) for high beams of HID headlamp equipped models, and for the low beams of the LED equipped models, and a pre-collision system (also optional) that helps detect vehicle distance from others to avoid crashes.
…and now the luxury
The 2011 Lexus hybrid crossover is designed with a high level of comfort and convenience, from keyless entry and push-button start to the power tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, which moves out of the way for you when you enter the car, then slides back into place (along with the driver’s seat) according to the way in which you’ve programmed it.
Although leather isn’t standard, it’s worth the upgrade, and an even higher-end aniline leather trim is available as well. Wood accents are standard, as is a high-end, nine-speaker sound system. The front seats come with 10-way power adjustments, and there are six 12-volt power outlets throughout the cabin and cargo area.
As you’d expect, there are a variety of luxury upgrades available, including a Comfort Package with heated and ventilated front seats and rain-sensing wipers; Head’s Up Display; LED headlamps with headlamp washers; a 15-speaker Mark Levinson audio system; a top-of-the-line, dual rear-screen entertainment system; intuitive parking assist; and an uplevel navigation package.
If you’re a car technology geek, the new Lexus RX 450h with its power-flow display screens will give you goosebumps. Its sophisticated hybrid powertrain engineering, high-end gadgetry and alphabet soup of personal technology, safety and handling and voice-recognition software systems will leave you gratified.
And if you just want an attractive and well-groomed luxury car that will adorn the carport while being gentler on the environment, the Lexus’ latest crossover will be just as satisfying – even if you think “intake valve” has more to do with Chesapeake Bay oysters than with a gasoline engine.