The Lexus RX450h is the flagship version of an aggressively-styled medium sports utility.
Wednesday July 27, 2016
For: Comfortable and massively refined, fantastic Mark Levinson audio.
Against: Vexing ergonomics, styling drama not matched by driving appeal.
WHEN you stop to think about it, the Lexus we know now is so different – by and large – to the one that started it all back in 1989 that just two aspects, the badge and an ethos of excellence, really remain as common ties.
Nothing wrong with this degree of change. It’s a positive form of progress. Although the original Lexus limo was a landmark car, it was also conservative knitting that quickly dated.
The same fate befell the luxury-first ES and GS sedans that followed; all were exceptionally well-built but restrained cars for people who determined to play ultra-safe with their luxury choices.
Has that chapter ended? Not quite: Lexus still makes LS, ES and GS sedans, but the first and second hardly achieve any runs at all any more and the GS is a different thing now, having re-invented as a sports sedan.
Now we’re meeting Lexus version two; the one that racier, more adventurous. This is the Lexus that came to the fore when Akio Toyoda, the young boss of parent brand Toyota, decided that his prestige marque needed to be more fun and spirited.
He effectively took the brand from the old guard and handed it over to engineers and designers who were rising through the ranks; young bloods with fresh ideas and a desire to prove themselves.
I admired the old Lexus. But it never built cars I’d ever want to own. I like the new Lexus a lot more – its very best effort, the LFA supercar is among the cars I’d love to acquire for the Lotto first division-fuelled fantasy garage we all think about.
Of course, even Lexus cannot sustain on supercar sales alone. It requires volume product to keep the factory working, and with sports utilities now being the biggest selling type of vehicle here and overseas, then clearly the RX tested here is among those that have a particular priority.
The only catch? Well, it might be that major point of difference. Lexus (and, increasingly) Toyota keep banging on about how hybrid technology is of such growing importance, but fact is that the battery-assisted petrol push is still regarded as being quite niche. Though the RX is a strong seller for Lexus, it remains niches within the medium SUV niche in which it exists. Is that because this drivetrain type is still troubled in answering that salient question: What exactly does it do to make it as good as, even better than, the fully orthodox – that’s mainly diesel but, increasingly, also direct-injection petrol mills – that dominate this sector?
Actually, now that plug-in PHEV tech is starting to show, with the likes of the Volvo XC90 T8 we recently drove, isn’t that a better way, still, than the solution Lexus still presents?
BOLDLY angular, crease-heavy body design is the new way for Lexus; it’s a pitch to establish a clearly-defined brand identity and stop talk, heard in the early days, that this marque was simply out to copy the best from the rest.
The RX looks quite aggressive, even more so than the NX that fulfils as a junior alternate, and you would have to say it keeps pushing design boundaries. As an amalgam of bold origami angles, it has emerged as one of the most sculpted offers in a category where styling shyness is increasingly rare.
Super-sizing the trademark hourglass grille so that it spans the entire frontal gives it a face that is easily spotted. The rear end, too, is distinctive for tail-lights not only futuristic in look but also operation, with the indicators operating as progressive LED flashes. There’s brilliance in how the roofline morphs into the C-pillars and seems to ‘float’ above the main body.
It’s a real statement but looks good in this flagship format. The shape is quite cohesive and it certainly cannot be mistaken for anything else in its category. The idea is that it will attract new buyers to the brand seems solid; but it’s not so out there as to divorce itself from established owners, either.
The new car is larger than its predecessor; 120mm longer overall and 10mm wider. As a result there’s more room inside, with legroom up by 24.5mm in the front and 30.5mm in the rear.
The cabin is Lexus typical is being beautifully built and finished. You cannot quibble that this brand ever scrimps on using top-notch materials; the leather used here is of very good quality indeed and the likelihood of you finding a misaligned panel gap or an example of imperfect stitching is about great as being attacked by a shark while traversing the Sahara. It ain’t going to happen.
All the same, it’s fair to suggest that while Lexus does luxury extremely well, it also does ergonomics somewhat .. well .. quirkily. To say that the cabin is as interesting a place to sit in as the exterior is to look at is almost an understatement.
There is no problem with the comfort side of things. Lexus seats are extremely comfortable and there’s lots of interior space, too. Likewise, the driving position is also nailed.
Where Lexus still struggles is in its execution of its technology interface; no test fails to highlight the limitations of the Remote Touch system. Now being controlled by a joystick rather than a toggle hardly makes it any less awkward; it’s still way too touchy and fundamentally is just nowhere near as smart or as intuitive as the dial controlled setsups that BMW and Mercedes Benz employ.
It also insults the intelligence of its users by needlessly making some operations on the impressively large (12.3 inch) multi-function central screen become extremely complex.
Turning off the ‘railway ahead’ alert is always a priority because the drive to my home takes me under a railway bridge, which the system deciphers as a crossing – but what a huge hassle to stop it nagging about the potential dangers of being struck by a loco. Even the Lexus employee who finally sorted this, by deep-diving into the sub menus, was initially flummoxed. What’s also annoying is that it refuses to allow some fundamental operations on safety grounds; with the phone, for instance, you can only re-call previously dialed numbers, but not enter the directory for new ones. Setting the sat nav to find a new address also requires the car to be stationary. No other non-Japanese luxury brand is so over-protective. Aaaaarghhh!
This weird attitude also unfortunately affects a new feature, the wireless mobile phone charging tray. It only works for units that have conductive recharging, so was no good for my iPhone, but even if it was I’d have hesitated. The tray is set so far forward in the centre console that the overhanging stack above makes it hard to get to. At the same token, you should be careful about how else it is used. The tray is right where you might throw a spare pair of keys – though you shouldn’t. If the pad is turned on (there’s a tiny switch) and there’s metal-on-metal contact, it could get sparky. The warning sticker that suggests its best not to go there is easily overlooked.
Still, despite these issues, it has a real luxury feel, to the point where the $125,900 pricetag seems light given the quality and the content.
The cabin provides good front and rear occupant space and the boot is big, with 519 litres capacity with the seats up and 1592 litres with them folded down, via boot-mounted levers. It’s a pity no seven seat version is planned; it could almost cope with a third row.
Like I say, it’s fulsomely provisioned. All RX models get the LSS-Plus safety package that includes a pre-crash system, radar cruise control, lane-keeping assistance, blind spot monitor, rear cross-traffic alert and some very clever adaptive high beam LED headlights. The latter use a camera behind the windscreen to detect oncoming vehicle lights; it then engages and disengages specific LED chips in order to distribute light accordingly so as not to dazzle the oncoming driver.
Standard kit includes eight-way adjustable seats for the driver and front passenger, heated and ventilated front seats, satellite navigation and a reversing camera (and front and rear sensors), smart card entry and starting, auto lights and wipers and a power tailgate but noticeably absent is a traffic condition alert.
The SUNA setup now on some Toyotas doesn’t come to Lexus because the toff brand has its own system, Enform. But that’s presently inactive in NZ.
In addition to the body kit and special cabin trim, the F-Sport adds a panoramic parking camera, heated rear seats and a tailgate that opens when you wave your hand over the Lexus emblem on the back, a sports steering wheel with paddle shifters plus a heads up display.
The provision purely of a petrol and petrol-electric choice is not wholly barmy, but refusal to give the RX a diesel engine surely costs Lexus a lot of sales.
The RX450h teams a 190kW/335Nm V6 with a 123kW electric motor and a continuously variable transmission at the front and a 50kW electric motor at the rear for a combined peak power output of 230kW and maximum torque of 335Nm, creating what Lexus dubs ‘E-Four AWD’.
This powertrain loses the eight-speed automatic that goes into the purely petrol edition and instead runs with a constantly variable transmission. A claimed 5.9 l/100km optimal burn means it is 10 percent thriftier than previous.
That’s impressive for a large and, at between 2085kg and 2210kg, somewhat heavy medium SUV, but it's no better than the best diesels. Where Lexus looks a lot better than the black bloods is for emissions. With a hybrid the emissions are very low; just 131 grams per kilometre (the petrol rates at 223).
Interestingly, the RX450h maintains with nickel hydride batteries, albeit in a new format that enables better packaging and energy recovery, which might seem a bit retrograde when those new-gen have gone to the next step, lithium-ion batteries.
Lexus New Zealand cannot say when, or even if, the RX – or any other of its hybrids - will achieve that level of technology but contends that if a plug-in were to one day become available it would certainly be put into our market.
Yes, there’s power and there’s also parsimony, but first and foremost there’s impressive refinement: It’s more than 10 years since this car’s forebear became the world’s first hybrid luxury SUV and that forebear’s already impressive pedigree has been improved hugely by the replacement.
Although the pure electric mode does not effect for very long – and only influences at peak when dawdling – when enacted the car is operating in almost total silence; but such is the excellence of engineering that, when the petrol engine does kick in to provide additional assistance, you might not even realise.
There’s simply no disruption and certainly not even the slightest quiver. It continues expressing that silky sophistication at higher, pace, too. Lexus allows its sports days to express aurally, but it’s a different story for the medium sports utility: Here (as in the LS) silence is a golden rule. It really is a hushed car from within.
Our coarse chip surfaces have been the undoing of many a supposedly quiet car on arrival here, but Lexus really seems to have the measure of this supreme challenge. The tyre-generated roar isn’t wholly quelled, but it is very well suppressed. Wind and engine noise is also dealt to in equally exemplary fashion.
What also tends to be rather muted, however, is any particular sense of driver interaction. The BMW X5 is perhaps the most overtly sporty rival that it might be compared with, and once that happens you might be forgiven for thinking that the German and Japanese brands don’t so much share a planet but even the same universe.
They’re two premium products for similar customer bases, but assume the buyers within those zones have vastly different preferences.
The Lexus is certainly doesn’t do anything poorly on the road; it has good balance and grip, it provides excellent all-round visibility and it holds its own on the highway. Yet even in the F-Sport livery, it is unlikely to satisfy drivers who place an emphasis on the ‘sports’ part of SUV; the manner in which it operates is so different to anything else.
The lightly weighted steering is nice around town but feels vague around the centre position and lacks precision through corners. While it feels planted through bends, the car is also troubled to remain settled. You’re never left in any doubt, either, that the battery back adds a lot of weight to the car. It feels Landcruiser hefty.
The adaptive variable suspension here has an extra ‘Sport-Plus’ setting intended firm up the dampers just that little bit more for tidier handling; it also has an active stabiliser system designed to minimise roll and ensure stability around bends and further teams with a “roll skyhook control” that creates counter forces on uneven surfaces, such as potholes. Or so says the brochure.
In reality, it’s hard to find a mode in which this car feels ‘just right’. The firmest mode brings the best handling experience but degrades the ride. Comfort softens surface impacts but impacts on the dynamics. Regardless of what the damper setting, the ride is smooth only on decent surfaces. It’s more brittle on coarse chip and, on country routes, tends to bounce over undulations and take a second to settle.
When we drove the RX350, we liked how the slickness of its automatic transmission; the RX450h’s CVT is also quick-witted, but not consistently. There are times when it will react to throttle inputs with a unique immediacy thanks to the torque that’s available instantly from the electric motors and, yet, try and hustle it along too quickly and the transmission gets flustered, holding the engine at high revs needlessly. The car never feels slow, all the same, but anyone used to a punchy diesel isn’t likely to become an easy convert.
Daily driving also raised the question about how one is supposed to extract the optimum economy claimed by this brand. It doesn’t seem to be an easy achievement. The test car ended its run with an average fuel burn of 12.7 litres per 100km, well short of the claimed optimum. I’d agree that official fuel tests often have an unrealistic nature, yet from my experience it’s generally a lot easier to achieve comfortable thrift from a diesel than a hybrid, not least because – when they’re running at open pace – these types are far more ‘petrol’ than ‘electric’. On occasion, you’re simply going to be dragging those batteries around.
It’s no surprise that the car lacks a low-range or any particular terrain response kit. No brand provides this on the valid assumption no owner will ever need it. And at least now the petrol-electric has the same 2000kg towing capacity as the pure V6, though this limit is still relatively light.
More uncertain is whether the hybrid should be used to entertain any kind of off-seal expedition more arduous than crossing a field or taking on a snowy road, due to the delicacy of components such as the 50kW electric motor that direct-drives the rear axle.
Lexus advice has always been to be wary of water-crossings; a whole chapter of the old car’s handbook was dedicated to why anything much deeper than a puddle was considered risky.
The RX is relaxing to drive, has superb refinement and is beautifully built. It also has strong equipment levels. On the other hand, you might end up being frustrated by the Remote Touch and be challenged to argue any advantages that hybrid offers over diesel in our market. You might also wonder about its abilities as an SUV, given that it goes lite for towing and is clearly not really designed to leave the seal. Then again, most cars of this type barely leave the city: that's where the RX450h is surely going to shine brightest.