Lexus RX 450h — Practical luxury

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Lexus won the lottery when it developed the RX 300 crossover in the late ’90s. The first RX reached the marketplace as a 1999 model and quickly became the best selling vehicle in the Lexus stable.

A strict departure from the hot-selling body-on-frame sport utilities of the time, the RX hit all the right notes for thousands of customers who wanted a more fuel-efficient and car-like upscale sport utility.

Today the RX continues to outsell by a wide margin all other Lexus models as well as other crossovers in its segment. Lexus, it seems, is still enjoying its lottery winnings.

So it comes as no surprise that the third generation RX, the 2010 RX 350 and RX 450h hybrid, offer only evolutionary changes in design, size, and overall execution. It doesn’t make sense to completely reinvent the goose or its golden egg.

The RX remains a mid-sized modern luxury hatchback station-wagon-like vehicle that appeals to a wide range of individuals including women of all ages who enjoy a hushed living area, drama-free handling, decent performance, and excellent cargo-hauling capability while being pampered with luxury amenities for a relatively affordable price of under 40 grand; less than $40,000 that it is if you don’t opt for the hybrid version, which can set you back 50 big ones without too much effort.

It’s a testament to Lexus' original vision that it still sells in big numbers despite an influx of new crossovers from virtually every luxury automaker selling vehicles in North America, as well as numerous upscale entries from nearly all the mainstream nameplates.

More than 100,000 copies of the RX were sold per year from 2004 through 2007. The great automotive depression hampered sales in 2008, but still 84,000 left dealer lots. For 2009 sales jumped back up a little more than 10-percent and RX finish the year with 93,379 sales.

While the new RX fills the same role devised for the original, like most things automotive it has grown over the years. For instance, the 1999 version rode on a 103-inch wheelbase and was outfitted with a 220-horsepower V-6. It was available in two-wheel and all-wheel drive and it had adequate performance measured by a 0-to-60 time of 8.7 seconds.

The new RX comes with either a 275-horsepower 3.5-liter V-6 mated to a new six-speed automatic or in hybrid configuration with a 3.5-liter V-6 generating 245 horsepower with electric motor assist making a peak 295 horsepower mated to a continually variable transmission.

Base price for the RX 350 is $37,675. The hybrid version adds $4,800 to the cost starting at $42,475 including destination charge. All wheel drive adds $1,400 to the 350 and $1,650 for the hybrid.

Driving excitement is not part of the RX equation. Perhaps the most descriptive word is “practical.” In this case think of it in terms of “practical luxury.” That said, the new RX 350 has sharpened reflexes and its driving dynamics should elicit few complaints from owners. On the other hand, the hybrid is softer and less focused in the road carving sense.

If corner-carving machines are more to your taste, you might want to seek out the BMW X5 or the Infiniti FX35. And for those needing third-row capabilities, you might consider moving up in size slightly to something like the new Cadillac SRX or the Volvo XC90.
But Lexus can point to the fact that it sells enough copies of the RX a year to argue that it has the “just right” product. None of the above mentioned vehicles even approaches this number.

And for 2010, Lexus has one of the most fuel efficient hybrid crossovers in the business.
Gas mileage is measured by the EPA at 32 mpg city and 28 mpg out on the highway. And performance, according to published times, is solid with 0-to-60 rated at around 7.5 seconds.

We found the Lexus hybrid rather sedate. We never had a problem with performance, but it felt more laid back, less ambitious to get up and go than the standard gas version. Sure, if you slam the accelerator the 295 horses will leap into action. We didn’t do that because that seems a bit sacrilegious in this vehicle. You don’t slam accelerators in hybrid vehicles; you drive them to get the forecast mileage. Slamming is self defeating. In other words, if performance is paramount in your life, skip the Lexus hybrid.

The new RX certainly lives up to the much-deserved Lexus reputation. The interior is hushed and comfortable. The driving position is good, the seats are plush but supportive, and the sight-lines are excellent. The ride is definitely more plush than sporty, which should suit most buyers of this vehicle. The leather seating, available with the $2,400 premium package, and standard real wood accents set a very luxurious tone.

What bugs us, however, is the increased complexity of the navigation system. It seems while the Germans have been un-complicating their once-complicated systems, Lexus has gone in the opposite direction. Our biggest gripe is that with the navigation system the radio presets and satellite radio information have to be accessed by going through at least two — and perhaps three — movements of a mouse-type controller and a menu button. It’s like the rebirth of BMW’s original iDrive; which by-the-way BMW has done an excellent job of fixing. Forgo navigation, and you get old-fashioned radio controls, readouts and presets.

Lexus is usually ahead in this game, but it seems engineering nerds have gotten the upper hand in Japan. We didn’t think we would ever say this, but perhaps it’s time Lexus took a few pointers from BMW.

So the big question with the hybrid vs. the standard gas engine RX 350, is it worth the $4,800 price difference? If you want to convince yourself that you are doing your part for the environment, go for it. 

However if you’re looking to save money on you gas bill consider this: according to the EPA, there is a nine mpg overall difference (30 vs. 21) between the two vehicles, which both require premium fuel. So let’s get out the calculator. Figuring $3.25 a gallon and 12,000 miles a year, the hybrid would use 171 gallons less gas (400 gallons vs. 571 gallons) for a savings of $555 a year. Using those parameters it would take eight and one-half years to break even. With lower gas prices even worse. But you never know when $4 per gallon will rear its ugly head again.

Like the slogan of a popular news network — we report you decide.

Base price: $42,475; as driven, $47,485
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6, electric motor
Horsepower: 295 combined
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: continuously variable
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 107.9 inches
Length: 187.8 inches
Curb weight: 4,650 pounds
Turning circle: 38.8 feet
Luggage capacity: 40 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 80 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 17.2 gallons (premium)
EPA rating: 28 mpg highway, 32 mpg city
0-60: 7.6 seconds (Edmunds)
Also consider: Toyota Highlander Hybrid, Infiniti FX35, Lincoln MKX

The Good:
• Fuel efficient crossover
• Smooth ride
• Luxurious interior

The Bad:
• Accessing functions through navigation system too aggravating

The Ugly:
• Hard to justify the extra $4,800 over the standard RX 350