2011 Lexus RX 450h Expert Review:Autoblog
With a slew of sensors and CPUs, the 2010 Lexus RX450h can pretty much drive itself. Want to go somewhere? Sit down in the driver's seat, use the Remote Touch device (a.k.a. "mouse") to tell the crossover where you want to go, and follow the easy-as-store-bought-pie instructions to your destination. Whether or not this is a good thing depends on how badly you want to feel like you're in control of your commute. For those concerned about fuel economy and comfort, the almost-autonomous nature of the RX450h is nice, but certainly doesn't offer a tremendous amount of ability to control how much fuel you burn moving down the street. As it turns out, this is a feature, not a bug. Find out why after the jump.
Photos by Sebastian Blanco / Copyright ©2009 Weblogs, Inc.
How does the RX450h make it absurdly easy to get from one point to another? Through a combination of shiny luxuries and thoughtful technologies that give the operator fewer things to concentrate on while driving. Front and center among these new technologies is the car's heads-up display (HUD), which integrates directions from the navigation system in an amazingly intuitive way. Of course, to see those HUD arrows, you need to have the navigation system, which adds at least $2,550 to the RX450h's $41,660 base price.
Whether or not you opt to spend the extra money, the HUD exemplifies how Lexus has made the RX450h a simple and comfortable hybrid. Aside from directions, it displays your speed, along with the ability to adjust the brightness and angle to provide exactly the right look no matter the conditions (it can also be turned off). During long drives, when it comes time to lean forward on the steering wheel to straighten up the back for a few moments, you can still see how fast you're going, something we truly appreciated after a few hours on the highway. Of course, if you're letting the RX450h control its own speed with its adaptive cruise control, knowing your mph doesn't matter as much, but still, it's a nice touch.
We drove just over 550 miles during our week with this all-wheel drive 2010 Lexus 450h. For the first 250 or so miles, we let the machine do its thing in Eco mode: the adaptive cruise control was on and set to just a hair over the speed limit, climate control was set to auto and we followed the navigation system where it told us to go. The distance that the adaptive cruise control sets between the RX450h and the vehicle in front of it is, of course, adjustable. Nonetheless, it's not suitable for drafting – which we don't endorse anyway – and on the closest setting, it still kept us a safe distance away from other vehicles, even when people shifted lanes directly in front of us.
On auto-pilot (or as close as it gets these days), the RX450h automatically achieved 28.6 mpg – nearly in line with the EPA's 28/30 mpg estimates for the all-wheel-drive model (the front-wheel drive variant clocks in at 32/28). On the second half of our journey, we tried to beat the vehicle's full-auto performance. We turned off the air and (why not) also the auto-dimming (electrochromatic) rearview mirror system and told the CUV when and how hard to accelerate by using the pedals instead of the cruise control. We also tried our hand at manually shifting the gears of the Electronically Controlled Continuously Variable Transmission (ECVT). Embarrassingly but perhaps predictably, all of this produced poorer fuel economy than the automagic system. Over the entire week, we managed 27.6 mpg. Score one for letting this particular vehicle drive you.
The RX450h strives to offer as much comfort as possible, so it's packed with luxury touches like side mirror glass that rotate downward when you put it into reverse for curb-finding and friendly interior lights that come on when you approach the car with the wireless key fob in the dark (neither of which is a new feature, but very convenient). The lights remind you that, hey, this car wants you to feel at ease. Quite a bit poorer in the wallet, but at ease nonetheless.
On the road, the smoothness of the RX's ride cannot be overstated. Even though we happened to be driving a pre-production model, everything was as smooth as melty mayonnaise. This is Lexus' second-generation RX hybrid (following the RX400h), and minor improvements can be felt all around. The hybrid powertrain shuts off the 3.5-liter V-6 engine nicely at stoplights; it comes back on without any hassle when it's time to move again. If you're inclined to use the 37 kWh nickel-metal hydride battery to its fullest extent, the RX450h does have an EV mode that will allow the car to go up to 10 mph for about two minutes. As in the 2010 Toyota Prius, EV mode is a limited tease of what a real electric car can offer, but it's better than nothing, and ideal for teenagers trying to sneak in to their parents driveways after curfew. Eco mode, which we used extensively during out week-long test, automatically controls the air conditioning and throttle inputs for increased efficiency.
To keep track of what's going on with the hybrid RX, there is a Multi-Information Display between the speedometer and the green driving gauge. This screen can toggle between all sorts of information readouts: average speed, tire pressure, average mpg, whether or not the vehicle is in EV or Eco mode and more. Switching the information type is controlled by a lever on the steering wheel, which is also used to engage EV or Eco mode and other options.
The green driving gauge isn't nearly as easy to use as similar displays in the Prius or the Ford Fusion Hybrid, but does provide a way to tell if you're charging the batteries from the brakes or pushing down on the gas pedal enough to enter the "Power" zone. We avoided this zone as much as possible – it means you're accelerating quickly – in our effort to get a decent mpg result. When we did need to use it, the RX450h's penchant for smoothness remained at our fingertips.
In the end, if you're seated in the comfortable seats of the RX450h and apply just a modicum of awareness and effort, you're in a crossover that will take you where you want to go, no questions asked. Compared to the non-hybrid RX350, the RX450h gets an official fuel economy improvement of around nine mpg. Toyota hasn't kept it a secret that it wants the fuel sippers to gravitate towards the Prius, while Lexus' hybrid line is more about adding creature comforts than it is about significantly reducing the amount of fuel one burns. Having said that, we applaud the mpg improvement to date, particularly for a vehicle of its size.
Still, does it make sense to spend $5,000 or so more for the RX450h than the RX350? You're undoubtedly getting some fuel economy benefits from the hybrid powertrain, but five grand worth? There's a simple way to answer this question: ask the car. Remember, the RX450h doesn't want you to think, it doesn't beg you to be involved with the driving experience, it just wants you to feel comfortable. If the hybrid badge and better mpg warms your cockles, then go for it.
Photos by Sebastian Blanco / Copyright ©2009 Weblogs, Inc.
Few vehicles have done more to establish a genre and define a brand as much as the Lexus RX. Introduced over a decade ago to suburbanite real estate agents and their Napa-weekending friends, the original RX300 helped boost Lexus sales by 60% when it hit dealers in late 1998. Over the ensuing years, Lexus' posh people mover slowly evolved to include a hybrid drivetrain, a refreshed exterior and tasteful appointments that helped solidify its success. For 2010, the RX plays the same tune but adds a few more instruments, a new backbeat and reworked crescendo.
Photos Copyright ©2008 Damon Lavrinc / Weblogs, Inc.
Try as we might to fight tooth-and-nail for the original CUV – the loved and loathed AMC Eagle – the Lexus RX foisted the crossover concept onto center stage and proved to the public there was a credible alternative to joining the SUV set. The styling was inoffensive, the interior was typical late-90s luxury and – being a unibody vehicle – the ride was astoundingly smooth compared to the SUV-turned-Rapper's Delight sold at Lincoln and Cadillac dealerships.
The 2010 Lexus RX brings more of the same, beginning with a reworked exterior that adopts the L-finesse design theme and grows in several dimensions. The rolling jellybean aesthetic of the outgoing model is ditched in favor of sharp creases and broad shoulders that give the RX a more hunkered-down appearance while still remaining innocuous. The RX's newfound stance is thanks to a 2.2-inch wider track in front and a 2.6-inch stretch in the rear, along with a wheelbase that spans 107.9 inches. The added girth improves interior room and helps handling, but the 2010 RX pays the poundage piper for its widened proportions and added safety. The standard RX350 in front-wheel-drive spec packs on almost 500 pounds over its predecessor, while the AWD version deals with an additional 400 pounds of mass. The RX450h doesn't fair much better, with the FWD version motivating an additional 460 pounds and the AWD model carrying an extra 445 pounds. Despite the added weight, and helped in part by revised drivetrains and a coefficient of drag of 0.33, fuel efficiency is up across the range, with the RX350 returning 18/25 city/highway in FWD trim and 18/24 with AWD, while the RX450h FWD gets 28/27 and the AWD variant achieves 28/26.
The grille, headlamps and tail-lamps are far more dynamic, and tie in nicely to the tweaked C-pillar, swage lines and subtle roof-mounted spoiler that completely conceals the rear window wiper and houses the AM/FM antenna. The RX450h features a smattering of blue tinting on the front and rear emblems, headlights, tail-lights and "hybrid" logos to set it apart from its standard sibling. Base models are fitted with halogen headlamps and 18-inch wheels, while HIDs, 19-inch rolling stock and a "sport" package that features revised dampers, stiffer bushings and a recalibrated electronic power steering rack are optional.
The L-finesse philosophy carries through to the inside, with a completely revised instrument panel, center stack and navigation system. The new navi and its all-new Remote Touch controller are far and away the biggest thing inside the RX, which takes the iDrive/MMI/COMAND idea to a level that even Grandma with her 386 Pentium can understand. The controller rests easily in hand, with buttons placed on either side of the raised mounting for selections. If you've used a mouse, you're good to go. The controller moves an arrow on the eight-inch screen to operate the sat-nav, enter addresses into the QWERTY keyboard and, most impressive, features haptic feedback that provides a subtle tug when mousing over the on-screen options. The Remote Touch and voice command operations proved incredibly intuitive during our drive, although the navigation software has a slightly steeper learning curve.
Both the RX350 and RX450h feature a new Eco driving indicator that shows real-time fuel economy on the blue-backlit dash, and a new heads-up display projects speed, navigation and audio information onto the windshield without being a distraction around town or on the highway. Other interior features include standard 10-way adjustable power front seats, SmartAccess keyless entry, standard 12-speaker stereo or 15-speaker Mark Levinson system, HDD navigation, optional rear displays for back-seat passengers and a wide-view side monitor and back-up camera that shows the surroundings on a 2.4-inch screen in the rearview mirror or on the optional sat-nav screen.
Lexus engineers also replaced the strut-based rear suspension with a new double-wishbone setup that completely removes the towers from the storage area and frees up an additional 40 cubic feet of space over the outgoing model. The front suspension geometry was tweaked and fitted with a larger front sway bar to improve handling, while the task of slowing the RX's substantial mass is left to two-piston front and rear disc brakes.
On the safety front, Lexus has thrown Campbell's alphabet soup surplus into the new RX, with the Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (VDIM) system orchestrating the ABS, Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) and Traction Control (TRAC) systems. The RX also features Hill-Start Assist Control to prevent rolling on an incline and works both in Drive and Reverse. Adaptive front lighting is also available, along with the Pre-Collision System (PCS) equipped with Dynamic Radar Cruise Control that tightens the front seat belts and pre-loads the Brake Assist if the system detects the CUV bearing down on the vehicle it's pursuing.
Last year's DOHC 3.5-liter V6 soldiers on under the hood of the 2010 RX350 with five more horsepower and an additional six pound-feet of torque, bringing peak output up to 275 hp at 6,200 rpm and 257 lb-ft at 4,700 rpm. The intake and exhaust manifolds have been revised, along with the cylinder head and variable valve timing, which now operates on both the intake and exhaust cams. A six-speed automatic with quick, nearly imperceptible changes thanks to the AI-SHIFT control system, replaces the five-speed unit found in the outgoing model and is equipped on both the front- and all-wheel-drive models. The AWD system on the RX350 uses a viscous coupling locking center differential to doll out either 100% of the power to the front wheels or a 50:50 ratio front to back. And not that anyone cares, but the RX350 AWD can hit 60 in 7.5 seconds, with the FWD model passing the magic mark one-tenth of a second quicker.
The 2010 RX450h is equipped with an Atkinson-cycle 3.5-liter V6 that features lighter electric motors and a compact power-control unit that boosts fuel economy an estimated 8-12% over the RX400h. The engine alone produces 245 hp at 6,000 rpm (up from 208 hp) and 234 lb-ft of torque at 4,800 rpm (up from 212 lb-ft), with total power increased to 295 hp when the electric motors are spinning away. A 288V DC Ni-MH battery pack is mounted underneath the rear seats and receives power from either two or three motors depending on FWD or AWD configurations, with the RX450h AWD ditching the front-to-rear driveshaft for a rear-mounted electric motor.
Our time behind the wheel primarily consisted of suburban jaunts and the occasional Northern California back-road, where both the RX350 and RX450h proved to be competent, compliant day-to-day cruisers. Power delivery is a staid affair on both the standard and hybrid model, with few peaks and fewer valleys. When things turned twisty, the RX did little more than hold it's own, but with a suspension tuned for effortless wafting, we weren't expecting our neurons to be set ablaze. Braking and bends are dealt with ease, but the added mass and Lexus' tradition of creating a reasonable facsimile of steering feel is obvious the moment you turn the wheel.
Lexus has learned over the past decade not to mess with a proven success, and the 2010 RX350 and RX450h proves the point by crossing the Ts and dotting the Is. There are certainly more entertaining, attractive and powerful ways to transport five people and their weekend getaway gear, but that's never been what the RX is about. Simply put, it's about the destination, not the drive. And because of that, the RX will continue to define the segment without ruffling the feathers of public's consciousness.
Autoblog attended a manufacturer sponsored event to facilitate this report.
New Car Test Drive
Recently redesigned, with V6 and hybrid versions.
The Lexus RX 350 and RX 450h are uncommonly easy to operate, even though they are brimming with electronic technology. If the RX were a computer, and in more ways than ever, it is, it would have a plug-and-play operating system and an inviting, engaging user interface.
The Lexus RX was completely redesigned and re-engineered for 2010, so it's carried over for 2011 largely unchanged. This latest-generation model features a wishbone, rather than strut-type, independent rear suspension and an improved all-wheel-drive system, and the entire car was improved. A mouse-like controller Lexus calls Remote Touch is used instead of a touch screen to operate climate, audio and the navigation system.
We've found the RX to be softer and smoother than the other SUVs in its class. It's also more fuel-efficient. The RX 350 beats the fuel economy ratings of the Acura MDX, Mercedes ML 350, and BMW X5 xDrive3.5i. The RX 450h hybrid gets better mileage yet, and is among the cleanest vehicles yet devised by man.
The RX 350 and RX 450h are offered with front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. The all-wheel-drive system is lighter and more efficient than in the previous generation. It works electronically without the locking center differential in previous models.
The RX 350 comes with a 3.5-liter V6 mated to a 6-speed automatic multi-mode transmission. Compared to the previous model, this latest RX 350 is a little heavier due to stouter rear suspension components, which provide upgraded crash performance.
Like all Lexus vehicles, the 2011 Lexus RX adds Smart Stop Technology, which automatically reduces engine power when the brake and accelerator pedals are applied simultaneously under certain driving conditions. Aside from some new paint colors, there are no other changes for 2011.
When it was first launched as a 1999 model, the Lexus RX was at the leading edge of a revolution of sport-utilities built like cars rather than like trucks. Today, nearly all but the largest SUVs are these so-called crossovers. The RX remains the standard against which many are measured, and this latest-generation version is the best RX to date.
The 2011 Lexus RX 350 comes with front-wheel drive ($37,975) or all-wheel drive ($39,375). The RX 450h offers the same choice of front-drive ($43,235) or all-wheel drive ($44,825) and is similarly equipped. All come with fabric upholstery, automatic dual-zone climate control, AM/FM/6CD with nine speakers and a luxury level of standard equipment.
The optional Luxury Package ($4900) includes semi-aniline leather trim interior; one-touch-open/close Moonroof; Power Retractable Electrochromic Outside Mirrors; Wood and Lather Steering Wheel and Shift Knob; Wide Angle Side-View Monitor, 19-inch Alloy wheels with Mud and Snow Tires; iPod/USB port; Power Rear Door; Illuminated Scuff Plate; and Headlamp Cleaner. The Comfort Package ($1950) includes bi-xenon high intensity discharge (HID) projector headlamps; adaptive front lighting system; automatic high beams; rain-sensing automatic wipers; 12-speaker audio; and heated and cooled front seats.
Dual-Screen Rear Seat Entertainment with Navigation ($5005) includes DVD rear-seat entertainment system with wireless headphones, audio/video inputs, 120V AC power outlet and navigation system with voice command, backup monitor, XM Nav Traffic and Nav Weather with 90-day trial subscription and Remote Touch controller.
Options include a Heads-Up Display ($1200), Heated/Ventilated Front Seats ($640), 19-inch Aluminum Alloy Wheels with Mud and Snow Tires ($660), and Bi-Xenon High Intensity Discharge Headlamps with AFS and Automatic High Beams ($800-875). Mark Levinson Audio ($1610) and Intuitive Parking Assist ($500) are also available as stand-alone options. The Navigation System option ($2465) includes Hard Disc Drive Navigation with voice command, Backup Monitor, XM Nav Traffic and Nav Weather with 90-day trial subscription, and the Remote Touch controller. The Sports Package ($1300) includes 19-inch Sport finish alloy wheels with mud and snow tires, sport-tuned suspension, and Vehicle Dynamic Management (VDIM).
Safety equipment includes front airbags; front-seat mounted side airbags; roll-sensing front and rear side-curtain air bags; driver and front passenger knee airbags and side airbags; active headrests for front seats; force-limiting seatbelt pre-tensioners for driver and front passenger seats; three-point seatbelts with pre-tensioners for all rear seating positions (3); direct-type tire pressure monitoring system; four-sensor, four-channel anti-lock brake system (ABS) with Brake Assist; enhanced VSC (Vehicle Stability Control). Optional safety features include Pre-collision System and Dynamic Radar Cruise Control ($1500); Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (VDIM) comes with the Sports Package.
In contrast to earlier models, the current RX 350 has a wider stance, with more pronounced front fenders and crisper lines overall. As in the previous generation, the grille is placed lower than the headlights, so the Lexus family resemblance carries on; but the headlights are more sharply defined and the roofline is flatter. In essence, the rounded egg-shaped body has been redefined at the corners to retain fluid RX cues in an updated format.
In the process, the new RX got slipperier, with a coefficient of drag of 0.33, down from 0.35.
Less-visible differences (relative to 2009 and older models) include a keyless entry system that has a better-integrated sensor on the front doors. It looks sleeker, and the door handles themselves are redesigned for a more comfortable grip. Fog lamps are integrated into the front bumper, and the outside mirrors are heated.
The RX 450h is distinguished by a different, more finely slotted grille and crisper front bumper treatment. Optional energy-saving LED headlights are exclusive to the hybrid. Both the RX 350 and RX 450h have LED brake lights and LED turn signals integrated into the side mirrors. Auto-dimming outside mirrors, optional on the RX 350, are standard on the hybrid. The 450h also has blue emblems and logos, and is available with exclusive Black Opal Mica paint.
The RX comes with 18-inch, five-spoke aluminum wheels with 235/60R18 tires; 19-inch wheels are available as part of the Sport Package or as a stand-alone option. They feature a seven-spoke pattern on the RX 350 and a five-split-spoke pattern on the 450h.
It's strangely exciting to sit in the cockpit of the Lexus RX 350 and RX 450h. There is a sensation of having so much to do, just like configuring a new computer. There are seating adjustments to lock in, preferences for the Remote Touch controller, operating modes to select and dashboard combinations to try out. We have a feeling an RX owner would be surprised to discover new features after months of ownership.
The RX comes to life with the push of a button. The instruments are bright and engaging, and shaded from outside light. The latest seats have slightly higher side bolsters for support during cornering, but they're still easy to get into. They feel firm at first, but medium-soft once you settle in, and are easily adjusted to a variety of positions. Mood lighting in the footwells and cabin supports a sense of quality and well-being.
The cockpit conveys a sense of sophistication, conveyed in part by a gifted design scheme that includes no straight lines or sharp corners. Every element of the interior is curved, arched or rounded in some way, so lines blend with subtle grace and harmony. California Walnut or Birds-eye Maple wood trim accents complement black or ivory fabric; or black, light gray, or parchment leather.
The cockpit is divided into two separate zones. The first is for information functions, located higher up where they are easy to see. The second is for control functions, located lower and within easy reach of both front seat occupants. This division is made possible by Remote Touch.
The Remote Touch system is essentially a computer mouse. It's located exactly where your hand would fall if your elbow were resting on the center console. This mouse will be immediately familiar to anyone who has used a computer. It replaces the need to reach out and touch the screen to use the Navigation system, or adjust audio or climate settings. We found it was simple to use while driving. It allowed us to avoid focusing on the navi screen to tune the climate control or turn down the volume. Plus, no more fingerprints on the screen.
The center console is bridge-like with open storage under the center. The shifter is immediately above the Remote Touch mouse.
There are a number of redundant hard buttons on the steering wheel, and at various points on the dash, 52 in all, but the Remote Touch mouse really does reduce the need to use them. Like a computer mouse, Remote Touch can be adjusted for sensitivity to your preference.
The navigation system is a sixth-generation version, with casual speech voice recognition capability for hands-free operation of audio, climate, and Bluetooth. The system runs from a hard disc, not a DVD, so it's faster and allegedly smarter than the previous system. Among the improvements are easier phonebook transfer, voice command access to the phonebook, and smart auto-fill when selecting destinations.
XM satellite capability is built in, and the first three months are free when you buy the RX. Three services are available: real-time traffic, advance weather forecasts and XM Satellite Radio.
The standard audio system has 9 speakers, a 6-disc CD changer and can play MP3 and WMA files from your iPod. A 12-speaker system comes with the navigation system, and a 15-speaker Mark Levinson Surround Sound system is available for those who require an audio system consistent with the very best home systems.
Compared to earlier models, the front seats now have longer cushions, with higher backrests, and are fitted with active headrests as standard equipment. The headrests are designed to adjust upward in the event of a rear-end collision, reducing whiplash. Because of the active headrests, rear-seat entertainment screens are independently mounted in pods behind the headrests. The two seven-inch LCD screens can operate separately so one passenger can play a game while another passenger watches a DVD. The seats are covered in fabric in standard trim, with leather and semi-aniline leather offered as available options.
One of our test units had seats covered in the consistently flawless semi-aniline leather, and we were hard pressed to find a misplaced stitch or shadow of stain anywhere. In fact, the leather is so supple and uniformly perfect we first thought it must be synthetic material. Regardless of the covering, both front seats are 10-way adjustable, with memory, and heated/air conditioned seats are available.
The rear seat can accommodate five and has a 40/20/40 fold-down split. The latest design makes it easier to release one or both seats from the back, without having to walk around to the side, when loading cargo.
The rear seats also have a fold-down center console with a covered wood grain cupholder and separate covered storage compartment. The rear seats are shorter, with less reclinability than the front seats, but with good legroom for average-size adults like ourselves, much better than a seat on a 757 these days. There are four grab handles, one for each door. There are two rear air conditioning vents to cool the rear compartment.
Cargo room behind the rear seats is 40 cubic feet, enough for four average golf bags.
When it comes to the interior, the hybrid 450h is essentially the same as the 350, except that the 450h has an Eco driving indicator that displays fuel economy using a bar graph. A hybrid system indicator replaces the tachometer to provide driving feedback.
We've driven RX 350 models with front-wheel drive and all-wheel drive as well as an RX 450h hybrid.
The RX 350 responds well to throttle out on the road. Part of that is the big 3.5-liter V6, part of it is the 6-speed transmission. The 6-speed automatic has a lower first-gear ratio than the typical 5-speed, so it gets the RX quickly up to velocity for merging or highway entry. Lexus told us to expect 0-60 acceleration times in the neighborhood of 7.4 seconds, and a quarter mile time of 15.7, and that's about the way it felt. We didn't go there, but top speed is electronically limited to 112 mph.
The transmission quickly selects gears based on throttle input, so you can ask for a gentle downshift just by giving it a little more gas. If you floor the accelerator, it kicks down two gears and moves out. It's also possible to select your own gears in multi-mode shifting, but the automatic's logic seemed so intuitive that we would probably drive in Auto 95 percent of the time, using the manual mode for downhill control on the highway or a long uphill when heavily loaded. There is no V8 option for the RX, but if there were, we'd wager that performance would not be much improved, and mileage would suffer.
We did not feel much torque steer in the front-wheel-drive models, and particularly, the hybrid. Full-throttle starts in the previous hybrid elicited a waggle as various components of the powertrain kicked in that we found disconcerting. First, you'd feel the engine, then two electric motors, one after the other. These steering affectations are far better tamed in the latest RX 450h. Our assumption is that the transmission's computer is managing torque more progressively, and the flywheel is more heavily damped.
The RX 350 is not built for road racing, but more for passenger comfort. The double-wishbone independent rear suspension has a lot to do with that. Still, it has a nice, clean turn-in and good lateral grip for an SUV. The current RX is just a little longer than the old model, and but its rear wheels stand 2.6 inches wider, so there is a noticeable gain in agility.
We expect Lexus vehicles to be exceptionally quiet, and the RX is no exception. That said, the 19-inch wheels on the Sport Package do allow for more road input, and a little more noise and vibration seep through. The suspension is tuned slightly differently with the Sport Package, but the end result is still not as aggressive as Porsche's Cayenne or the BMW X5. To us, that's fine. We think SUVs are better at grocery-getting than corner-carving anyway. Bigger wheels, thinner tires and tighter damping tend to compromise Lexus ride quality and noise control, without delivering all that much gain in handling. So our preference is for the 18-inch wheels.
Regardless of the tire choice, we found it easy to maintain a conversation using a low tone of voice at normal speeds. Lexus pioneered the science of quietness in a car, with the result that almost all cars are significantly quieter than they were five years ago. New tricks, such as optimized wheelwell damping coatings and fender liners, have been incorporated into the RX. The underbody of the car has also received attention against wind noise. And the sixth gear in the transmission allows for ultra-quiet cruising, with less engine noise, on the highway.
All those things also hold true for the RX 450h, but because it is a hybrid, it regularly operates with the engine off altogether. During those times, noise reduction is even greater, bordering on eerie.
The brakes feel strong and progressive, with just a little squish at the top of the pedal before stronger grip kicks in. The hybrid brakes, which are regenerative, are now much more smoothly modulated than early hybrid brakes. The transition between light braking, when the generator reclaims power, and the serious stopping power that comes on when more pedal is applied, can still be felt, but you have to look for it.
Steering effort is light, but seems better proportioned than past electric steer-by-wire systems we've tested. It's more accurate than before, especially at the center. Power-assist logic is based on vehicle speed. The slower you go, the less effort required, so it can be just as appropriate in the parking lot as in the fast lane on the way to Las Vegas. Lexus uses the electric steering system on a number of its vehicles, because it reduces drag on the motor and thus, improves fuel economy. It's also more compact, so there are packaging advantages, and once you have a computer controlling steering, you can add VDIM.
VDIM is not a system easily tested in normal driving, because it requires driving out of control, and then recovering. At which point, nothing will have happened, except maybe a brief flash of an icon on the dash. But it's a system that looks at steering, braking, throttle and motion sensors in the cabin to predict what will actually happen, compared to what the driver is asking for. If there is any difference between the two, the system intervenes and selectively brakes individual wheels to correct the path of the car. It happens so fast you might not notice.
We've tested VDIM on race tracks and lonely dirt roads. It works without slowing down the car much, unlike VSC, which is the standard traction/stability control system. It's an expensive option, but one we wish was on every car.
The RX is an easy SUV to see out of, and fairly easy to keep track of the area around the vehicle when backing up or parking. Driver visibility is enhanced by small windows in the A-pillar, and by small TV cameras that track the rear and passenger-side of the RX. One camera is located in the right side mirror, the other in the rear bumper. We found we could toggle between the two views, front and side, to see how close we were to the curb or pedestrians.
We found the RX to be a relaxed and comfortable ride, so we spent time trying out some of its electronics systems.
We actuated the heads up display and found it makes it easy to stick to speed limits in unfamiliar ground. Bright white, high-contrast figures were easy to read, even heading into sunlight. It's the best we've seen so far. It's possible to project the display anywhere on the windshield; we liked it best low and to the left.
Voice recognition, something we've never really trusted, still takes a little getting used to, but the system in the RX is much closer to something we might use every day. We began by asking it to switch to channel 143 on XM, which it had no problem doing. It also seemed to quickly be able to supply the nearest gas stations, although not the cheapest prices, and turn down the air conditioning. However, when we asked it to play Grateful Dead, it did not find the channel on its own, so evidently there are limits to Hal's intelligence.
The RX 450h is offered in front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, but the all-wheel-drive system is different; it incorporates a separate rear electric motor to power the rear wheels. Because it is a hybrid, the transmission is a continuously variable automatic and the brakes are different due to the need to regenerate electricity. And there are a few packaging and styling differences to consider when making a decision between the two. Because of the addition of electric motors, the RX 450h has 20 more horsepower than the RX 350, which compensate for a weight penalty of about 300 pounds.
Using the EPA combined city/highway ratings, both FWD and AWD versions of the hybrid get 9 mpg better fuel economy than their non-hybrid counterparts, so even with the hybrid's smaller fuel tank, they can travel 132 miles farther on a tank. As of this writing, gas was selling for around $3.49 a gallon in south-central Pennsylvania; but even so, given the $6000 premium Lexus charges for the hybrid, you'd have to drive over 117,000 miles to break even. At the currently popular projection of $4.00 per gallon, you'd still have to drive over 100,000 miles before you recouped the difference.
In short, dollar savings would be modest, even if prices rise. For that reason, most current hybrid buyers chose the vehicle because they want to drive the most fuel-efficient, cleanest SUV possible, one that reduces dependency on imported oil. The RX 450h we drove averaged 23.4 mpg over 120 miles of mostly around-town driving.
The hybrid brake system uses the same ventilated four-wheel discs as the RX 350, but has an electronically controlled regenerative brake feature that charges the batteries when the brakes are applied gently. The hybrid system includes ABS, Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD), Brake Assist and more important, Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management system (VDIM) as standard equipment. We've tested VDIM on controlled proving-grounds settings, and consider it a remarkable safety system. It's also available on the RX 350 as an option.
The hybrid can drive in three modes: Normal, Eco for best mileage, and EV Mode which allows the vehicle to operate on battery only. Lexus tech sources estimate the EV-only mode operating distance at about a mile. The EV feature is aimed at allowing the RX to be used as an electric car in closed urban areas where internal combustion engines are banned altogether, such as in parts of some European cities.
This third-generation Lexus RX has been updated in dozens of ways to make it more efficient, more comfortable, and broadly more advanced than the previous generation. It's quieter, safer, and more driver-friendly. And in our opinion, better looking as well. It's a good choice for people who don't tow much or need to move more than five at time. The RX 450h offers a clear step forward in hybrid technology.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent John Stewart filed this report from southern California. John F. Katz also reported from south-central Pennsylvania.
Lexus RX 350 FWD ($37,975); RX 350 AWD ($39,375); RX 450h FWD ($43,235); RX 450h AWD ($44,825).
Kyushu, Japan; Ontario, Canada.
Options As Tested
Luxury Package ($4900); Mark Levinson Audio ($1610); Navigation System ($2465); Sports Package ($1300); Towing Prep Package ($238).
Lexus RX 350 AWD ($39,375).
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