Lexus fettles the RX to meet growing competition

There’s growing competition in the luxury SUV market with established players like the Range Rover, the BMW X5 and Audi Q7 being joined by the latest Volvo XC90 and the Jaguar F-Pace. To meet this challenge, Lexus has given its Lexus RX a makeover.

Lexus used to be known for high levels of refinement and luxury hidden behind quite anonymous styling. Not any more. The word has gone out to the Lexus design teams to produce designs that are quite distinctive, maybe even visually challenging.

Lexus RX450h

The RX is a good example. It looks like it could have been styled by a stealth fighter designer and, of course, the most distinctive feature is the puckered, lemon-sucking grille (although Lexus would rather you call it a “spindle grille”).

The RX comes with a choice of engines and drivetrains. For those who don’t need four-wheel-drive there is the RX200t S, a base two-litre model with front-wheel-drive. The four-wheel-drive models start with a two-litre petrol, stepping up to a range of 3.5-litre petrol versions with two electric motors. In a market sector where diesel still dominates, Lexus don’t offer a diesel option, leaving the hybrid technology to deliver better fuel consumption and lower emissions.

My test car was the top-of-the-range Lexus RX 450h Premier. It’s an impressive motor car. Sizeable without being cumbersome, it offers ample space for four, or five, people and their luggage. Needless to say, in a Lexus they won’t be short of luxury, or equipment to ease the journey. The rear bench seat can even be pushed back and reclined for a more spacious and relaxed in-car lounging.

Lexus RX450h

The boot is perhaps not the biggest in its class (not so surprising when there are rear differentials, electric motors and battery packs to fit in). However it is a very useful large flat load floor which should make short work of most people’s luggage requirements.

Those familiar with Toyota family hybrids will find the start-up procedure quite familiar. Like other hybrids including the Prius, you press the start button and a green “ready” tells you that you are good to go. If you move off on light throttle the RX will do so almost silently, using just the electric motor up to 25 mph.

Press the throttle a bit harder and the system seamlessly starts the big 3.5-litre engine to get you going. Again, like other similar hybrids, the system will generate electricity from the over-run and under braking.

It never ceases to amaze me how well these systems work. The car automatically switches between electric power, petrol power or a combination of both, depending on what you demand through the throttle pedal and the level of charge in the batteries. As with most cars like this, you can drive in pure electric mode for a limited distance, assuming you have enough battery charge.

However, as a bigger, heavier vehicle than the likes of the Toyota Prius, the Lexus RX hybrid inevitably spends more of its time with petrol power fired up.

This top-of-the-range Lexus RX450h premier comes with air suspension. This initially seemed a little soft and even slightly jiggly at very low speeds, but soon smoothed out to a cosseting ride when we reached the open road.

I felt the suspension just a bit soft on the ‘Normal’ setting and the engine responses were, not surprisingly’ a bit slow in ‘Eco’. As a result I tended to drive the RX450h Premier in ‘Sport’ mode. But, that means keeping both power units active for most of the time, which impacts on the fuel economy. Hence my overall consumption of 24.5 mpg.

Those of a less sporting disposition, who choose ‘Normal’, or ‘Eco’ driving modes, can aim for something a bit closer to the 51.4 mpg combined economy figure.

Although that air suspension keeps you well insulated from the road, there is still enough feedback to give the driver a real sense of involvement. No doubt its electronics are also kept busy endowing the RX 450h with its remarkably flat body control on corners.

I was fearful that the steering might be too light, in deference to the important Lexus market in the USA. My fears were unfounded. At least in ‘Sport’ setting the steering feels accurate and precise with sufficient feedback.

As you might expect with a petrol engine plus two electric motors, there is an impressive surge of power on tap when you need it. Being a CVT gearbox there are no gearchanges, so progress up and down the speed range is very smooth. There are no paddles to change the gearing, but you can select the sequential mode on the selector and use it step the gears up or down. That’s useful if you are a driver who likes to drop down a gear for corners.

The equipment levels are suitably lavish, with most luxuries coming as standard. The test car did, however, have the addition of a £1,295 panoramic sunroof.

Lexus 450h

In keeping with the luxury image, the interior trim is suitably upmarket with soft leather on the seats and steering wheel providing a good tactile feel along with the satisfying quality touch of the switchgear. The only slightly jarring note is struck by silver plastic highlights on the dashboard and steering wheel. That seems out of place on a car in this price range.

There is no doubting that the Lexus RX is a hugely capable car on the open road and with a very useful degree of off-road ability to let you survey your country estate. You certainly get a lot of technology and equipment for your money. With this latest upgrade the Lexus RX450h is even more ready to fend off the competition from the established European brands.

Lexus RX450h Premier
Carbon dioxide emissions: 127 g/km
Combined fuel economy 51.4 mpg
Top speed: 124 mph
0-62: 7.7 secs
Power 259 bhp (engine) 335 (electric)
Engine size 3456cc petrol
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