When Lexus introduced the RX 300 in 1998 as a 1999 model, it was one of the first vehicles to straddle the line between an SUV and a car. That group of vehicles making the change became the first of the crossovers, and they have gone on to become one of the hottest vehicle groups in the market. In fact, for Lexus, the RX models are by far the best selling vehicles in the Lexus lineup.
Lexus advanced the category in 2004 with the introduction of the world?s first luxury SUV/crossover hybrids called the RX 400h. The 2009 model was renamed RX 450h and with each model year it was advanced, upgraded and polished into the 2015 Lexus RX 450h we drove recently.
One of the great strengths of the RX is its excellent design. Never confused with boxy-bodied competitors, the RX has a dramatic coupe-like roofline, tipped with a rear over-window spoiler and the new models have the distinctive Lexus family spindle grille.
The interior is Lexus-plush with soft lines and a driver-oriented cockpit. On our fully equipped test-vehicle, the driver only needed to drop a right hand off the steering wheel to find the perfectly placed shifter and mouse-like joystick used to input selections on the seven-inch screen. The driver-oriented center stack contains the climate and audio controls and is topped by the large navigation and information screen. Our RX even came equipped with the optional audiophile quality Mark Levinson Surround Sound system.
The heart of the RX 450h is the hybrid system. Normally we think of a hybrid as a more economical vehicle and that?s exactly what the RX 450h AWD is, but it?s also more powerful than the other models. Fuel economy is rated at 30 mpg city and 28 mpg highway, as compared to the gasoline-only powered RX 350 AWD which has an EPA rating of 18 mpg city and 24 mpg highway. We had an overall average fuel economy of 25.4 mpg carrying four passengers most of the time and often driving in a hilly environment.
When combined with the electric motors the total horsepower is increased to 295-hp compared with the gas-only RX 350 which has 270 hp. There?s a performance advantage for the hybrid, too. A zero to 60 mph run takes 6.8 seconds as compared to 7.7 seconds for the gasoline version.
The RX 450h has a front mounted 123-kW electric motor-generator as the drive motor. A second motor-generator is the starter, powers electrical equipment and can charge the battery pack. All-wheel drive models have a third motor-generator mounted in the rear which drives the rear wheels when front-wheel slippage is detected. Using the 50-kW motor in the rear eliminates the need for a driveshaft from the front. The system is computer controlled and supplies the appropriate amount of front and rear torque to maintain traction and vehicle stability.
The electric motors are powered by a 288-volt DC nickel metal hydride (Ni-MH) battery pack mounted under the rear seat, so that it takes none of the cargo space. The result is a generous 40 cubic feet of cargo space when all the seat backs are up. When the 40/20/40 split rear seat backs are folded the space can be doubled to more than 80 cubic feet.
The RX 450h is a full hybrid and that means it can operate by electricity only, gas only or a combination of the two. The gas engine is a 3.5-liter Atkinson-cycle V-6. The gas engine and electric motor drive through an electronically controlled continuously variable transmission (CVT).
Driving the RX 450 is like driving a luxury sedan. The ride is very comfortable and the handling is good, but not sharp like, the Lexus IS or GS models. It?s very responsive and seamless, so you don?t feel the hybrid elements like regenerative braking intruding, like we do in some hybrids.
The driver can select from four driving modes: Normal, Sport, Eco and EV. The normal mode combines all the power sources for a combination of power and economy best suited for everyday driving. The Sport is for more spirited driving like we did on the winding mountain roads. The transmission?s manual shift gate goes well with the Sport mode to take advantage of engine braking and quicker responses. The Eco mode helps get better fuel economy. The EV mode switches the RX to electric only motoring at lower speeds and under certain other conditions.
The RX 450h models with the optional navigation system are also equipped with the Lexus Enform system which uses Bluetooth to connect to a smartphone. Enform services include Destination Assist, eDestination, and a suite of Apps. The system can be used to make restaurant reservations through OpenTable?, to search the Internet through Bing? or even buying movie tickets. It also brings in entertainment features like Pandora? and iHeartRadio? along with dozens of other Internet and SiriusXM services.
We think the most important feature of the Enform system is the Safety Connect response centers which operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The centers provide real people to respond to safety concerns like automatic collision notification, helping to locate a stolen vehicle, enhanced roadside Assistance and several other safety aids.
Lexus RX pricing starts at $41,705, including the destination charge, for the gasoline-powered front-wheel drive RX 350. The RX 450h FWD is $48,355, and the AWD is $1,000 more. A fully loaded RX 450h AWD like we drove with extras like the Comfort Package, 19-inch wheels, Xenon headlights, navigation, park assist and the Premium Package can take the price to more than $58,000.
The RX feels fresh, comfortable, responsive and remarkably refined. It?s easy to see why it?s the most popular model in the Lexus family.