Mountain Wheels: The classy Lexus RX 450h helps build hybrid support
Automotive technology and people’s interest in it often seem to head in two very different paths. We are excited for a future with highly efficient automobiles, less dependent on gasoline, but as long as gas is impossibly dirt cheap (it’s already less than $2 a gallon in spots in the Front Range, as we speak), efficiency and emissions reductions seem to take a back seat in most folks’ car-buying decisions.
To that end, the concept of a hybrid luxury SUV seems like a particularly odd mix of attributes, but for the folks who do appreciate fuel savings and the potential for short, emission-free all-electric travel, the hybrid variation of Lexus’ endlessly successful RX might be a good starting point.
I spent a little over a week in the 2018 RX 450h, having driven the standard RX 350 with the F-Sport package over the summer, and I was pleased with both variations of the current-generation RX platform.
Hybridity adds and occasionally makes odd the RX experience with its primary advantages being superb in-city mileage and the appreciable boost of electrified driving in sport mode, fully harnessing the 450h’s 308-horsepower overall output.
The numbers say it all: Your standard RX, driven by a 290-horsepower 3.5-liter, fuel-injected V-6 with variable valve timing, earns about 22 overall mpg, with city mileage a fairly low 16 mpg, though the vehicle now runs on regular gas.
The hybrid, which blends that 3.5-liter with two high-torque electric motor-generator units, easily produces more than 30 overall mpg (I got 31.5, way, way more than I got in the Highlander hybrid), and city figures are 31 mpg. If you’re doing a lot of urban cruising versus long highway travel, that can certainly add up.
The hybrid RX comes with standard all-wheel drive, a snow country bonus, and unlike the standard model’s transfer gears and driveshaft, uses the electric motor in the rear to build AWD power and traction on demand.
The choice of power modes is your own, controlled by a knob. I started my week in Eco and felt very little restriction of the RX’s power, with takeoffs just a little more subtle, as you gracefully scoot away from a stop sign. Spinning it to sport gives you all the power available, and makes it quite a rev-heavy hauling machine. Conversely, you can also go to a full EV mode that relies entirely on the RX’s battery and can provide you with low-speed, fully electric cruising for a short period.
I kind of liked the restraint imposed by the Eco setting, allowing me sort of a Zen experience that I hadn’t had in other mid-size or larger SUVs this year. Perhaps that was the vehicle’s singular bonus, and it also allowed the relatively natural-feeling continuously variable transmission to do its work. Braking also didn’t feel appreciatively draggy, unlike other hybrid automobiles, and it was easy to fully recharge the 450h’s battery while cruising along.
That sport mode (or the F-Sport appearance package) does not produce much tangible change in suspension or ride, and the 450h especially feels its weight in corners — though the lower-resistance, eco-friendly all-seasons I drove with are also not optimized for either performance or wintertime grip.
Cornering also made you aware of RX’s very large A-pillars and a slight limitation on visibility, though large aircraft-style forward windows and big side mirrors perched on low-profile stalks help as much as they can.
You’ll find variations of standard Lexus design style in both editions, with a comfortable and leathery, wood-trimmed cabin, a very long and deep dash and the pleasant airy feeling provided by a big (and optional) moonroof.
Broad, flat but supportive seating was enjoyable over my long haul, though the electric seat heaters took a bit to warm up on colder days.
Pricing was fairly comparable, though the standard-engined F-Sport was certainly flashier with its intense Darth Vader helmet-inspired grille and sportier overall looks, including special 20-inch wheels. The nonhybrid model stickered at $50,320, arriving at $58,345 with the addition of a the moonroof, upgraded navigation and audio and improved LED headlamps and navigation safety systems.
The hybrid, on the other hand, had an initial MSRP of $45,695 and reached $54,715 with the addition of upgraded leather, folding mirrors, a heads-up display and the moonroof/audio/safety options added to the F-Sport.
For 2018, Lexus has also added an additional model to the RX lineup, a three-row RX L edition that gains 4.3 inches in overall length but does not look especially larger. Modifying the angle of the tailgate allows those in the modest third-row seating to still get pretty decent headroom.
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