A Week With the Lexus RX 450h Hybrid SUV, Impressions

The hybrid SUV market has popped up and expanded greatly over the last several years, though it has been damaged by the recession.  Ford offers the affordable Escape and Mercury Mariner hybrids and Mazda is offering its new Tribute hybrid SUV. Toyota’s Highlander is also making the rounds in the hybrid market.

However, Toyota’s luxury brand, Lexus, has the competitors easily beat on price.  Priced lower than the non-luxury 2010 Volkswagen Touareg, 2010 GMC Yukon (GM), 2010 Chevy Tahoe (GM), 2009 Dodge Durango (Chrysler), 2009 Chrysler Aspen (Chrysler) hybrids [source], and enjoying the role of being the only luxury crossover hybrid on the market, the 2010 Lexus 450h seems well positioned in terms of price and role.  It’s clear why Toyota has managed to sell over two million hybrids — something no other automaker can claim.

A second generation hybrid, the latest Lexus RX hybrid SUV packs a combined 297 hp (44 hp from 2 electric motors, 245 hp from a 3.5 L 2GR-FE V6 gas engine) and uses advanced technologies such as running the engine on the Atkinson cycle, utilizing exhaust heat recovery, and offering a cooled exhaust gas-recirculation system to reduce fuel pumping losses.  It also offers voice commands, an in-dash navigation system, and LED headlights.

The vehicle has a one-motor variant EPA rated at 30 mpg city, 28 highway for the all-wheel-drive variant, and 32/28 mpg for the standard.  It can tow up to 3,500 lb.

That sounds like a great package, but how exactly does it perform?  That’s the question we set out to answer, taking the AWD (two motor) vehicle variant on a week long test drive.

When considering hybrids, one of the first questions that comes to mind is how well they perform in terms of fuel economy.  This was one disappointment about the vehicle.  The vehicle consistently failed to achieve the EPA estimates, from the first day to the last.  Instead, we received 27.2 mpg.  We logged considerable mileage on the vehicle — approximately 430 miles, so we’re confident these results aren’t just a fluke. 

One factor may have been that we were averaging a speed of 29 mph and encountered a lot of stop-and-go traffic, conditions that would lower efficiency.  And 27.2 mpg is still substantially higher than most SUVs that average somewhere between 18-20 mpg and even diesel SUVs, that typically get around 21 or 22 mpg. 

The fuel economy does illustrate a problem, though — while customers expect EPA ratings to be conservative, sometimes they’re overly liberal.  When it comes to hybrid SUV’s buyers face a tough choices — getting lower fuel economy in models like the Lexus RX hybrid in exchange for better power, or opting for underpowered four-cylinder vehicles like the 2010 Mazda Tribute hybrid.

Speaking of power, that was a definite positive — acceleration was peppy for a hybrid SUV vehicle and there was little trouble accelerating up to high speeds on the highway, thanks to the capable V6 engine.  Likewise braking was responsive, though it had a bit different feel thanks to the regenerative braking features.  Handling was terrific, the car took turns well.

As for the feel of the vehicle, its very comfortable and spacious.  The wheel retracts when you’re not driving, a nice touch.  The drive is relatively smooth and NVH (noise, vibration, and harshness) is not overly high, thanks in part to the smooth electric motors.  

The vehicle’s suspension, though felt taut and was rather disappointing.  Driving along bumpy city streets in Detroit, the driver was jostled around substantially more in the RX 450h than in his “pedestrian” 2002 Chevy Malibu.  Despite the RX 450h’s greater weight, this was a bit of a surprise, considering the vehicle had Macpherson struts and gas pressurized shock absorbers (front), along with a double wishbone suspension (rear) with more shock absorbers.  The suspension did take turns very well, but the trade-off was that it just did not perform sufficiently when absorbing large road bumps.

One nice feature of the car was its adaptive headlights.  LED bulbs provided clear illumination of the road.  Our model had adaptive headlamps, a nice option as it helps illuminate curves.  Another interesting feature was automatic brights — something that we’ve rarely seen other reviews mention.  The feature automatically turns on brights when there are no cars in the front view, apparently, and then turns them off when cars come into view.  This is a really nice feature, and was particularly handy when riding on some back country streets where deer might be lurking.

As for aesthetics, the car scores high marks.  Arguably one of the more attractive hybrid SUVs, the car features some nice curves and an aggressive look.  The interior came with optional leather and wood trim, completing the luxury feel.  While some reviewers panned the navigation system we found it capable from both an aesthetics and utility standpoint.  Brighter than in other Toyota models, the system dropped map marking dots/breadcrumbs during trips (you can turn them off), a handy feature to help you plot a reverse course.  It also offered a robust system for finding points of interest like local gas stations or restaurants, as well as offering turn by turn directions.  A directional indicator (N/NE…S/SW) in the rear-view mirror was also a nice touch.

Recapping, a few things would make the Lexus RX 450h a sweeter package.  A smoother suspension, better gas mileage, more support for MP3 audio (like Ford’s Sync), and a better standard blind spot warning system (blind spot cameras are an add-on) would all help to improve the experience.

However, the great price point and V6 engine overshadow many of these detractions.  Taking the price into consideration, we feel that the Lexus RX 450h provides appealing value and a good buy for the eco-minded luxury SUV buyer.  With enough perks to make a fulfilling basic luxury experience, the Toyota appears to have a solid competitor on their hands with the 2010 Lexus RX 450h.