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Lexus: Leader in Utility Vehicle Hybrid Segment with RX 450h

February 19, 2011/Steve Tackett

MOTOR MATTERS GET OFF THE ROAD BY DAN LYONS

The promise of sport utility vehicle and crossover hybrids is timeless: being able to have your cake and eat it too. Hybrid technology offers SUV owners the opportunity to keep driving what they want to drive, when high gas prices would have them do otherwise.
The Lexus RX 450h is the automaker’s second generation of the hybrid utility vehicle. Available in front-wheel and all-wheel drive versions, the midsize crossover is Lexus’ most popular member of the luxury maker’s hybrids, which includes sedans.
The RX hybrid package combines a 3.5-liter, V-6 gas engine with a pair of electric motor-generators (in AWD versions, an additional motor-generator provides power to the rear wheels as well). The combined system output in the Lexus is approximately 295 horsepower — enough to spirit the RX from 0-60 mph in less than 8 seconds. Considering the RX’ hefty curb weight (4,652 pounds) that’s moving right along.
The interplay between gas and electric power is smooth and seamless. Being a full hybrid, the 2011 RX 450h can operate in gas-only mode, electric-only, or a combination of the two.
In slow, stop-and-go traffic, it’s possible to run the RX on full electric power, rolling along silently.

Note that this can take some pedestrians by surprise, especially if you’re in a noisy, urban environment. As your speed builds, the gas engine kicks in. The ability to tap the electric motor for part of your power allows you to economize on gas (a rare treat for SUV buyers).
The EPA rates the RX 450h at 30 miles per gallon in the city and 28 mpg highway (AWD); 32/28 (FWD). My test drive netted 26 mpg overall. As with other hybrids, the quest for fuel economy can be addicting. It’s easy to find yourself eyeing the dashboard monitor to see how you’re doing on mileage, and even driving smoother in order to maximize your mpgs.
My 2011 RX 450h tester was an AWD model with a base price of $44,825. The system is automatic and transparent to the driver, powering only the front wheels under normal conditions. Engine torque is channeled to the rear wheels as well when needed, such as under hard acceleration, or when traction is marginal. While no one expects this Lexus to be called upon for any serious trail blazing, light off-roading is well within its capabilities.
The RX 450h is outfitted with a vehicle stability control system that orchestrates a collection of electronic aids (ABS, brake assist and traction control) all charged with helping keep the driver in control in varying conditions. The big Lexus feel stable going down the road and ride quality is very smooth. Visibility is good save a 3/4 rear blind spot created by the rear seat headrest and wide roof pillars.
The RX 450h offers fine performance and fuel economy that exceeds the breed’s expectations.

The interior builds on this with a well-crafted and useful layout. An available Head’s-Up Display projects speed, navigation and audio information low on the windshield. Front seating is generally comfortable, but the location of the parking brake lever in the foot well makes it a potential shin-bruiser.
Split, rear seats fold, adjust forward and back, recline, and fit two or three adults comfortably. Cargo capacity ranges from 38-85 cubic feet, depending on how you configure the seats. Access to the way-back is via one piece, liftgate door. It powers up and down at the touch of a key fob button, handy when your arms are full. Liftover height in back is moderate and the towing capacity is only 3,500 pounds.
Though the 2011 RX 450h is well equipped, the arm’s-length option sheet is long and tempting, and like a buffet when you’re hungry, it’s easy to overindulge, if you don’t exercise restraint. The tester’s options brought the out-the-door price to $61,524. Highlights include a navigation system with a bright, visible 8-inch screen, voice activation and wide-view back-up camera, a rear seat entertainment system with twin, HD screens, wireless headphones, and a 15-speaker, Mark Levinson 7.1 channel surround sound system.
If you have the luxury of shopping the luxury SUV segment, the RX 450h is an easy choice for your short list, because it works on so many levels. It’s useful, comfortable, and nicely appointed. And, the hybrid technology is so well executed (and well covered by warranty) that you can enjoy its benefits (higher mileage, lower emissions) without worrying about how it gets the job done. — Dan Lyons, Motor Matters

Copyright, AutoWriters Associates Inc., 2011