How many people buy SUVs for their off-road capability? Look around most city centres and you’ll find shiny black SUVs driven by well-heeled folk on the way to brunch. Very few SUVs are actually driven off-road. They’re more of a status symbol in a world where ‘keeping with up the Jones’ has been replaced with ‘keeping up with the Kardashians’.
Range Rovers, Mercedes G-Wagons, and Porsche Cayennes have become all the rage and it’s not just on Hollywood Boulevard. It’s all over the world. People want SUVs because it makes them feel safer or there’s better visibility. It makes them feel invincible and it also make them feel better about themselves as they lord over smaller cars. It’s all about excess and never mind where it can go.
Car makers understand this. Most SUVs and crossovers these days aren’t designed to go off road anymore. They’re designed to make people think they can. Only a handful remain loyal to their rugged 4×4 roots (looking at you Land Rover and G-Class). So when buying a SUV these days, few people take off-roadability into consideration. Instead, how it performs on-road and in day-to-day situations are what matters.
This is where the new Lexus RX450h comes in. I’d argue that this SUV, despite its lack of a central locking diff and a low-range gearbox, is ideal for the modern Kiwi lifestyle. It’s an SUV for people who think they’re saving the world and for people who think they have a more active lifestyle than they actually do.
The RX is now in its fourth generation. Lexus was actually one of the first to enter the premium SUV market way back in 1998 with the first RX. Clearly Lexus saw potential, and particularly in the United States, the RX has been one of Lexus’ best selling models. The second-generation was also the first hybrid SUV to enter the market. Since then other car makers such as Porsche, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Audi have followed suit offering their own hybrid SUVs.
Over the years the RX has never been the byword for performance SUVs. It never even tried to. That’s not the point of this car. Lexus knows it and their customers know it. If you approach the RX in that way you’ll be able to understand why it’s so popular. Buying an SUV for its performance and handling is like buying a horse to mow your lawn; there are better options out there to get the job done.
Where the RX might split opinion is the way it looks. Lexus’ new design language dominated by the new ‘spindle grille’ face has been a love-hate design. I for one am a fan of it simply because Lexus have dared to be different. Not necessarily more beautiful, but at least it separates itself from the Teutonic design of its German rivals.
My test car came with the F Sport pack and that brings with it a more prominent grille, 20-inch wheels, and a sportier rear bumper. There’s no silly quad-exhausts, flared wheel arches, or an obnoxious spoiler to suggest that this car wants to lap the Nurburgring as fast as possible. Instead, the sporty touches are there for aesthetic purposes. If you don’t want a sporty look, the standard RX450h and RX450h Limited offer a more “subtle” look. Well, as subtle as a Lexus can be these days.
Where the RX really excels is inside. Lexus interiors have always been renowned for their quality but Lexus of old never had the most interesting interior designs. That’s no longer the case. The RX has an interior reminiscent of a sci-fi anime film. It’s an interesting place to be in and one that’s also very comfortable.
Most cars have very slab-sided dashboards. Not the RX. There are layers and swoops. It’s not fussy or distracting, just very cool. Being a Lexus everything is ergonomically placed. And of course everything works. I particularly like the juxtaposition of the massive 12.3-inch central screen and the analogue clock. It’s those neat little touches that make the interior of the Lexus stand out amongst its competitors.
If you like toys then this is the car for you. Everything I’m about to list comes as standard, which is a lot more than what its European rivals offer. Standard equipment includes; HUD (heads-up display), driver information display, satellite navigation, reversing camera, front and rear parking sensors, wireless charging, iPod and Bluetooth connectivity, keyless entry and start, soft-close doors, electrically adjustable front seats with memory settings, heated and cooled front seats, dual-zone climate control with pollen removal, 12-speaker sound system, x10 airbags, hill start assist, radar cruise control, Pre-Safe collision avoidance system, lane change assist with blind spot monitoring, lane keep assist with steering control, and full LED head/taillights to name a few. The only option available is a 15-speaker Mark Levinson sound system and it’s one worth ticking because it’s superb.
One little niggle I had with the RX’s high techery was the mouse-like controller for the infotainment system. It’s as if Lexus intentionally wanted something different to the German’s rotary dial controllers. I like that they’ve tried to be different but there’s a reason why rotary dials are becoming more common in cars these days – they are easy to use. The mouse controller in the Lexus goes all over the place when you’re trying to switch menus when driving. A touchpad like you get in other Lexus models would’ve been a better solution.
So there’s no shortage of toys to play with inside. Luckily the RX is also good for carrying people and things. There are only five seats, you’ll have to go up to the larger LX series to get more seats with your Lexus badge. That said, five people will fit comfortably inside the RX. As this is a hybrid and the electric motors power the rear wheels, there’s no need for a chunky transmission tunnel. Passengers in the back benefit from a completely flat floor, so gone are the days of fighting to not have the middle seat.
Good thing the seats were comfortable. The driver’s seat in particular was one of the most comfortable I’ve sat on. In most cars after a couple of hours behind the wheel my lower back would start to ache. It didn’t in the Lexus. The passengers I carried in the RX also noted how comfortable the seats were. The rear seats also recline, perfect for those famous Kiwi road trips.
What also makes the RX ideal for road trips are all the nifty cubby holes. There’s one under the central armrest, one that’s the perfect size for a small MP3 player with a small hole for your cable to through to either one of two USB jacks under the central cubby hole or a 12V charger. There are decent sized door pockets, a usable glove box that can fit more than just the owner’s manual, and many cupholders. The cupholder in the centre console also has an elevated platform for your fair trade soy milk latte. Lexus have literally thought of everything.
If you don’t believe me the boot can be opened hands-free. Picture the scene. You’ve just done your weekly shop from your local health foods shop and you’ve got your hands full of groceries. You don’t want to put your bags down on the ground because what are you, an animal? You can’t reach inside your pocket or handbag for the keys to open the boot. Enter the sensors on the Lexus badge. Simply wave your hand or elbow in front of it and the rear tailgate opens magically where you can load the 453L boot with all your organic produce. I prefer this hands-free system to others as it saves you the embarrassment from having to shake your foot around like a lunatic.
As you’d expect the driving experience is more relaxing than it is adrenaline pumping. This isn’t an SUV that’ll test your limits as a driver. Instead, stick it in auto, set the radar cruise control to 100 and waft along as the scenery passes you by. The RX450h does come with a ‘Drive Select’ function that allows the driver to select from Eco, Normal, and Sport/Sport+ settings. These change the characteristic of the car slightly but really you’d only engage Sport mode if you were late for a yoga lesson. Eco and Normal are where the RX450h comes into its own.
The RX450h is powered by a combination of a 3.5-litre V6 and an electric motor. Combined they produce 312hp/230kW and 335kW of torque, which is then sent to all four wheels via an 8-speed auto. 0-100 km/h is done in 7.7 seconds, which is adequate. The petrol engine is appropriately refined and hushed to match the silent electric motor. The auto box has silky smooth shifts. It does have, some odd reason, paddle shifters. Who would use them, I have no idea.
You have to commend Lexus for sticking with their guns in going down the hybrid route, especially nowadays when diesel is getting a bad rep. The clean hybrid alternative is becoming increasingly attractive to more buyers, especially with the prospect of being able to drive in pure electric mode.
The RX450h actually starts in electric mode and there’s a meter indicating how economically you’re driving. Setting off in hybrid mode, the car sort of creeps away because if you get too heavy with your right foot the petrol engine kicks in. This can be overridden by pressing the ‘EV Mode’ button. If the batteries are charged enough you can drive the RX450h in EV mode until there’s insufficient battery charge.
In EV mode the RX450h feels like it has the get up and go of a much smaller car. It works fine in town but don’t expect to be driving around in pure EV mode on State Highway 1. The RX does have regenerative braking so it uses the kinetic energy and heat from braking to recharge the batteries. Put simply, the hybrid technology helps the petrol tank go further meaning you can see more of New Zealand’s beautiful scenery without having to waste time filling up at petrol stations. That said, I didn’t get close to the claimed 5.7L/100km fuel consumption. I averaged around 6.8L/100km which isn’t bad for a car this size. According to the car’s trip computer a full tank could get you around 610km.
That brings me back to road trips. No seriously, I genuinely think the RX would be a fantastic way to see the country. This is a car that’ll eat up the kilometres with ease and get you to your destination in comfort. The ride is smooth and stable, even on the large F-Sport wheels. Noise, vibration, and harshness levels are up there with class leaders. The RX does a fine job insulating people inside from outside noise.
Around the twisty roads the RX doesn’t lean as much as you’d think it would. There’s still some body roll but it’s not that it’ll make you sick. For the driver, the RX’s steering is light meaning it won’t tire you out. It might not have the most feel or directness but remember this isn’t a sports car.
The 4WD system means it can also make the occasional trip up to a ski field or a country club. Which, let’s be honest here, is about as much off-road as these sorts of cars will ever venture to. In the city, the RX does feel like a big car. Negotiating through tight Wellington CBD roads was quite a mission but not an impossible one.
Parking is relatively easy too with many aids and guidances to help you out. Rear visibility is rather limited due to a narrow rear window the thick c-pillars create a blind spot. Luckily the RX comes with Rear Cross Traffic Alert, front and rear parking sensors, and a 360º view camera. The 360º cameras are a godsend. This is a big car and it feels like a big car. You need cameras on the front, side, and rear to get into a space with ease. It also makes you feel like a director, switching between camera views. Really, the only thing the RX doesn’t have is the ability to park itself. But where would the fun be in that?
|Brand/Model||Engine||Power||Fuel L/100km||CO2 g/km||Price – High to Low|
|Porsche Cayenne Diesel||3.0-litre, V6 diesel||262hp/193kW||6.8L/100km||179g/km||$139,000|
|Volvo XC90 T8||2.0-litre, four cylinder turbo petrol + electric motor||400hp/300kW||2.1L/100km||49g/km||$134,900|
|Audi Q7 TDi||3.0-litre, V6 diesel||272hp/200kW||6.0L/100km||160g/km||$129,900|
|BMW X5 xDrive30d||3.0-litre, in-line 6 diesel||258hp/190kW||6.2L/100km||164g/km||$128,300|
|Lexus RX450h F Sport||3.5-litre, V6 petrol + electric motor||312hp/230kW||5.7L/100km||131g/km||$125,900|
|Range Rover Sport TDV6||3.0-litre, V6 diesel||258hp/190kW||7.3L/100km||194g/km||$125,000|
|Mercedes Benz GLE350d||3.0-litre, V6 diesel||258hp/190kW||6.6L/100km||179g/km||$124,900|
|Jeep Grand Cherokee||1.8-litre, four cylinder petrol||250hp/184kW||7.5L/100km||198g/km||$106,990|
|Volkswagen Touareg||3.0-litre, V6 diesel||244hp/180kW||7.4L/100km||195g/km||$104,900|
Pros and Cons
What We Think
For daily trips doing the school run, to the weekly shop, summer road trips, and going skiing in the winter, you could do worse than a RX450h. Being one of only a handful hybrid SUV available in the New Zealand market, it’s certainly an alternative worth considering. No, it’s not the most exciting SUV out there but if that’s not a priority for you the RX450h is a solid choice and edges out over some of its competitors.
I can see many reasons for getting the RX450h over a similarly sized petrol or diesel powered SUV. However, it’s still got limited capabilities and appeal for it to be anything more than a left-field alternative. For some that’s a good thing, why be part of the mainstream crowd when you could be cool, hip, and eco in an alternative hybrid?
But I still do stand by my opinion that the RX450h with its smooth ride, spacious interior, comfy seats, hybrid powertrain, and four-wheel drive is one of the best cars for a good old fashioned Kiwi road trip. If you don’t believe me you’ll have to try it out yourself.
|Vehicle Type||Luxury SUV|
|Engine||3456cc V6 VVTi petrol + Permanent Magnet Motor|
|0-100 kph||7.7 seconds|
|Length x Width x Height||4890mm x 1895mm x 1685mm|
|ANCAP Safety Ratings||5 Star|