A SHARPER RX?

Lexus RX 450h

NZ Autocar - - Contents - Words Kyle Cas­sidy Pho­tos Tom Gas­nier

Lexus sharp­ens the design of its pop­u­lar RX, adds more lux­ury, safety and space, but has it ad­dressed the dy­namic short­falls that have al­ways af­flicted this model?

Lexus has what you might call a sedan-heavy line up, re­flect­ing the wants of its core mar­ket, that be­ing the U.S. Over there, Lexus fights ef­fec­tively against the Euros, hav­ing its best year ever in 2015 and only just los­ing out to BMW as the most pop­u­lar lux­ury brand, sales of the new RX model help­ing. The fourth gen­er­a­tion RX has taken its time to land here where the lux­ury mar­ket con­tin­ues to lap up SUVs in favour of sedans. With­out its best seller for a good chunk of the year, Lexus NZ’s sales per­for­mance was par­tic­u­larly weak in 2015 and ended up fifth in the lux­ury race well be­hind Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Audi and Land Rover. You’d imag­ine with more stocks of the lit­tle NX and a fresh RX, Lexus should do a bet­ter job in 2016.

This new RX isn’t go­ing to sway those that like the way their X5 drives, but the new one will ap­peal to buy­ers who aren’t so hung up on how things go but rather as­pire to fine lux­ury, re­fine­ment and com­fort. The RX 350 and 450h hy­brid re­turn in three model grades, all sport­ing AWD and start­ing at $95,900 for a base 350 and wind­ing up to $125,900 for both the 450h F-Sport and the Lim­ited, which we have here.

The form of the RX is some­thing, all those creases, curves and swage lines. It’s like rolling sculp­ture. It’s in­ter­est­ing, and though we’ll never be sold on the grille, some of the other de­tails, like the treat­ment of the rear C pil­lar, we like. The rig it­self is larger be­ing both longer and slightly wider. The wheel­base has been in­creased to im­prove rear in­te­rior room and lug­gage space too, with the hy­brid now up to a quoted 514L, only five shy of the 350. The new­found space in the hy­brid comes from a repack­aged bat­tery, but it’s still of the old nickel metal hy­dride type, and there’s no plug in op­tion ei­ther.

RX sits on a new stiffer chas­sis and they’ve tin­kered with the tun­ing of the sus­pen­sion to im­prove ride but also agility by soft­en­ing spring rates while in­creas­ing the rigid­ity of the joints. They say the elec­tronic con­trol of the AWD sys­tem has been im­proved too. The 3.5 V6 that pow­ers the 350 gets a new cylin­der head, di­rect in­jec­tion sys­tem and Toy­ota’s new vari­able valve lift sys­tem to let it run on the Atkin­son cy­cle un­der light loads. Power (221kW) and torque of 370Nm are up slightly on the old one and with the eight-speed auto now avail­able across the range, con­sump­tion is im­proved at 9.6L/100km over­all.

The V6 in the 450h gets dif­fer­ent head as it runs al­ways on the Atkin­son cy­cle and is said to make 193kW. It teams up with a 123kW/335Nm mo­tor on the front axle driv­ing through the hy­brid’s E-CVT and there’s a 50kW/139Nm unit on the rear axle, adding its trac­tive ef­forts when re­quired. The sys­tem out­put is rated at 230kW, up 10 from the old one, with con­sump­tion rated at 5.7L/100km.

From what we can re­mem­ber of the old 450h, the EV per­for­mance is slightly im­proved with the new model. You can hum along on volts more eas­ily, at least when the road ahead is flat, though the V6 is never far from chim­ing in to help out, and the bat­tery range is pa­thetic. Com­pared with the newer lithium-ion pow­ered plug-ins like the Cayenne (ok, much more ex­pen­sive) or even some­thing like the Ou­tander PHEV, this hy­brid feels dated. But that said, it is more eco­nom­i­cal than a con­ven­tional lux­ury SUV, es­pe­cially when driven in town. With­out much thought to eco driv­ing the trip com­puter reads in the sevens for short city trips, while mo­tor­way run­ning sees the V6 sit­ting at a lowly 1100rpm most of the time. So it will be eco­nom­i­cal for a petrolpow­ered luxo rig over its life­time but there is that pre­mium to pay for the hy­brid tech­nol­ogy.

The RX is an easy drive around town; smooth, quiet and well re­fined in the ride stakes. The steer­ing is light and with all the con­ve­nience fea­tures of the Lim­ited model, noth­ing seems to be too much of a chore. We like how the 360 de­gree cam­era kicks in when the park­ing sonar beeps, help­ing you to see what you’re about to bash into. And Lexus has not skimped on safety with all mod­els packed with ac­tive sys­tems. The lane keep­ing func­tion is adept; it’s re­strained but ef­fec­tive in that it doesn’t seem hell-bent on tak­ing over the driv­ing. The lane de­par­ture warn­ing is overly ac­tive, so best switched off while the ac­tive cruise works ok ex­cept it will not keep speed in check when de­scend­ing a hill.

The RX has never been a harrier down a back road, and nei­ther is the new one. The steer­ing re­mains too light and dis­con­nected, even in Sport mode, and the brake pedal is still snatchy and

hard to mod­u­late. While it rides well, the 450h feels heavy, and gen­er­ally un­will­ing to change di­rec­tions too quickly. It rolls a fair bit as well, un­der­min­ing the front end grip and then you get into trou­ble with the ESP. Per­haps we should have been driv­ing the RX 450h F Sport with its new ac­tive sta­biliser sys­tem. The pow­er­train is more lively in its Sport mode, but the rest of the RX would just pre­fer you to Re­laX be­hind the wheel. Stick to the main roads, set the cruise and en­joy the cabin am­bi­ence.

The RX is quiet on the go, the cabin hushed over coarse chip thanks to a thor­ough sound sti­fling regime and the en­gine, even when pumped, is smooth thanks to new en­gine mounts. Apart from the cen­tre con­sole eating into knee room for the driver, the seat­ing po­si­tion is sound and the seats them­selves sump­tu­ous with great sup­port too. Good to see the aw­ful foot brake has been ban­ished, and the elec­tric park brake sets and re­leases it­self. There’s a big 12-inch multi-con­fig­urable dis­play on the dash, and Lexus has again tweaked its Re­mote Touch mouse con­troller for im­proved use (now with a back but­ton) but thank­fully there are still plenty of ac­tual but­tons about to help con­trol things you use most of­ten. There’s a head-up dis­play too, but I missed that thanks to my po­larised sun­glasses. The in­te­rior con­tin­ues to ce­ment Lexus’s rep­u­ta­tion as the maker of some of the finest cab­ins in the lux­ury set; the design and crafts­man­ship, along with the tac­til­ity of the var­i­ous con­trollers, is un­matched at the price point. Not sure about the long term vi­a­bil­ity of the test ve­hi­cle’s in­te­rior colour scheme though.

The rear seats too ma­jor on com­fort, where there’s room for two, three at a pinch. The seats ad­just with an elec­tric re­cline func­tion, and they fold for­ward too at the touch of a but­ton, though not ex­actly flat. The boot it­self is rea­son­able, not mas­sive, but we like the Lexus anti-slip mat that you’ll find on the floor to stop things thrash­ing about. And you can wave your hand over the Lexus badge on the boot and the tailgate will mag­i­cally open, just not when it’s rain­ing though.

So, the new RX is as we ex­pected; supremely re­fined, lux­u­ri­ous and easy go­ing, but still with­out any driver con­nec­tion. Still, it’s now in­ter­est­ing to look at, well spec­i­fied at the price and there’s the big Lexus af­ter-sales ser­vice pack to con­sider too.

Plenty of design at­ti­tude go­ing on here. RX is any­thing but plain look­ing. Rear seat space im­proves, as does the level of lux­ury of­fered, though Louis­son doesn’t seem im­pressed.

In­ter­est­ing colour choice for the in­te­rior but oth­er­wise it’s a mas­ter-class in crafts­man­ship and feel at the price asked. 450h prefers mooching around the city. A pity though that Lexus hasn’t ad­vanced its hy­brid sys­tem much over the years.

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