A SHARPER RX?
Lexus RX 450h
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.