Whither the self-charging crossover in this time of the Great Upheaval? Self-charging crossover in this case being the highly regarded Lexus RX 450h. Great Upheaval being the automotive industry’s unchecked rush to electric vehicles. Throw in news-making headlines — other than the pandemic — such as global warming, increasing fuel prices, microchip shortages, rebates for U.S.-built EVs, et cetera, et cetera, and you have the ancient curse, “May you live in interesting times,” amped up to 11.
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The fourth-generation, Ontario-built RX, in either gas-only 350 form or the gasoline-electric 450h, has been around since the 2016 model year, making it a “mature” product, albeit one that remains the best-selling mid-size luxury crossover in Canada. That said, the Lexus Hybrid Drive, which, in the RX 450h, consists of an Atkinson-cycle 3.5L V6, electric motors, and a continuously variable transmission, is no longer leading-edge technology. It’s a dollars-to-donuts bet that the next-gen RX, likely a 2023 model, will have a plug-in hybrid version.
Until that happens, however, the current RX 450h rolls on in both five-seat and, as the 450h L, seven-seat form, the Hybrid Drive setup doing what it does best, delivering smooth, reliable, stress-free (as in no range anxiety) power. Oh, and compact crossover-like fuel economy from what is a 2,150-kilogram, mid-sized, upscale SUV — 7.9 L/100 km city/highway combined, according to NRCan. (Personally, I averaged 9.5 L/100 km with the F Sport Series 3 tester, in a fairly even mix of highway and in-town driving, with the downside that the Lexus takes premium unleaded.)
Lexus has been doing the hybrid RX thing here since 2005, starting with the RX 400h, with remarkably little in the way of direct competition. In current form, the RX 450h’s Hybrid Drive puts out 308 net system horsepower, which makes it more powerful than the gas-only 350 (295 hp) — and about 160 kg heavier. Getting to 100 km/h takes the better part of seven seconds, which isn’t slow per se, but is more leisurely than the RX’s aggressively sporty look suggests. (Should you not be familiar with Lexus’s naming protocols and think popping for one of the F Sport packages gains you extra zoom, you will be disappointed.)
Further to this point, the 450h’s various drive modes do have a noticeable effect on how the crossover drives, each setting choice modifying the engine and chassis to some degree. The Sport S setting offers a higher level of performance with more aggressive throttle mapping and quicker engine response. The all-out Sport S+ setting combines the engine enhancements of Sport S while firming the feel of the electric power steering and stiffening the suspension for flatter cornering. There’s also Eco, Normal/Customize and, of course, EV mode, with Eco really mellowing out the crossover — perfect for light-traffic situations or cruising, not so much when merging onto the highway or trying to pass slower-moving vehicles. Punching the throttle while in Sport or Sport+ delivers the necessary acceleration, albeit with a cacophony that is most un-Lexus-like.
Also, while Sport+ improves the RX’s handling — assuming you’re looking for a more dynamic connection with the road, closer to what the European competition provides — the Lexus is, and always has been, skewed to a calmer, more comfortable ride.
Other than a day’s worth of light snow, there was little to challenge the RX’s active torque all-wheel drivetrain, though previous test drives of the crossover over the years hasn’t delivered any nasty surprises — there’s always traction no matter the road surface conditions, the AWD system effectively distributes torque between the front and rear wheels as required.
Naturally, being a Toyota brand, Lexus takes safety very seriously. Thus every 2022 RX model is headlined by the Lexus Safety System + 2.0, a suite of active safety technologies that includes bicycle and pedestrian detection, automatic high beam, dynamic radar cruise control and lane tracing assist. This is in addition to things such as the blind-spot monitor with rear cross-traffic braking, rain-sensing wipers, a backup camera, and intuitive park assist with auto braking. Very reassuring.
Lexus shows off electric models up close, including RZ 450e
SUV Comparison: 2021 Lexus RX 350 and 2021 Mercedes-Benz GLE 350
As said before, the RX is the best-selling mid-size luxury SUV in Canada. But, while the gas-only RX 350 can count models such as the Acura MDX, Infiniti QX60, Lincoln Nautilus, or Genesis GV80 as rivals, none of them offer a hybrid powertrain (yet). Volvo’s XC60 is a competitor to the RX 450h, albeit with a plug-in hybrid powertrain.
Now, having determined the 450h is a well-behaved, comfortable, fairly roomy, and relatively fuel-efficient vehicle, the question then becomes how to equip it. Although it starts off at a reasonable $60,000 for the base Premium Package, it will — as in the case of the all-singing, all-dancing F Sport Series 3 — see the MSRP increase to a heady $74,050. As such, the RX is fitted with everything but the kitchen sink — panoramic sunroof, head-up display, embedded navigation system, adaptive variable suspension, power rear liftgate, dual-zone automatic climate control, a superb 15-speaker Mark Levinson audio system, a bunch of safety sensors, F Sport add-ons, and more. In between the base and the topline F Sport Series 3 are another four trim levels, so you can tailor your ride depending on what features you consider important and how big your budget is.
One of the reasons the RX lineup succeeds in the marketplace is because it is the very definition of the word “balanced” — as in power, ride, comfort, amenities, and user-friendliness. Which is not to say it is beyond criticism. Stylistically, the Lexus spindle grille is taken to extravagant proportions on the crossover. Few are those who find it an attractive feature. Styling is subjective, however. What isn’t is the infotainment system’s computer mouse-like Remote Touch controller, generally panned for being awkwardly placed on the centre console, which makes it difficult to use, especially when driving.
There are some other minor annoyances as well, such as the button for the heated steering wheel being nowhere near the well-hidden buttons for the heated/ventilated seats. Or the “masking” that obscures the lens of the front television camera, ostensibly placed there because lens distortion “may affect the perceived distance to objects in certain areas of the image.”
These last are ergonomic quibbles, though. The upshot is that for 16 years in hybrid form, the RX 400h and subsequent 450h have not strayed from the crossover’s previously mentioned balanced reputation, a comfort for those who value consistency in their soft-road upscale mall assault vehicles. It’s not the last word in fuel-efficient crossovers — if it ever was — but it does its part. It will be interesting to see how well the next-generation plug-in model will retain the current model’s balance while reducing its carbon footprint.