The Lexus RX450h continues as the epitome of luxury SUV, says auto writer Greg Rubenstein

Lexus RX450h

The RX continues as the epitome of luxury SUV, says auto writer Greg Rubenstein.

Since its 1999 debut, the Lexus RX has defined the car-based (crossover) luxury sport utility vehicle segment its introduction served to create. Back in ’00, the few upmarket SUVs extant were little more than tarted-up trucks—rough-riding bastions of leather-clad power seats and wood-trimmed cabins that struggled to snuff out the rasp of their tradesman powertrains.

Fast forward a decade to a landscape flush with no fewer than 25 RX competitors. Every luxury manufacturer has at least one premium utility vehicle with compact dimensions––and some with as many as four. Even Lexus found more room in the crowded niche, creating a gap by growing the RX to midsize, then filling the hole with the scaled-down compact NX.

From its earliest iteration it was clear Lexus was on to something, and nailed the need before we knew the niche was needed. Also apparent, while there have never been more well-heeled compact and midsize SUVs to choose from, the RX remains as solid an option as when it was the only choice.

What’s proven so popular and where the tested, battery-hybrid range-topping RX450h excels is in delivery of luxury attributes––velvety drivetrain, sumptuous cabin and splendid build quality––matched to the SUV’s inherently superior sightline. Lexus also delivers a hassle-free buying and service experience, which have proven to be key factors for the RX’s predominantly female market.

This latest RX––including the RX350 in standard V6 gas engine trim––received a fourth-generation makeover in 2016, which carries forward in 2017 a bold exterior that belies its more benign on-road behavior. A gaping grille looks like it might gobble asphalt, and combined with angular body panels, the style is conspicuous. This Lexus will stick out in a crowd.

An eight-speed automatic transmission accompanies the 295-horsepower V6 engine in the RX350, while the RX450h delivers its V6 and battery-combined 308-horsepower through an electronic continuously variable transmission. Either model is available with front- or all-wheel-drive.

Standard features include all the safety and convenience enhancements expected in a modern luxury vehicle, such as pre-collision and lane departure warning systems with steering assist, dynamic radar cruise control, parking assist with full surround camera display, as well as multi-zone climate control, automatic heated/cooled seats, multimedia infotainment system with gauge-cluster display and steering wheel-mounted controls.

Driving the RX450h is an exercise in serenity, with minimal exterior distraction and textbook tranquil dynamics. Acceleration is brisk, yet neither too fast nor slow, with an EPA economy rating of 31 city, 30 highway, and 30 combined. Braking is steady, turn-in is calm and lateral grip is adequate, offering surprisingly-neutral (though electronic wizardry-enhanced) handling when pushed. There just isn’t anything this RX doesn’t do well, but its performance envelope is manila––a brilliant, smooth flavor of vanilla; perfect if that’s what you seek.

The RX450h has a base price of $53,035 in FWD, and $56,645 with AWD. A la carte options of blind spot monitor with rear cross-traffic alert, color heads-up display, “intelligent” LED headlights, touch-free power liftgate, 12.3-inch color display nav system with upgraded Mark Levinson 15-speaker audio system and heated leather steering wheel upped the as-tested price of the sampled FWD RX to $57,745.

As when it was introduced, the RX continues as the epitome of luxury SUV. There are faster alternatives, and there are options for marque-loyalists across the spectrum, but none are an equivalent sum of parts as is this original luxury utility vehicle.




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