The RX is arguably the most important nameplate for Lexus, and in more than one way. Having been around since 1998, it’s one of the oldest premium midsize SUVs on the market, and is also the brand’s bestselling model across its portfolio with more than 2.1 million units sold globally so far.
It’s also the first vehicle in the Lexus line-up to get a hybrid power train, with the RX 400h dating more than a decade back to 2005 laying the foundation for later models like the CT 200h, GS 450h and LS 600h. In fact, it even predated the HS 250h, which was a dedicated hybrid-only model. So, it wasn’t surprising to see the Japanese carmaker going all out redesigning and re-engineering the 2016 model of this popular SUV.
We drove it earlier this year in the RX 350 F Sport guise, and loved it. Pitted against two of Europe’s finest SUVs, the Audi Q7 and our Car of the Year 2016 Volvo XC 90, the RX held its own, convincing us that it is a credible alternative to European rivals.
Now here is the hybrid variant of the latest model, the RX 450h. Powered by the same 3.5-litre V6 as the RX 350h, with an electric motor, the RX hybrid’s total system output is 308bhp, which isn’t significantly more than the RX 350’s 295bhp.
Press the start button and, as is the case with every hybrid vehicle, you’ll hear nothing. The car starts in EV mode, pulls away in total silence, and will even go a few km on electric power alone. But you’ll have to be easy-going on the throttle pedal. If you prod the accelerator sharply or beyond a point, the engine kicks in and the RX is a regular petrol-engined SUV.
Even on the highways, whenever you lift off, or coast for a while, power from the engine is cut, and the car goes back to EV mode. While these transitions should, in theory, bring substantial improvements in fuel efficiency, unfortunately that’s not the case. Lexus claims a combined efficiency figure of 9.4 litres per 100km, which in itself isn’t an impressive number, but to get the statistics down to that level, you’ll need to drive like an octogenarian with impaired motor skills. The best combined figure we could get in just over a week with a mix of highway and city driving conditions was 9.8 litres per 100km. Also, the CVT, which takes the place of the RX 350’s eight-speed transmission, zaps the soul out of the 450h’s progress.
While the lack of fuel economy advantage makes it pretty much pointless, if you’re someone who’s attracted to the idea of a hybrid vehicle for some inexplicable reason, or if you see a hybrid vehicle as a means to proclaim to the world that you care about the planet more than most on the road, then the RX 450h is one of the best cars you can get today.
Along with the same flashy, origami-inspired looks of its standard power train sibling, this variant gets an L badge with a distinctive blue surround, and it’s got hybrid written prominently on either side. The cabin is busy but plush and superbly appointed, and the ride quality is among the best in its class.
The F Sport package adds an extra element of style with a black mesh grille and a restyled lower front fascia, some extra chrome and black exterior trim, as well as 20in alloy wheels. It also adds an adaptive variable suspension with four driving modes, including Normal, Eco, Sport and Sport+. While twisting the knob to Eco does help make some efficiency gains, I soon realised it’s not the best mode to be in during summer, as it alters the climate control functions.
Meanwhile, Sport and Sport+ alter the throttle and steering responses, and damper settings. These two settings make the steering a bit tauter and throttle response slightly more immediate, and body control is also pretty impressive, with roll kept well under check. However, I didn’t find the difference significant enough for me to switch from Normal mode, to which it defaults every time you start the car.
Overall, the RX 450h doesn’t offer any compelling reason for you to choose it over the standard RX. But if you fall into the aforementioned category of car buyers, then you’ll be happy to know that at Dh265,000, the F Sport variant of the RX 450h costs the same as the RX 350 F Sport. Even the lower Prestige grade of the hybrid car is priced at Dh225,000, which is the same as the corresponding petrol-only model.
So, with price difference out of the equation, it’s just a matter of whether you’re someone willing to buy into the hybrid vehicle idea. For me, it’s the RX 350 any day.