Lexus RX 450h F-Sport: The hassle-free hyrbidOct 14th, 2016
Lexus’ keystone crossover SUV boasts a new body and receives a hybrid powertrain for 2016
Earlier this year, we had the opportunity to drive the all-new Lexus RX and the crossover SUV proved that even the mommy-mover segment can offer oodles of style, practicality and reliability. But there is more to the range than just the RX 350. They also have a hybrid model – the RX 450h – to help write themselves into the good books of ecologists and tree-huggers, and to keep with current technological trends. But is it better than its naturally aspirated sibling and will it be of relevance to the Middle Eastern market, where fuel is relatively cheap? We take a closer look!
DESIGN & AESTHETICS
With the current generation of RX SUVs, Lexus had turned what was a rather ordinary looking product into something outrageous and voguish, thanks to its radical origami sheet metal design and fashionable intersection of creases. It looks like a stealth fighter built for the roads and provides a full disclosure of Lexus’s new styling ethos. The 450h isn’t too different from the 350. But it can be distinguished by the blue badging – characteristic of hybrids – and the lower case ‘h” suffix that represents the word hybrid.
Grafted to the face of the RX 450h is a larger-than-large signature spindle grille with a 3D quality that helps maintain that corporate identity. In the F-Sport look – the trim that bridges the gulf between Lexus’s main line and the performance enthusiast-focused ‘F’ models – the grille has a blacked-out mesh instead of the horizontal slats of the regular RX and RX Hybrids. It’s a complicated face, but a handsome one too!
Besides throwing sharper light on the road ahead, the 3-set LED lamps housed in the ornate headlamp cluster also look like a better arrangement than the usual xenon lamps. They are underlined by 18 tick-shaped daytime running LEDs that turn from static white to blinking yellow when you indicate a change in direction.
The RX is just an elongated version and an arguably better proportioned vehicle than the chunkier NX that revealed Lexus’s styling direction. The new car is also about 50 mm longer than its predecessor, which helps with both added legroom and cargo.
We initially thought the black plastic surrounds over the wheel arches to be obtrusive to the visual appeal but we have come to accept them – they don’t add style but they aren’t nasty either. There is innovation, seen in Lexus’s attempt to create the floating roof by blacking out parts of the C-pillar. The roof is also tipped with a longish rear spoiler that creates an aerodynamic look. The back half of the vehicle is less spectacular with its Subaru XV impressions, but the LED-based lighting takes it to another level. Lexus has also managed to emphasise the spindle shape (seen upfront) by creatively embossing on the tailgate. What’s new for the 2016 model is a sensor-based boot opening system that is operable by placing your hand or elbow over the Lexus badge.
The F-Sport model also adds the modified lower front and rear spoilers finished in satin chrome and black side mirrors to match the grille, while the most pleasing additions are the graphite-finish 20-inch 10-spoke aluminium alloys. Do note that base 450h starts with 18-inch alloys that will improve ride aesthetics, but tyre sizes remain the same 235mm, regardless of diameter. For the most part, the RX 450h is a stylish SUV – more so than its German rivals – that won’t turn passé anytime soon.
To climb aboard, we pulled the door handles and observed that the highly elastic paint resists scratches that come off nails and keys. Both the 450h and 350 share the same cabin. It is an architecture that has glimpses of the 80s styling that meets space age in its layout and fixtures, with black panels deliberately segmenting the dashboard and highlights of satin trims everywhere. We found it clinical and neat but others saw it as senile. In the F-Sport trim, the RX has perforated leather upholstered seats that wrap around you like a glove, but some may find it restricting at the shoulders. The seat cushions themselves are too firm, as opposed to those in non F-Sport models.
Besides the silver satin decorative trims, you also get a variety of woods – some created with aluminium inserts by master woodworkers, with laser cutting technology. It’s an interesting departure from polished and even open grain surfaces, but we are yet to see if this trend catches on. The materials that make up the dash are soft touch and of a quality fit too.
Instrumentation wise, the F-Sport gets the moveable digital cluster that changes colours and feels animated and alive. There is also a 4.2-inch colour TFT display to highlight driver info, which you can customise via the steering-mounted buttons. The main attraction from a visual and utilitarian point of view, however, is the dash-mounted 12.3-inch Electro Multi-Vision display planted on top of the dashboard in a landscape orientation – which, thanks to the screen size, allows the display of both music and maps simultaneously. The control of information and graphics is carried out via Lexus’s version of the mouse – a mushroom-like cursor.
With gain in overall length also comes gain in legroom in the already-accommodating rear seats of the RX. In the rear, the seats can be slid to and fro, reclined and dropped using a power function. Three average adults should have no problem sitting abreast while enjoying the view through the Panoramic sunroof; for a third row, Lexus says: upgrade to the LX 570.
POWERTRAIN & PERFORMANCE
It would seem that, even today, people are confused by the term ‘hybrid’. But it’s quite simple, really. A hybrid powertrain is something that utilises the power of two kinds of motors – in this case, a gasoline engine assisted by an electric motor. Allowing the electric motor to run reduces petrol consumed, thereby making it more economical. But there’s more to it – like where the electric motor gets the energy from and where it’s stored. The 450h as such is not a plug-in hybrid, which means you can’t charge it at home; instead, it uses a regenerative braking system that converts the heat energy produced from braking to electricity and then stores it in large batteries, usually located in the floor of the trunk.
Depending on the type, hybrids can be designed to be economical commuters, like the Toyota Prius or 21st century hyper cars like the Porsche 918 Spyder. But the 450h is taking the middle ground, like most other hybrids available, adding both improved performance and economy to the equation.
In the 450h, you have a 3.5-litre V6 that runs on an Atkinson cycle. and three electric motors that produce a combined 165 bhp powered by a 37-kilowatt nickel metal hydride battery. In total, the powertrain makes as much as 308 bhp.
When you start it up, only the silent electric motor becomes operational; it feels as though the engine isn’t even working. It’s only when you pick up speed that you can hear the petrol engine in the background. One can run the car in fully EV mode, but you are restricted by speed, distance and how much juice there is in the batteries. Under full throttle, like in our acceleration tests, both motors are engaged in full steam to help it get to 100 km/h from standstill in about 8 seconds; the same happens while overtaking. This isn’t prodigious power, but it will get you places before the clock strikes.
The RX 450h is built for a relaxed drive, thanks to its front-strut and rear double-wishbone suspension that render a near-superb ride quality. The adaptive cruise control helps with the use of radar technology and keeps its distance from the car ahead to allow you to coast on the highways effortlessly.
On the move, the steering is light but keeps you isolated from the road surface and lacks feel. There is a lot of dynamic ability in the chassis, drawing the intended lines when driven hard and braking hard too. The four-wheel ventilated power-assisted disc brakes, served with ABS and Electronic Brake Force Distribution, provide good braking performance, augmented by a firm pedal feel that keeps the driver confident at all times.
Hyrbids are all about frugality. So how much does it drink? Lexus claim 8l/100km, which is remarkable, but we were closer to 10l/km, which still offers some saving. The truth is that, if driven within the city with an extremely light right foot, you can achieve phenomenal numbers – but it requires conscious effort. Being a city slicker SUV, we didn’t take it off road, but the agreeable ground clearance and all-wheel drive system ensures you won’t be left stranded in light, sandy areas.
FEATURES & FUNCTIONALITY
The RX 450h is a family-friendly crossover SUV and comes with all the bells and whistles, like the high-end Mark Levinson Surround System with 15 speakers to play up all kinds of music – and play them well. The Prestige model – which is the base car – comes with a 12-speaker audio manufactured by Pioneer. You can give your playlists a go via streaming Bluetooth, an AUX mini jack and two USB ports.
The 12.3 inch infotainment screen is set up in such a manner that it can display two sets of information, and the menus can either be controlled via voice instruction or by that mouse. We like the intuitive arrangement of the on-screen buttons, which reduces the learning curve a bit. But we couldn’t get used to the mouse-like controller; it seems a little nervous and finicky at times. Kids in the rear get 11.6-inch dual screens to plug in and play DVD movies.
It is also equipped with rear seats that split and fold in a 40:20:40 manner. This allows for a variety of configurations for luggage and people. The battery does eat into the cargo space a little, but it’s still large and you have a couple of shopping bag hoops and a 12 v socket back there.
RX prioritises safety features and combines a multitude of them like the Pre-Crash Safety System, Lane Departure Alert, Blind Spot Monitor that watches your shoulder, and Rear Cross Traffic Alert that watches your back when reversing, to make it a rather safe car – at least on paper. There are also 10 airbags as well as anti-whiplash technology to soften the accidental impact, and a rather useful Panoramic View Monitor, which renders a 360-degree view of the car and more.
The 2016 Lexus RX is as striking a crossover – thanks to its stealth-fighter design – as it is practical and reliable. The 450h being a hybrid definitely provides a talking point at dinners and some fuel-saving over the petrol-powered RX 350. If your priorities aren’t sporty drive and you can make do with the finicky infotainment controller, it is among the best SUVs out there.