Exploit nature in clean hybrid Lexus SUV

Farm Forum

The Lexus RX 450h is a fine luxury hybrid that’s comfortable on the off-road. Recently, I drove the hybrid version of Lexus popular RX series. It was equipped with the automaker’s all-wheel-drive system and a starting price of $47,710.

The Lexus RX hybrid powertrain package includes a 3.5-liter, 24-valve V-6 Atkinson Cycle gas engine, plus electric motors/generators for front and rear wheels. The combined system output of the Lexus RX 450h is 295 horsepower channeled through a Continuously Variable Transmission. That’s enough thrust to power the 4,652-pound RX hybrid from 0-to-60 mph in about 7.4 seconds. Maximum towing capacity is 3,500 pounds.

We found the interaction between gas and electric power smooth and seamless. This Lexus full hybrid can operate in gas-only mode, electric-only or a combination of the two. Inherent in the design of the electric motors is high torque output, which the driver experiences as snappy, low speed acceleration. Handling is stable, if not sporty, and ride quality is very smooth. Visibility is generally good except for three-quarter rear blind spots, created by the back seat headrests and wide roof pillars.

New for 2013 is a Sport Mode that adjusts steering effort, throttle response and transmission mapping for greater responsiveness. The ability to source part of the power from the electric motors allows the RX 450h to be uncommonly fuel efficient — for an SUV. The EPA estimates that the RX 450h will attain 30 miles per gallon city, and 28 mpg highway (AWD); 32/28 mpg (FWD). My most test drive in the RX 450h netted 25 mpg overall.

Under normal driving conditions, the Lexus AWD system powers only the front wheels. Engine torque is also channeled to the rear wheels when needed, such as under hard acceleration, or when road conditions are poor and traction is marginal. We know that the target consumer market for the RX 450h suggests that few of these vehicles will be asked to do any serious trail blazing. That said, there’s 6.9 inches of ground clearance below, and angles of approach and departure are 28.6 and 24.6 degrees, respectively.

Light off-roading is well within its capabilities. And more to the point, AWD adds a measure of confidence to wintry travel. The RX is outfitted with a vehicle stability control system that orchestrates a collection of electronic aids: ABS, brake assist and traction control. Together, they help keep the driver in control, as road conditions change.

Inside, the RX provides a luxurious cabin and a logical layout of controls, built with materials that have an upscale feel. The 10-way, power adjustable front seats accommodate most any size passenger. Split, rear seats fold, slide fore and aft, as well as recline — and can accommodate two or three adults comfortably. However, rear legroom is tight for 6 footers, with like-size folks in front of them, unless the front seat backs are upright.

Cargo capacity ranges from 40 to 80.3 cubic feet, depending on how the seats are configured, and the cargo bay is accessed via a one-piece, top-hinged liftgate. The lift-over height to reach the load floor is moderate. The liftgate powers up and down at the touch of a key fob button — a handy feature, when your arms are full with supplies or groceries.

Like many premium brands, Lexus models come with an unusually long list of available features. With this many choices, the selection process can be either interesting or difficult, depending on the size of your budget — and your level of self control. Among the optional notables: a navigation system with a bright, visible 8-inch screen, voice activation and wide-view back-up camera; a rear seat entertainment system with twin, HD screens and wireless headphones; and a 15-speaker, 330-watt, Mark Levinson, 7.1 channel, surround sound system.

Without question, it’s the lure of owning a luxury hybrid that draws customers to check out the RX 450h. The hybrid powertrain promises less gas pains for the driver. This is offset by a higher purchase price, relative to the gas-only RX 350 that starts at $39,660 with its EPA rating of 18/25 mpg.

Typical drivers would not be able to recoup the difference in purchase price through fuel economy alone in say three to five years. On a strictly dollars-and-cents basis, the RX450h works best for those owners who take a buy-and-hold position on their vehicles.