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Lexus RX 450h Premier

Click to view picture galleryOne things for sure: the cost of
  motoring is not going to be any
 
less in 2013. Although the price of
  new cars will remain competitive,
 
the Treasury and Government tax
  bandits will continue to use transport
  as a
cash-cow as they struggle to
  deal with our financial woes...


'BUYING SMART' has to be the New Year's Resolution for most motorists again this year, whether it's a low annual mileage retail customer or a high-mileage business or fleet driver.

For any savvy motorist wanting to 'buy smart' in the premium brand 4x4/SUV sector, the latest five-door, five-seater Lexus RX 450h really should be on their shopping list. This model comes with a 246bhp high-performance 3.5-litre V6 petrol engine that's silky smooth and near silent — not the obvious choice for fuel efficiency in this sector where diesel power dominates.

But petrol is now significantly cheaper than diesel to buy and doesn't incur the 3% surcharge penalty for BIK tax rates. The secret to the RX 450h's fuel economy is its hybrid system — the V6 petrol engine and two electric motors working in tandem to provide its intelligent four-wheel drive.

“The RX 450h has
a Combined Cycle fuel
economy figure of
44.8mpg with CO2
emissions of only
145g/km.
Remember this is
petrol power we’re
talking about here,
not diesel.
No other petrol-powered
premium five-door,
five-seater large 4x4
comes close to these
figures
...”
Not convinced that two electric motors can make a 4x4 with a petrol engine tax friendly or fuel frugal? Well, the latest revisions to the petrol-electric hybrid powertrain have increased power by 10%, produced a 28% reduction in the Combined Cycle fuel consumption with a 30% improvement in cold weather fuel efficiency and reduction in CO2 emissions.

This means the RX 450h has a Combined Cycle fuel economy figure of 44.8mpg with CO2 emissions of only 145g/km. Remember this is petrol power we're talking about here, not diesel. No other petrol-powered premium five-door, five-seater large 4x4 comes close to those figures — and they are also better than all 3.0-litre and above turbodiesel models, including the all-new lightweight Range Rover as well.

And the RX 450h's fuel and CO2 efficiency doesn't come at the expense of performance: zero to 62mph acceleration takes just 7.8 seconds thanks to the high torque of 234lb ft available the moment the electric motors start spinning and then boosted by the engine. Total power available from the engine and two motors is 295bhp.

What do the fuel and CO2 efficiency figures mean to savvy drivers? For a start, road tax is only 135 a year — that's less than a 1.6-litre 160 Ecoboost petrol-powered Ford Mondeo Hatchback. Company executives will love the RX 450h SUV as well because the BIK tax is only 20%; the same as the petrol-powered 1.6 Mondeo.

Lexus claims company car drivers can save up to 9,000 in BIK tax over three years compared to some other upscale SUVs. As another example on how tax efficient the RX 450h is for company car drivers, the BIK tax on BMW X5 SUV petrol/diesel models range between 33 and 35%. The first year road tax for the X5s is between 460 and 1,030.

These comparisons make you realise how certain applications of hybrid technology not only boost power and performance but also lower running costs. The RX 450h's purchase prices — given its Lexus brand status, engineering, build quality and driving refinement — are not prohibitive in this executive 4x4 sector. Four new levels of specification are available (SE, Luxury, F Sport and Premier) with prices starting at 44,495 and topping out at 55,495.

They all use the same power petrol-electric hybrid powertrain with on-demand 4x4 drive and a CVT auto transmission with Eco, EV (Electric Vehicle power only), Snow and Sport driving modes.

The range-topping Premier has electronically-controlled suspension as standard (an option on others) which allows the driver to select four ride height settings across a 60mm range. The system also automatically adjusts the vehicle's ride height to its lowest aerodynamic setting when travelling at cruising speeds.

And it really smoothes out the ride, reducing pitch and roll and making it very composed even when running on the large 19-inch wheels. With its near-silent engine and smooth ride the RX 450h more or less glides along on open roads. Only the electric power steering lacks the ideal feedback and the low speed ride can be fidgety.

“The range-topping
Premier model has
electronically-controlled
suspension — and it
really smoothes out the
ride, reducing pitch
and roll and making it
very composed
even when running on
the large 19-inch
wheels
...”
Four-wheel drive is automatically engaged via constantly adjusted front and rear electric motor torque under hard acceleration from standstill or through the gears, when driving through bends and whenever the front wheels loose traction on or off road.

With its all-wheel drive traction and high ride height, it's potentially an off-roader as well. But more than coping with offroad tracks might be a bit daunting — it's not in the same league in this area as a Range Rover.

The latest generation RX 450h underwent significant changes to its front-end design in 2012, creating a sharper and more distinctive look, led by the adoption of a 'spindle'-shaped arrangement of the upper and lower grilles. All models gained new-look rear light clusters and retained the coupe-styled side profile with a forward-leaning rear tailgate topped by a roof spoiler.

The RX 450h is 15mm longer (now 4.77 metres), 40mm wider (now 1.885 metres), 10mm higher and has a wheelbase that is 25mm greater than its predecessor — increases that provide more interior space but do not compromise the car's agility and town-friendly manoeuvrability.

Inside the vehicle, the cockpit design showcases numerous advanced features. The dashboard is divided into two distinct zones: an upper Display Zone, which includes the Head-Up Display and an eight-inch LCD multi-display screen; and a lower Operation Zone, which contains system controls such as the steering wheel-mounted multi-information switch and Remote Touch control.

The Remote Touch control, an integral part of the Lexus Navigation System, operates on the same basic principles as a computer mouse — it's quick and intuitive to use, with icons presented on the central multi-display screen that give access to adjust the audio, navigation, ventilation, phone and set-up systems.

The Head-Up Display (F Sport and Premier grades) presents key driving data in the driver's line of sight at the base of the windscreen. Information is shown in white for perfect clarity in all conditions, and includes vehicle speed, turn-by-turn navigation instructions, audio information and, where fitted, Adaptive Cruise Control and Pre-Crash Safety system status.

A multi-information toggle switch on the steering wheel lets the driver activate and customise numerous vehicle functions and information systems without taking a hand off the wheel. The control is linked to a white LED multi-information display set within the instrument binnacle.

Other key features include a Smart Entry and Start system, automatic moving of the driver's seat and steering wheel for easy entry and exit, dual-speed power windows and a high-efficiency dual-zone climate control system.

“The Lexus premium
brand overall
continues to grow
in popularity in the UK
as an alternative to
models from Audi,
BMW, Mercedes-Benz,
Jaguar, Land Rover and Range Rover
...”
Completing the interior specification is a premier sound system; the top-of-the-range choice is a 15-speaker Mark Levinson Surround System. The fast acting navigation system, accessed by the Remote Touch control, has a 40GB HDD capacity covering the whole of Europe and includes traffic information infrastructure and 3D mapping.

That all ads up to a lot of technology and specification to be impressed by, and helps justify the vehicle's top-of-the-range price. From the extensive spec on my Premier version the items which really impressed were the exceptionally quiet electric windows, the fast reacting heated and folding door mirrors, heated front seats, electrically-operated memory front seats, full AirCon, 40:20:40 split/folding rear seats with fore, aft and reclining functions, 496 litres of boot space (extending to 1,760 litres with the rear seats folded flat), a temporary spare wheel, the solid clunk of the doors when closing.

And, of course, leather upholstery. This was a rather daunting light beige with matching carpets — not the ideal colour for winter country use but visually impactful for city-slickers or red-carpet celebs.

Against? Real-life fuel economy didn't come close to the official figure, the steering lacks feedback, the low speed ride is fidgety, and there are some fiddly controls. And the 450 RX attracts a high insurance rating.

That noted, the Lexus premium brand overall continues to grow in popularity in the UK as an alternative to models from Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar, Land Rover and Range Rover.

For a prestige SUV of this size the RX 450h offers huge tax savings with low CO2 emissions. Other plus points include impeccable quality, a luxurious specification, the quiet, strong and seamless power delivery, roomy cabin, plus it's comfortable and easy to drive and park. — David Miles

Lexus RX 450h Premier | 55,495
Maximum speed: 124mph | 0-62mph: 7.8 seconds | Overall Test MPG: 34.8mpg
Power: 295bhp | Torque: 234lb ft | CO2 145g/km