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Lexus RX 450h SE-L

Click to view picture galleryLexus RX 450h: the guilt-free SUV.
  Even the anti-4x4 lobby cannot
  realistically target the new Lexus
  RX hybrid because this full-size SUV
  emits only 148g/km of CO2

BETTER STILL, BEING A HYBRID the RX 450h is exempt from the London Congestion Charge, road tax is only 105 a year and business 'execs' will also love it as the company car tax is a mere 14% half that of more conventional large SUVs such as the BMW X5, Mercedes-Benz ML or the Range Rover. As for fuel economy, Lexus says the newcomer gives a 28% improvement over its predecessor and in real life my test car returned 36.1mpg for all types of driving.

Priced from 41,600 to 55,505 with S, SE-I, SE-L and SE-L Premium specification levels, the Lexus RX 450h will be bought — or probably leased — by the well off. Most often in the UK it is to be found in and around London where, being a hybrid, it avoids being Congestion Charged. The Lexus RX has been, and will continue to be, the preferred Chelsea and Knightsbridge tractor and probably the only inclines it will see during the weekdays are Primrose Hill, Muswell Hill and Notting Hill. At weekends, of course, the Lexus RX will be found in rural parts as the owners decamp to their place in the country.

No matter who owns this vehicle, they will be getting the most sophisticated state-of-the-art hybrid with image, build quality and specification to match. This vehicle uses the second-generation Lexus Hybrid Drive system which has a 3.5-litre, V6 petrol engine producing a healthy 295bhp and 234lb ft of torque — but in addition it has a 174bhp front electric motor and a rear axle-mounted 67bhp electric motor which provides the rear-wheel drive traction to make it all-wheel drive. The combined power outputs are up by 10% over the RX 400h.

The vehicle starts off from standstill using just the main electric motor (if the batteries have enough life in them) before the petrol engine seamlessly cuts in. As already mentioned, the rear electric motor drives the rear wheels when all-wheel drive is required.

The main electric motor cuts in automatically to use battery power at speeds up to 25mph and the driver can also select to run the 450h on electric power alone for almost two miles for in town stop-start driving. In addition to the on-board generator, the battery pack is also topped up by energy capture: braking and so forth. Drive to front or all four wheels is via a CVT automatic transmission which has a fully automatic mode or a manual tiptronic gearchange position. Also, the driver can choose ECO, EV (electric) and SNOW driving modes which improve the hybrid system's fuel efficiency and driving performance.

“The RX 450h wears
the highly-respected and
desirable Lexus brand
label very well
No words can clearly describe the driving experience — and it is really an experience — the RX 450h offers. The driver just pushes the start button: there is no noise but the instruments come to life; select drive or reverse gears and press the accelerator gently and the SUV glides away using electric power only. Press the accelerator more sharply and the silky smooth and very quiet V6 petrol engine kicks in. The petrol engine and electric motors also work in tandem to boost acceleration at high speeds but the car cruises at speed using petrol power alone. Top speed is a governed 124mph and 0-62mph takes just 7.8 seconds.

Whilst the drivetrain is without fault, the handling and ride are tuned for comfort rather than being dynamic. Lexus says the suspension (which utilises a new double wishbone rear layout) and handling have been specifically tuned for the European market.

Instead of conventional steel springs and dampers, the top models use a suspension layout which is electronically controlled. This four-position, self-leveling air system incorporates an electric Active Stabiliser control which results in 40% less body roll. In truth, the ride is set for comfort which most users will like although the ride can be fidgety with little feedback to the driver.

The electronic power-saving steering is numb and again on the open road offers little in the way of driver information. However, in traffic it is light to use and it makes parking very easy, as do the rear and side view cameras and large door mirrors although at cruising speeds these do produce wind noise.

Inside the Lexus RX450h the specification and quality is very high and luxurious, and the 'clunk' as the doors are closed confirms the quality of this vehicle.

Seating is for five people with a large 490-litre load area to match. Only the steeply raked rear tailgate limits height in the rear, so the family dog might suffer for headroom. All other passengers travel in comfort. The controls are generally well positioned but complicated and it does take a fair length of time to get acquainted with everything the vehicle offers including a brilliant multi-speaker Mark Levinson sound system with DAB digital radio.

There is some interior wood finishing, leather upholstery, thick pile carpeting, heated and ventilated and electrically-adjustable front seats, dual-zone climate control, cruise control, keyless entry and push-button start, Bluetooth connectivity, automatic wipers and lights and an electrically-operated tailgate.

A remote touch control replaces the previous touch-screen control system. The touch control is like a computer-style mouse but it takes time to find the cursor in the screen display and then direct it to the many functions it controls. I'm not convinced it is safe to be doing this whilst driving even if it means the driver doesn't need to lean forwards to touch the screen as was previously the case.

Parking sensors and the rear and side camera-aided parking are definitely needed as the RX 450h is a little larger than the replaced 350/400 models, now being 4,770mm in length and 1,885mm wide.

Technology costs: the RX 450h is pricey. Customers will also have to accept a fidgety ride along with steering and air suspension that provides very little feedback to the driver even though the ride comfort is high.

On the plus side, the RX 450h is a refined and luxurious premium brand 4x4 SUV with a high safety specification and luxury equipment levels. It is also full of technology and I have only mentioned just a very few of the main features. It is perhaps not a totally perfect vehicle but it wears the highly-respected and desirable Lexus brand label very well and Lexus hybrid technologies and customer satisfaction go hand-in-glove — David Miles

Lexus RX 450h SE-L
| 50,460
Maximum speed: 124mph | 0-62mph: 7.8 seconds | Overall test MPG: 36.1mpg
Power: 295bhp | Torque: 234lb ft | CO2 148g/km | Insurance group 17E