Even though the luxury hybrid was somewhat of a novelty when Lexus introduced the RX400h in 2005 as a 2006 model, it quickly followed its gasoline counterpart and became a top-selling model. At the time it was the closest thing to a guilt-free sport-utility vehicle we’d ever seen: luxurious with an impressive assemblage of features and technologies, powerful and more fuel-efficient than its gas-powered sibling, the RX 300.
Since the beginning the RX hybrid has been in the top ten hybrid sales column and was the most popular hybrid sport utility in 2012.
In 2010 Lexus rolled out an all-new RX hybrid, the RX 450h. It not only featured a new exterior and interior design, it offered more power and significantly improved fuel economy.
For 2013 Lexus has given both the gasoline and hybrid RX models a refresh. The most obvious change is a new facelift and includes slight revisions to the backside and a modest interior makeover. Additionally for the RX hybrid, the power liftgate is now standard as is a USB interface for connection to external devices such as iPods. Also, the Sport mode is standard rather than optional for 2013.
The 2013 RX 450h is offered in a front-wheel drive (F-WD) model with a base price of $46,310, an increase of $1,075 over the 2012 model, and an all-wheel drive (A-WD) version starting at $47,710, up $885.
With an EPA combined fuel economy of 30 mpg — 32 city/28 highway — the RX 450h front drive model is the most fuel-efficient sport utility on the road. And the second best? The all-wheel drive version with a rating of 30 city/28 highway/29 combined.
Carryover Hybrid Powertrain
Pop the hood and you’ll find a repeat of the hybrid powertrain introduced in 2010. The system combines a gasoline engine with two electric motors for the front drive model and three motors for the all-wheel drive version. A continuously variable transmission (CVT) and nickel-metal hydride battery pack complete the system.
Like other Lexus hybrids, the RX 450h can operate in electric-only or gas-engine-only modes as well as a combination of both. And, the hybrid system can shut off the engine when the car is stopped, and then turn it on again when the brake pedal is released.
The gas-electric RX is outfitted with a 3.5-liter V-6 engine rated at 245 horsepower and 234 pounds-feet of torque. Like many engines used in hybrid vehicles, the RX hybrid’s runs on the Atkinson cycle rather than the conventional Otto cycle. In simple terms, the Atkinson cycle uses less energy to compress fuel and air together, and makes relatively more energy when that mixture explodes. Lexus says this contributes fuel savings of 12 to 14 percent.
The engine runs on exceptionally free-flowing 0W-20 oil. In modern engines, lighter oils are an important fuel economy factor, with less energy lost to friction. For the RX hybrid, less friction allows an oil pump that operates on less power.
In addition, two electric motors join this powertrain. One is an engine-driven generator that operates as an engine starter and can charge the battery pack or power other electric motors as needed. The second is a 155 horsepower motor that works with the gas engine to deliver power to the front wheels. Total output of this pairing is 295 horsepower.
The CVT is charged with managing that output and directing the power to the front wheels. The CVT uses a belt-pulley system instead of a finite set of gears in conventional automatic transmissions. It continuously adjusts gear ratios through a planetary gearset that more precisely matches engine output with acceleration and fuel economy. The driver can “downshift” and “upshift” via the shifter, but these are programmed virtual shift points, not actual fixed gears.
Completing the hybrid system is a 288-volt nickel metal hydride battery pack tucked neatly under the second-row seats. When the vehicle brakes, some of the energy is captured and sent to the battery pack.
The all-wheel drive RX hybrid adds a third, rear-mounted motor-generator. Since it aspires to all-weather mobility instead of all-terrain capability, the motor simply adds more torque automatically to the rear wheels if wheelspin is detected. A dual-range transmission is not offered.
For greater emphasis on efficiency, Lexus has outfitted the RX 450h with both EV and Eco driving modes. In EV, this hybrid functions solely on electric power, but only at low speeds and short distances. The more practical Eco mode works to limit throttle response in order to promote greater fuel economy. In other words, it restrains the engine’s ability to operate at its full potential. The ideal time to use this function is during in-town driving or stop-and-go traffic.
Updated Outside And In
To call the 2013 RX 450h an all-new design is a stretch, but it gains a notable face lift. Like all Lexuses, the RX hybrid has a version of the automaker’s new distinctive grille design. Hourglass in shape — Lexus calls it a “spindle” shape — it has horizontal rather than vertical slats with a center bar in between the upper and lower sections. Headlamps are thinner, almost blade-like highlighted by beaded LED running lights underneath. The net result is a slightly more aggressive face.
Aside from these changes and tweaked taillamps, the RX hybrid continues its sleek, aerodynamic look from front to back. Its raked windshield flows effortlessly into a gently sloping roofline. In other words, it continues to look like an RX.
The no-detail-overlooked interior of the RX 450h is sumptuous with soft leather meeting fingertips at nearly every touch point. Changes for 2013 are subtle, like a redesigned steering wheel that Lexus says has a more
comfortable and relaxing grip. The glove box has new metallic accents, while a redesigned center console provides improved accessibility and more storage space.
As expected, front seating is all-day comfortable with an abundance of head, shoulder and leg room. This carries to the rear where passengers — three comfortably — will find seats that recline and move fore and aft.
There’s also generous cargo space: 40 cubic feet behind the 40/20/40 split-folding rear seats that expands to 80 cubes when they’re all lowered. If you are looking for a third row seat you’ll have to look elsewhere.
While the RX 450h does offer all the high-tech gizmos that have become synonymous with luxury class vehicles, many are an extra cost. Yes, the hybrid does include standard features such as a power tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, ten-way power front seats, automatic dual-zone climate control, a nine-speaker sound system, satellite radio, Bluetooth connectivity and an iPod/USB audio interface.
If you want the full-meal-deal luxury experience, you’ll pay extra. Leather seating is optional as is a moonroof and roof rails that each are part of option packages.
Want a blind spot monitor, a marvelous safety feature? That’s a $500 option. It’s standard on the $23,650 Mazda3 Grand Touring.
How about a backup camera, another excellent safety device? You have to purchase the $860 Display Audio and Camera package. It’s standard on a $24,980 Honda Accord Sport sedan.
Granted, there are some very nifty options: a head-up display, adaptive cruise control, heated and cooled leather seats, dual screen rear entertainment and the superb 15 speaker Mark Levinson audio system. But it all adds up. Our all-wheel drive test vehicle was equipped with every available option with a sticker price of $63,385 plus $895 destination charges.
If you need to be connected, the $2,700 Navigation package is a must. It includes the Lexus Enform application suite. With it you can tap into Internet search engines, apps such as OpenTable, Pandora, and Yelp by pairing a smart phone via Bluetooth or a physical connection.
When you opt for the Navigation system you get the Lexus Remote Touch system, a mouse-like controller that allows moving among a variety of icons on the large dash-mounted screen. It takes a little practice to get the hang of it, but from then on it’s a breeze to operate.
Behind The Steering Wheel
We spent the long President’s Day weekend in Phoenix, where we quickly remembered why people become snowbirds — sunshine, endless blue skies and 75 degrees in February is difficult to beat.
On the top of our to-do list was to revisit Sedona and its red rocks, about 120 miles north of Phoenix. A few minutes after 8:00 a.m. as we loaded a few things in the Stargazer Black RX, the temperature was already nudging 60 degrees. We headed east on I-10 and then north on I-17 through greater Phoenix’s western sprawl, into the city itself, and then up the entire length of the ever growing northern sprawl.
Once suburbia gave way to saguaro, the speed limit increased to 75 mph, which was mainly ignored. So, when in Rome, do as the Romans do.
Tackling on-road duties is the RX hybrid’s forte. On the highway it acts much like the vaunted ES 300 sedan, just with a higher ride height. The interior remains quiet at speed and the vehicle is stable on the road, regardless of how broken the pavement.
There’s a bit of body lean in turns that lets you know this is taller than a sedan. But it grips the road like a well-designed automobile.
While the RX hybrid may mimic the ES 300, it doesn’t have the same suspension. It has longer travel that soaks up the big bumps particularly well and virtually preventing the small impacts. The ride isn’t quite firm enough to put the “sport” into sport-utility, but it’s plenty comfortable to firmly plant the RX 450h into the realm of luxury vehicles.
The famous red to orange-colored sandstone “Red Rocks of Sedona” seem to appear from nowhere as we round a curve. Choose an adjective —spectacular, astounding, wondrous, incredible, etc., etc. None seem adequate to describe their splendor. Sedona’s elevation is around 4,500 feet, with some rock formation ascending to more than a mile-high.
The red rocks aren’t the only attraction that draws more than four million visitors annually to Sedona (half of which seemed to be there on the day of our visit). The town is a major arts center with art galleries lining Sedona’s two main thoroughfares.
Slowly scouring the streets in search of a parking space, the hybrid powertrain performed its role as an electric vehicle flawlessly. Light-footed driving saw the RX deliver its power in a smooth, virtually noiseless manner and, of course, no nasty exhaust emissions.
Our previous experiences with the Lexus RX hybrid have yielded fuel economy that was at or exceeded the EPA estimates. However, keeping up with the flow of traffic in the far left lane on I-17 took its toll. A fill up after 312 miles of travel resulted in 25.3 mpg, nearly 4 mpg less than the EPA’s combined average. But, that was somewhat consoling when I thought about the fuel mileage of the full-size SUVs and pickups that whisked past us when our speedo was planted at 85 mph.
The 2013 RX 450h is pricey, $6,650 more than its non-hybrid sibling, the RX 350. The question is, is the fuel efficiency boost of 14 mpg city and only 3 mpg highway worth the additional dollars? With the current price of gas at $3.75 per gallon according to AAA, if most of your driving is city or urban, the hybrid is a pretty good choice. If you do more highway driving than city, the gas-powered RX may be a better choice.
Lexus pioneered the luxury hybrid SUV segment, but there are a couple of other hybrid choices.
Audi’s 2013 Q5 Hybrid is a tad smaller inside than the RX and its 30 mpg highway fuel economy equals the Lexus. However, city driving can only muster 24 mpg in town. The starting price of $50,900 is $4,590 more than the RX but it comes standard with all-wheel drive, leather interior, navigation and a sunroof.
If performance and handling trump fuel economy, then Porsche’s Cayenne S Hybrid with a price starting at $69,850 shouldn’t be overlooked. And if you need an SUV that can seat seven or even eight passengers and can tow up to 5,800 pounds, the Cadillac Escalade Hybrid is your only choice. It starts at a hefty $74,425, but bear in mind that it has a truck-based chassis platform and won’t provide the smoother ride quality as the Lexus.
Bottom line: In general, the 2013 Lexus RX 450h is the perfect all-purpose vehicle as an everyday hauler of full-size people and their stuff. It’s at its best around town, picking up people and delivering people and doing so in all kinds of weather. Plus, it delivers the best fuel economy of any sport utility.
Prices are Manufacturer Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) at time of publication and do not include destination charges, taxes or licensing
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