After years of engineering sophistication and refinement into their vehicles, Lexus are ever so slowly changing direction a little.
I guess the danger with aspiring to build the perfect car, the end result can become a little sterile through that process; so that that won't happen, Lexus are adding character to their models without affecting the finesse that is indicative and representative of the brand.
Lexus here has recently been advertising the principal of kokoro wo komete, which, loosely translated, means soul meets machine. They also claim their products are tuned to tug at the senses, I like involving vehicles and I particularly like the idea of involvement and engine sound, it provides a good insight into the dynamics of a car.
Interestingly, I make this comment in reference to the Lexus RX450h, the 'h' representing hybrid. But within the petrol engine and electric motor components there is engine sound under load and that provides a different slant to the sport utility vehicle. When I say engine sound, it's not loud or raucous, but it does simmer away with a lovely howl when the revs build, it is characteristic of many V6 engines.
The RX hybrid isn't new, it's been around for several years and it is based on the old Harrier platform which has given Toyota and Lexus great service. However, the RX450h could almost be classed as all new such are changes it has received for 2102. It doesn't look a lot different but there are a multitude of engineering and cosmetic changes which promote more luxury and driving satisfaction.
And it has to be remembered that it is a hybrid, it has been engineered to the point where you tend to forget that, it rides and drives much like its stablemate the non-hybrid RX350. SUV's have become the vehicle of choice for car buyers globally and the RX450h is there for those who like the idea of a medium-to-large wagon which could also been seen as being environmentally-friendly.
Therein lies the ideology of the hybrid operation. The electric motor would like to work almost the entire time, the petrol engine starts automatically when the electric system is under load, such as immediate acceleration or to maintain momentum.
Petrol power also provides the generation needed to keep recharging the batteries although there is some regeneration available on deceleration.
The entire drive system operates seamlessly, and in the RX450h drive is sent to all four wheels, when needed, through continuously variable transmission, the gearing isn't staggered and the ratios provide economy as well as the variation needed for sealed and off-the-seal use.
The RX450h is a definite lure for those who like clean and green, and infrequent stops to fill-up at the pumps. Lexus claim a 6.4-litre per 100km (44mpg) combined cycle figure, by my reckoning that would be achievable, my time with the test car constantly listed around 7.6l/100km (36mpg) with 6l/100km (47mpg) available at a constant 100km/h.
Those familiar with V6 power won't be disappointed with the hybrid RX's performance. It is still capable of a 7.8sec standstill to 100km/h time and will lunge through an overtaking manoeuvre in 5.7sec. That due to the high torque figure the hybrid system produces. Lexus claim 317Nm (220kW) and if you take into account that electric power has maximum torque from the moment it starts to produce, the result is instant acceleration with constant momentum from that point on.
The RX450h also carries the Lexus pampering elements, and at $124,900, it sits definitely in the luxury car class. Incidentally, a Sport and Limited model list at $126,900 and $134,900 respectively.
Fitted as standard are full leather trim, dual-zone climate control, tilt and reach-adjustable steering column, radar cruise control, satellite navigation and comprehensive central console display which includes details of hybrid operation and fuel usage.
To operate the latter and many of the other control systems is a centre console mouse-like device which simply navigates and guides the user to various control operations. It is intuitive and user-friendly.
Another feature I like is the 'heads-up' display which is reflected onto the windscreen in the driver's line of vision. It displays vehicle speed and other readouts applicable to motion at the time.
Other safety features include no fewer than 12 air bags, pre-crash sensors, active front head restraints and traction and stability control aligned to ABS.
Underneath, the RX450h rides on a front-strut/double wishbone suspension system, it provides a smooth, plush ride, the spring and damper rates barely firmed, but they are still active enough to control body movement in a corner and to soak up the odd cross-country bump if an off-road track is presented.
I took the test car to Sumner, the roads east of the causeway have been well hammered due to the earthquakes, but the RX450h dealt to the uneven surfaces without compromise, the ride is well cushioned and the seats absorbent.
The RX450h's handling is accurate and precise. A lot of that has to do with the available grip from the huge Bridgestone Dueler tyres (235/55 x 19in). Steerage is precise and there is even body balance.
I've long remembered the RX series (and Harrier) to be a capable, comfortable sport utility vehicle. It does little wrong and in Lexus form offers buyers a pleasurable driving experience along with limited off-road ability.
It capitalises on a worldwide trend where SUVs are becoming the family wagon of choice, the Lexus experience is a lure for those who like luxury and versatility.