When we reviewed the petrol-run RX350 in 2009, we opined that the previous generation model was a better looking beast. After having spent some significant time with the RX450h, our opinion hasn't changed. The current RX bears the old model's general shape, but seems to have been wrought with a thicker, less elegant brush with a bunch of fussy elements added in for good measure.
That said, our RX hybrid came dressed in black and that non-hue does much to hide many of the car's stylistic sins. Although it's only 4cm larger in any given direction, the new car looks significantly bigger. With its black body work, tinted windows and chrome highlights, the RX has an almost gangster feel to it.
The tailgate weighs as much as a small bank vault and is thankfully powered, allowing it to open and close on its own. Behind it is a plentiful amount of boot space, which can be extended via the fold-down rear seats. Shame then that there's a dearth of decent luggage hooks to hold shopping in place.
Xenon headlights that follow your steering are fitted on both the Prestige and Sports hybrid RXes; the top-of-the-range Sports Luxury model gets even more advanced LED headlights. LED brake lights, powered folding wing mirrors, roof rails and lovely 18-inch alloy wheels are standard on the Sports model.
The waterfall dash from the previous generation RX, that we were rather partial to, has been binned, a victim of the new Remote Touch system. Mounted vertically on the dashboard, the gear lever looks rather awkward but falls nicely to hand. We really do wish that Lexus would do away with its foot-operated parking brake, though.
While the black interior doesn't really reach out and grab the optic nerve, the leather seems to be the same rich stuff used in the IS250. Every seating position, except maybe the rear pew's central position, has ample room, even with the front seats pushed all the way back. One could conceivably fit a platoon of giants inside the RX without too many issues.
The front seats are big and comfy, but you do need to be of a certain width to gain much cornering support. Both front seats offer electric adjustment, while the rear seats slide, recline and flip down via a handy set of levers located in both the seat base and also in the boot. Do be prepared to let out a Thomas Muster grunt when lifting them back up again — they're heavy buggers.
Ghastly walnut trim blights various parts of the interior, including the steering wheel, centre console, shift lever and electric window controls. Bright Optitron instruments — with OLED backlighting no less — provide a welcome distraction.
With in-car gadgets the order of this decade, the RX offers three 12V outlets. One's in the boot, the other two hide underneath a false floor in the centre console bin. This is also where the 3.5mm auxiliary jack lives, so it's a great way to keep iPod, phone and other chargers out of sight. It can make car hopping and impromptu use a bit of a pain though, and there's still no USB slot to be found.
Standard equipment on the Sports includes dual-zone climate control with vents for the rear seats, parking sensors front and rear, rain-sensing wipers, moon roof, heated electric front seats with three memory settings, keyless entry and keyless start, electric folding wing mirrors and automatic xenon headlights.
Safety gear includes eight airbags, ABS, traction control and stability control. The hybrid RX's radar-guided cruise control not only keeps a safe distance between the RX and the car in front, but is also a handy way of ensuring that you don't get snapped by speed cameras.
Entertainment and navigation
The RX hybrid features Remote Touch, a trackball-like device in the centre tunnel that controls a large LCD screen in the dash. It's an interesting and effective fusion of the Toyota's existing entertainment and navigation interface with the principles behind the BMW iDrive, Mercedes-Benz Comand and Audi MMI systems.
Because of the controller's location in the centre tunnel, entering destinations, changing albums and settings when stopped at the traffic lights is easy to do. Navigation is handy to have, but the system still features many items that populate spec sheets of even the cheapest portable nav units, like text-to-speech and lane guidance.
The RX450h's cabin is so well insulated from the outside world, not to mention the engine bay, that driving the hybrid was more akin to piloting a mobile cone of silence. The excessive hush allows the Bluetooth hands-free system to work wonderfully well.
Sound quality from the 12-speaker sound system is good, although it shines brightest for those sitting at the rear. Music options include AM/FM radio, a six-disc CD changer and an auxiliary jack for MP3 players; a USB port for flash memory drives and iPods isn't yet available.
For more detail about the RX's entertainment and nav system, check out our comprehensive Remote Touch review.
On the road
Sometimes with great complexity comes great efficiency, and so it proves here. The car's drivetrain consists of an eco-tuned 3.5-litre V6 and two electric motors — one that helps to power the front wheels and one that powers the rear exclusively. Like other hybrids available today, the batteries that power the RX450h's electric engines don't need to be plugged in, as they're recharged via both regenerative braking and the petrol engine.
The electric motors exclusively power the vehicle when stopped, driven gently at low speeds or cruising downhill. The petrol engine kicks in from around 30 or 40km/h and does most of the work from there, with the electric motors helping out when a bit of extra acceleration is called for or the car's systems determine that four-wheel drive is required. The RX450h can also be forced to potter around under electric power alone, but without the Prius' handy EV button the driver is forced to thumb through some menus to engage that drive mode.
With parsimonious thoughts in our head and the accelerator-retarding Eco mode on, we were able to convince the RX450h to drink 8.5L/100km in the city — an excellent result considering the hybrid RX tips the scales on the wrong side of 2.1 tonnes. Out on the highway the RX450h quaffed 7.94L/100km, while enthusiastic city driving pushed the figure out to 9.7L/100km. Overall, the RX450h scored a fuel economy rating of 9.2L/100km, well wide of the official rating of 6.4L/100km, but streets ahead of the 11-plus litre per 100km we managed in the old model.
As we've established already, the new RX isn't that much bigger than its predecessor, but on the road it feels like you're piloting the QE2. The "so chumpy you can carve it" windscreen pillars play a significant part in this, as does the sloping bonnet. Despite the best efforts of the big wing mirrors, placing the car on tight streets and driveways relies on guesswork and, literally, blind faith.
Although the handling is less rolly polly than on previous RXes, it's still not going to make drivers dream of carving up Mount Panorama or the Nürburgring. Floor the accelerator and the RX450h's otherworldly hush is broken by the continuously variable transmission holding the petrol engine at optimum revs.
The ride softly blots most minor road imperfections and doesn't unduly bounce over major road scars; it will even happily ride roughshod over those impertinent removable speed humps at 60km/h-plus without floating about like Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Predictably, the electric steering has an artificial feel, and whatever the front wheels are riding over is learnt through implication rather than communication.
It's neither pleasing on the eye nor much fun to drive, but the RX450h scores big points for its hatchback-like efficiency and plush, spacious interior.