2017 Lexus RX 450h F Sport
The sum of its parts is extremely good
There was a time I couldn’t understand why the Lexus RX sold so well. It was reliable, inoffensive to look at and finished fairly well inside, but there was no shortage of more alluring mid-size luxury crossover SUVs on the market. Now there are many more, albeit none more capable of eliciting reactions from passersby.
If you haven’t noticed this bit of origami folded metal rolling art recently you’d better pay more attention to your surroundings while driving. The RX is everywhere, not only in its stylishly overt new duds, but in its various old models’ wallflower attire too. I know the latest version isn’t to everyone’s taste, but that’s precisely why those who appreciate Lexus’ daring new design direction are even more enamored with the brand.
“Is that brand new? It’s really cool,” said the young woman filling it up at a local gas station. Yes, you heard me right. A young person who thinks Lexus is cool. There are plenty more like her. Truly, the jury is in. Lexus fans have spoken. The Japanese luxury brand has gone from passive to provocative. Naysayers still concerned about the new look disenfranchising conservative Lexus customers that once made up the bulk of its ownership shouldn’t worry any longer, as calendar year 2017 will once again top 100,000 units even if December’s tally equaled to the worst month of the year (December sales numbers have yet to be released as of writing). Like usual, the RX remains number one in its mid-size class too, by a very long shot.
Its black mesh grille is massive, especially in F Sport trim, while its sharply edged three-tiered LED headlights would be downright radical if they weren’t hovering above a zigzagging front fascia complete with Nike “swoosh” like driving lights, apostrophe-style fog lamp bezels, and plenty of intricate aerodynamic detailing, all combining for a frontal design that’s anything but shy and subdued.
The RX’ multi-angled sheet metal and composite combination continues rearward in so many complexities that I dare not try to explain, only pointing out particularly elegant side mirror pedestals, sporty extended rocker panels, and a floating rear roofline that’s divided from the lower bodywork by a narrow, elongated rear quarter window.
The rear design is comparatively conservative yet nevertheless features a rooftop spoiler jutting outward at the top, an attractive set of complex LED taillights filling out the corners just below, and a convoluted lower diffuser-style bumper cap that’s noticeably missing tailpipes at the bottom, the single exhaust port hiding below the right side. Of course, whether an agreeable looking SUV or not is entirely subjective, but I like it. More importantly, where some premium rivals are still struggling to define their visual identity, Lexus has stamped this new look on the auto industry, and a significant number of luxury buyers have stamped their approval as well.
As far as popularity goes, it doesn’t hurt that Lexus’ RX is one of the more affordable SUVs in its class. Starting at just $44,215 plus freight and fees the RX 350 is a lot of premium mid-size five-seat sport utility for not a lot of money, although at $54,030 the top-line RX 450h hybrid has plenty of similarly priced competitors. This said you’ve got to measure all the standard features that boost up its value quotient, these including AWD, 20-inch alloy wheels, auto on/off full bi-LED headlamps with and automatic high beams, LED daytime running lights, LED fog lamps, premium LED combination taillights, roof rails, and that’s just on the outside.
You enter via proximity-sensing access and pass over aluminum scuff plates with front LED illumination, with other standard features include pushbutton ignition, an electromechanical parking brake, power-retractable auto-dimming heated side mirrors, a heated power-adjustable tilt and telescopic leather-wrapped multi-function steering wheel, adaptive cruise control, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, a garage door opener, a powered glass moonroof, dual-zone auto climate control with automatic air recirculation, a rearview camera, nine-speaker audio, satellite radio, Bluetooth streaming, Siri Eyes Free, two USB ports, a leather-wrapped shift knob, 10-way powered front seats with four-way lumbar support (a big improvement over the base RX 350’s two-way lumbar support), perforated NuLuxe pleather upholstery, heated and ventilated front seats, heatable rear outboard seats, a powered liftgate, a retractable cargo cover, cargo mat and net, front and rear parking sensors, all the usual active and passive safety equipment plus blindspot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert, a pre-collision system with pedestrian detection and autonomous emergency braking, lane departure alert and assist, semi-autonomous self parking, Lexus Enform Safety Connect, and more.
As you may have noticed from the photos, some of the items just mentioned are not on my tester. Instead, the F Sport upgrade mentioned earlier includes styling enhancements as well as an Adaptive Variable Suspension (AVS), unique 20-inch F Sport alloys, Drive Mode Select with Sport S+ mode, unique F Sport scuff plates, aluminum sport pedals, a three-spoke leather-wrapped F Sport steering wheel with paddles, an configurable F Sport gauge cluster, rain-sensing wipers, an F Sport shift knob, F Sport seats with memory, natural leather upholstery, and more, pushing the price up to $57,490.
Additionally, my tester included a $1,510 Mark Levinson/Navigation package that included a 15-speaker 835-watt Mark Levinson surround sound audio upgrade, navigation with detailed mapping, 12.3-inch widescreen infotainment, and Lexus’ Enform app suite, while individual options included the aforementioned triple-beam LED headlamps with washers, dynamic auto-leveling and LED cornering lamps, a $600 head-up display, a $500 panoramic glass sunroof, a $200 touch-free powered liftgate, and more.
Matador Red Mica and the seven alternative color choices available with F Sport trim don’t cost any extra, but Lexus will be happy to sell you a raft of dealer-added accessories, from exterior aero/protection upgrades to a cargo liner and towing gear, the latter allowing up to 3,494 lbs of trailer and the item before that protecting the carpeted floor of the nicely finished luggage area, which is identically sized to the conventionally powered RX 350 at 21.5 cubic feet behind the convenient 40/20/40 split-folding rear seats and 46.9 cubic feet when they’re laid flat. As noted they power down and back up again, which is really handy. Incidentally, if you need even more space the three-row RXL will arrive for the 2018 model year.
The cargo area is hardly the most luxurious compartment, but this said the RX doesn’t quite match its European challengers when it comes to materials quality, or rather it doesn’t cover as many interior surfaces in high-quality soft touch synthetic. Lexus wraps the dash top in nice padded and stitched leather-look pliable stuff, as well as the instrument panel ahead of the front passenger, but the same spot for the driver’s side is hard plastic. Lexus does go further than some competitors by covering the top edges of the lower console in the same contrast-stitched leatherette, but like its competitors the lower portions of that are hard plastic. Over to the sides, most of the door panels are premium grade, the door inserts and armrests following the contrast-stitched leatherette pattern, but once again the lower door panels are substandard hard shell plastic. This is one of the compromises made to get the RX into the lower price range I spoke of earlier, and obviously its sales show that customers don’t care one whit.
On this note, the genuine metal knobs for the audio system and other switchgear throughout the cabin are well done, and the digital interfaces are superb, but I’m not a fan of this model’s finicky joystick-style Remote Touch Interface at all. They’ve overcomplicated something that would work much better as a simple touchscreen or, for those that can’t easily reach the display, a more common rotating selector knob, or for that matter Lexus’ second-gen touchpad RTI design. Again, this issue hasn’t seemed to affect sales, but speaking as someone who’s tested everything on the market, I’d like to see Lexus move away from this infotainment experiment.
On the positive, when approaching an object the front camera automatically comes into view to show how close you’re getting, a smart idea that should be copied by RX challengers. Of course, the usual audible front parking sensors come into play in this respect as well, while those in the rear are joined by a backup camera with moving guidelines and a very clear bird’s-eye overhead view. Navigation was very precise too, while the detailed map defaulted to both landscape and overhead views.
Lexus makes a point of advertising an EV mode, making a potential buyer think that they can drive around town on electric power alone, but such is not the case. You can whisk away silently in parking lots or crawl along during rush hour traffic with no noise or pollutants for short durations, but only if there’s enough stored battery power to do so. This occurred rarely at best, and then when able to move upon electric power alone the internal combustion engine kicks in at about 12 mph. This likely won’t change until Lexus embraces plug-in hybrid technology, something it’s been hesitant to do for reasons unknown. Strange to think the brand that brought us our first hybrid luxury SUV is falling behind the rest of the industry when it comes to things electric.
Still, the RX 450h remains a very efficient, very enjoyable vehicle to drive. Despite being fitted with Bridgestone Blizzak Winters, the big 235/55R20s did a great job of sticking to pavement no matter the conditions, while the responsive handling and confidence inspiring control of its fully independent suspension and sizable four-wheel disc brakes, enhanced by standard Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (VDIM) and Electronically Controlled Hydraulic Braking (ECB2), made the most of quick city driving, curvy back road jaunts, and highway cruising. It’s quiet at speed too, thanks in part to a 0.33 coefficient of drag.
At 4,740 lbs the RX 450h is only 353 lbs heavier than the conventionally powered version, so the 13 additional horsepower provided by its Atkinson-cycle 3.5-liter V6 and Lexus Hybrid Drive power unit, which combines for 308 horsepower, can really be felt. Lexus claims just 247 lb-ft of torque, which only reflects the gasoline engine’s twist, so don’t think for a second it’s less capable than the regular RX down low. In fact, electric torque arrives 100-percent from standstill and, together with the engine, likely measures more than the RX 350’s 268 lb-ft. The electric-powered rear wheels provide all-wheel drive, while the F Sport’s upgraded Drive Mode Select lets you choose between Normal, Sport, Sport+ and Eco modes.
The latter would be ideal to extract the best-possible fuel economy, the hybrid achieving a claimed 31 mpg in the city, 28 on the highway, and 30 combined, compared to the RX 350 with AWD that’s still very good for the class at 19 city, 26 highway and 22 combined. Lexus uses a continuously variable transmission (CVT), regenerative braking, and Cooled Exhaust Gas Recirculation (EGR) to achieve the RX 450’s numbers.
While the RX looks pretty flash and goes fairly fast these days, rest assured it hasn’t lost its true mojo, reliability. I wouldn’t give too much heed to J.D. Power and Associates’ 2017 Initial Quality Study (IQS) ranking, which surveys new car buyers after just their first three months of ownership, although Lexus might want to do something in order to put itself back on top. Currently it places below the industry average, with Hyundai's new Genesis brand number one among luxury nameplates and second overall (Kia is number one overall, go figure). Porsche is third, by the way, with BMW sixth, Lincoln eighth, and Buick 13th, the final luxury brand to rank above average. Lexus is next, which means Mercedes-Benz, Acura, Cadillac, Infiniti, Audi, Land Rover, Volvo, and Jaguar placed below.
If you want to judge it by a longer and therefore more accurate overview, the same third-party analytical firm's 2017 Vehicle Dependability Study (VDS), which reports on problems after three years of ownership, places Lexus at number one overall, while it should also be noted that more of its premium competitors are ranked above average than with the other study. Lexus also placed first in Consumer Reports' 2017 Annual Reliability Survey, with four cars in the top 10. Respectful to the RX specifically, it was top of its class in the VDS and received zero recalls, zero investigations, plus only six complaints to the NHTSA, which isn’t bad when factoring in just how many Lexus sold last year.
Lexus is also a leader when it comes to safety, with the RX achieving Top Safety Pick + status when its top-line headlight system is included, while the NHTSA gave it a best-possible five-star safety rating.
Convinced yet? That’s not really my job, and truthfully the RX 450h is far from my favorite mid-size luxury crossover SUV. Still, it’s hard to argue against its value proposition, safety record, expected reliability and, depending on your personal perspective, sharp styling. There’s no single reason why it’s remained number one in its segment after all these years, but the sum of its parts is extremely good.
*Story credits: Trevor Hofmann, American Auto Press Photo credits: Karen Tuggay, American Auto Press Copyright: American Auto Press *