Lexus RX 450h or RX 350: Queens of the Road

by The Car Family

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We think the Lexus RX 450 hybrid is the “Queen of the SUVs” based on its command of the road, ability to care for its citizens, and the price you have to pay for its attentions. Priced around $50,000 (US) this Lexus is the first luxury SUV hybrid on the market and it is going to be difficult to compete against. It is that good. As for the gas only version of the Lexus, labeled the RX 350 and about $10,000 less, it too is the gold standard of luxury SUVs and easily the most refined of its ilk. However, it doesn’t provide the gusto of some competitors and is not so inclined to venture up inclines or tolerate hard cornering. If you insist on using your SUV as a sports car leave Lexus land for the world of BMW and Acura.

We tested both Lexus RX models in all types of situations and they never became uncivil despite heavy traffic, rain, Hummer drivers who have not yet realized they are not on the battlefield. It was a lady at all times, but what made it more remarkable was the little things that sold us such as the best interior night lighting ever. The Lexus has illuminated sill plates, door handles. foot wells, the ignition ring, glove box, center console box, and front cup holders not to mention the map and cargo area maps.

Added to this mix are an easy to activate power hatch, rear seat backs that are adjustable for rake, and a flawless reputation for quality and thus high resale. The turning radius is much better than previous models and you can easily park it. Unfortunately, the rear vision is impaired and so we highly tout the video camera that places a live image of what is happening in back of the RX on the center display monitor. Very trick and very useful. In fact the only real option is the rear entertainment center and, perhaps, GPS.

Both models come with power rear hatch openers, programmable garage door openers, electric steering, heated outside mirrors that automatically dim, and so many other features it can overwhelm your objectivity. We can’t image what fixing some of the complex electrical components is going to cost after the warranty expires. Since we own four Lexus products we can attest to the good relations most dealers offer.

The problem we were trying to solve is whether the expensive hybrid version was worth the extra thousands of dollars even given the high price of fuel. Since the hybrid only comes well loaded it can cost nearly $10,000 more than the base RX. However, if you equip your base RX with similar options such as leather and all wheel drive the price differential is about $5,000 additional for the hybrid. And since the gas hybrid consistently gets 22 mpg and the hybrid only about 30 percent better in real world driving does it pay to buy the expensive 450h even when some government agencies offer a tax credit for hybrid owners?

To cover ourselves we’ll just say, “depends.” If you drive on open highways at speed stick with the RX 350. It is a faithful companion, although not one that caters to tracking down BMWs. If you do over half of your driving in town the 450h is your best bet. In bumper-to-bumper traffic you can drive up to 30 mph just on battery power and you could easily cover 500 miles on a tank of gas. The electric motors combined with the gas engine provide 268 horsepower instantly without much ado from the continuously variable transmission. Even the 450’s handling is better than that of the 350 RX model. Getting 24 or 25 miles to the gallon is not difficult in mixed driving, but even at that unless you drive well over 25,000 miles a year and gas is priced at $3,50 a gallon it would take you years to justify paying extra for the hybrid. Regardless the really good news for 2012 is that the hybrid uses regular fuel and this is a real money saver.

Resale is going to be stout regardless of which model you select as it has one of the best resale values of any vehicle. On the other hand the Audi Q5 gets nearly the same gas mileage as the 450h, costs a bit less, and only lacks some interior size to make it compatible. Drive the Audi and both the 350 and 450 to make the best decision. If you just want gas mileage, the Chevrolet Equinox does exceptionally well.

We are sure though, that the hybrid version of the RX is going to command top dollar for many a year for three reasons. It is responsive, responsible, and realistic. It does not feign to be something it isn’t. Yes it can go off road and do well, but why spend that much money to rough up a vehicle? Secondly, safety first is embedded everywhere from airbags to braking to preventive tipping measures. Finally, it can realistically hold five adults. It does not pretend to hold seven as some SUVS do, two of whom may have to crawl over seats, people, and luggage to find their perches just inches away from the rear hatch and potential danger should there be an accident. Speaking of which the crash scores are very good.

Mom’s view: This is what it must be like to have twins; so alike and yet so different. The 350 RX is blissful to drive, a little overly protective in the way it deals with road imperfections, and has just enough acceleration so you have to keep a vigil on the speedometer. The 450h is another matter. The larger tires and rims, aggressive suspension, hefty weight, and the instant torque provided by the electric motors turn this into more of a fighter. Both would be delightful children, but I think most mothers wouldn’t mind boasting of the 450h’s ability to excel even though it may require a higher tuition.

Whether you are driving the hybrid or the RX 350 the seats are both supportive and comfortable. This is a rare combination and worthy of exaltation. Getting into the hybrid requires added leg lift because it rides a tad higher, but once inside you have excellent vision to the sides and front. Unlike the unique Toyota Prius hybrid, there is very little different about these two Lexi outside of some minor trim pieces. Even the interior is akin except for the information center and a readout that shows which energy source you are using. That is not to say it does not have appeal as its abundance of storage space, good cupholders, and even a place for a purse make it very accommodating. The leather, switchgear, and plastics are well done and, if you choose carefully, nicely color coordinated. Add to this the solid basic structure and you have a SUV that gets above average fuel mileage in either hybrid or gas only versions, and you have the reasons that this is the best selling Lexus ever.                                                                                                                                    RX 450h

Dad’s view: The Lexus is stealth like and nearly impossible to identify from a distance over its more traditionally powered clone. This quickly changes once you check out the drivetrain. The hybrid 450h carries 300 pounds of extra weight, but this is offset when the two electric motors and the gas engine work together to provide instant acceleration. In our test car one electric motor helps to drive the front wheels and one the back. A continuous variable transmission on the hybrid does its work efficiently. The hybrid also has been trained to shut down at long stops. It starts instantly once you remove your foot from the brake and touch the gas pedal. In case you are wondering the stereo, air conditioning, and lights all continue to operate even with the engine paused, but the engine may restart after when the draw becomes worrisome for the software.

You can easily feel the extra power the hybrid brings when you demand full acceleration. This hybrid can move out in a hurry and we think it could easily reach 60 mph in under seven seconds, or about a half second faster than the RX350. One thing that does not move faster is the fuel gauge. If you drive careful you can reach 30 mpg on the highway and more in town. Realistically, figure 25 to 26 in mixed driving. The RX 350 returns a real world 22 to 23 miles per gallon. Both cars can go well over 400 miles on a tank of unleaded. You should note that hybrids have additional maintenance costs and that the battery packs, which have a lengthy warranty, can cost several thousand dollars to replace.

RX 350

I am not a huge fan of SUVs because of their handling, gas hoggish nature, and visibility concerns on the side and back. The RX sisters are no exceptions, but Lexus has compensated for these conditions by an outstanding array of safety and performance features. It is no wonder they have such high safety ratings. Both cars ride as well as some luxury sedans over highways and certainly much better than such gas hogs as the Bentley Continental. Be warned, though, that this is not a nimble vehicle and the steering can feel slow to react when the road requires frequent corrections. Visibility to the side is excellent with the best mirrors in the SUV business. It is clear that the Lexus engineers designed this for more cruising than bruising, even though the 7.1 inch ride height is adequate and the all wheel drive system with the electric motors very peppy on inclines.

Braking is quite impressive with very little front dip, but we would strongly recommend you don’t overestimate the stopping distance because this is a two-ton vehicle when loaded. On the RX 450h the braking process helps regenerate the battery pack and thus the brakes feel is a tad bit harsh, but it is easy to master. The attention to detail, ability to park in tight places, power, and notable quality and features are unmatched. Add to that its high resale, award winning customer service, and the only decision is to justify the cost of the hybrid version. Personally, it is the one to own if nothing else for its performance.

Young working woman’s view: What can you say to a queen who has everything? There is little to add here. I didn’t like the way the fuel light went on with so little fanfare, I thought that the alloy rims were unworthy and needed to be rethought as they are just not right, and I would have preferred if the power tailgate would open with less fanfare as it sounds like a truck is backing up. Starting the hybrid is eerie to say the least. You turn on the ignition; wait for the light in the gauge cluster to read “Ready,” and you just touch the accelerator. No fuss, no muss, and if you are careful you can even drive several miles without using the gas engine at all.

Both RX models have significant safety features that include front side airbags, head-protecting curtain side airbags and a driver knee airbag. A control system that uses the Electronically Controlled Brake system with Anti-Lock Brakes and Electronic Brake force Distribution creates a Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management system to help prevent the vehicle from becoming unstable. In other words, this queen has built a sturdy safety castle around her charges. Although the RX is based on a Camry platform, it is definitely off-roadable. However, who would want to take one of these into the boondocks and scratch that deep paint ironically on the same vegetation that these hybrids were born to protect.

There are a lot of look alike buttons in the center of the dash that must be learned because reading them is difficult in bright sunlight. The GPS monitor is large and the joy stick that controls the many features of the loaded RX 450 h didn’t take long to master. The bottom line is that this is not the car for me based on its pricing and features. Although I appreciate the luxury and the fuel consumption, the Lexus IS series is trimmer, easier to maneuver, and more my style for less money. There is a Lexus CT 200h that costs less and gets is pretty cool looking in a different way that returns close to 40 mpg that is also appealing.

Young working male’s view: The back seats were very comfortable with handy cupholders, ample headroom, and foot space. Make sure you adjust the rear backrests before you get into the RX because they are really hard to adjust when you are sitting in them. You can fold the rear seats down in three sections, but they don’t fold real flat. You also have extra storage space in the rear cargo area on both sides and under the cover. And, there is a standard 115-volt 2-prong outlet to plug in that new computer. I like the http://www.eracks.com models with open software feature. Works well in the Lexus and is quiet, too.

The Lexus optional sound system is well worth investigating. You might just want to check it out listening to my latest songs at http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/simplethoughts What really interested me was how Lexus engineers were able to organize all the features using a very user friendly operating system. If you have the need for more seats, the Toyota Highlander hybrid may be a consideration as it has three rows of seating. The bottom line for me is that the hybrid only makes sense if you spend a considerable time in town. Otherwise, get the base RX and enjoy the ride.

Family conference: Call it a tall station wagon, try to humiliate it by claiming its an overpriced Toyota, make fun of its turtle shell appearance, or just point out you can get an SUV the same size and power for $10,000 less and you still are not going to convince buyers that this isn’t the cat’s meow of luxury SUVs. While the Acura MDX handles a bit better, the BMW is faster, and Mercedes more off roadable, and the Infiniti sportier, the Lexus is all alone when it comes to providing buyers with what the majority want, and that is a luxury vehicle that is both practical an elegant and the 450 h is the queen. Long live the queen.

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