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Lexus changes hybrid tack in pursuit of driver appeal for its large SUV

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Car marques like Lexus haven’t typically been around long enough to have been involved in the conception of many current vehicle types – but, with the Lexus RX luxury SUV, Toyota’s premium brand does claim to have been something of a pioneer.

When the first-generation Lexus RX was launched in 1998, what would become known as the luxury SUV market really only had ladder frame cars within it: the P38A Range Rover, the Mercedes M-Class and, in North America, the Lincoln Navigator. With its monocoque chassis and choice of either front- or four-wheel drive, however, the RX demonstrated how much bulk could be saved by adopting a more car-like construction. Later, in 2005, the RX also brought hybrid power to the class. In both senses, it has been one of the luxury SUV’s greater modernising influences.

And now entering its fifth model generation, the RX is branching out. The V6 petrol engines that powered the car previously have been discarded, and new and more efficient four-cylinder units brought in. More interesting still, though, are the arrival of two all-new RX derivatives to sit alongside the familiar ‘self-charging’ petrol hybrid. The RX 450h+ plug-in hybrid is the one most will have seen coming, Lexus adopting and refining powertrain technology from the likes of the Toyota RAV4 PHEV.

But the RX 500h, subject of this week’s road test, is a Lexus like none we have seen before. It mates a turbocharged petrol engine with a six-speed automatic gearbox, discarding the CVT-style power splitter transmission that both Toyota and Lexus hybrids have always used, and adds a new torque-vectoring electric rear axle too.

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The RX 500h represents the first time that any Toyota or Lexus hybrid has prioritised either performance or driver engagement over outright efficiency, or sought to foster a deeper connection between driver and car.

Range at a glance

Lexus has slimmed and simplified its usual derivative structure for this new RX. Buyers first choose from regular 350h hybrid, 450h+ plug-in hybrid and range-topping 500h hybrid powertrains, each offering four-wheel drive.

They can then opt for regular or Takumi trim with the lesser hybrids, or F Sport or Takumi in the 500h. A Premium Plus package is a de facto trim level on the 350h and 450h+.

Version Power
Lexus RX 350h Premium Pack 247bhp
Lexus RX 450h+ Premium Pack 304bhp
RX 500h F Sport* 366bhp

*As tested

Transmissions

e-CVT (350h, 450h+)

6-spd automatic (500h)

DESIGN & STYLING

Lexus RX500h RT 32

Any mission to redefine how much driver appeal a petrol-electric car can conjure starts at a disadvantage in choosing as its delivery mechanism a car like the new Lexus RX. This is a full-size, 4.9-metre, five-seat SUV weighing a little under 2.1 tonnes as tested. It is at least the sort of car that Lexus sells plenty of, though, rather than one perhaps specially intended to make a fresh and emphatic statement.

Like the Lexus NX before it, as well as the Toyotas RAV4 and Highlander, the RX moves onto Toyota’s TNGA-K platform – albeit a particularly long-wheelbase, widely structurally reinforced version of it. That move delivers 60mm of extra wheelbase and cabin space within the same overall length. The new RX is also a little lower and wider than the fourth-generation version, with lower roof and belt lines, a lower driver’s hip point and a lower centre of gravity. Like-for-like models weigh some 90kg less than those they directly replaced thanks to lightweight substitutions such as the use of aluminium for the bonnet and front wings.

The ‘spindle’ grille of the previous RX has been replaced by a front end with a high jutting nose and a large but less stark-looking trapezoidal grille underneath. It looks better integrated now.

The car’s outward design benefits from a more integrated philosophy on Lexus’s ‘spindle’ motif. Instead of having that conspicuous double-tapered grille apparently grafted onto the front, the shape of that spindle is cast into the bodywork of the front end. Much of the rest of the car, however, looks almost slavishly familiar.

The 500h mates a transverse-mounted, 2.4-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine (making 268bhp at peak) with an 86bhp electric motor/generator and a six-speed automatic gearbox up front, plus a second, 102bhp drive motor (much more powerful than the one fitted to either the 350h or 450h+) on the rear wheels.

Power for those motors comes from a new, low-resistance nickel-metal-hydride drive battery that’s carried under the rear seats, which is designed for fast charge and discharge. And so peak system output for the RX 500h is 366bhp and 406lb ft: hardly the sort of numbers that will lure Porsche Cayenne or Range Rover Sport owners in their droves, although they might just get a flicker of attention.

The RX’s axles, meanwhile – MacPherson struts at the front and multiple links at the rear – have been designed with better steering feel and lateral wheel location in mind. Suspension is via fixed-height steel coils, with Lexus’s adaptive variable suspension dampers fitted as standard to the specially tuned suspension of F Sport models (the only model trim in which the RX 500h is offered).

Four-wheel steering is also standard fit on the RX 500h, with rear-axle counter-steering angle now increased to a maximum of 4deg. Braking is via an electronic ‘by-wire’ system, with enlarged discs and calipers.

INTERIOR

Lexus RX500h fascia

Lexus has always gone above and beyond European luxury class norms in pursuit of a particular kind of material richness, tactile appeal and weighty perceived quality. The new RX is evidence that the firm continues to – and with apparent success in terms of how hefty- and solid-feeling are the car’s cabin fittings, and how expensively put together they all seem.

The brand’s latest interior layout philosophy, which it calls ‘Tazuna’, aims to put all controls within easy reach of the driver; to keep their hands on the wheel, and eyes on the road, for as long as possible. It is a laudable intention, and is realised in some ways, though not all.

The car’s ‘touch tracer’ control pads on the steering wheel spokes, which we’ve praised on the current NX SUV, work particularly well, combining with the head-up display to deliver easy multi-function control of the cruise control and audio systems without taking your eyes off the road at all.

Lexus small e-Latch door handles are well placed and work well. Push to activate the electronic release, assuming there’s no obstruction; pull for the mechanical release.

But it’s a shame the same logic hasn’t been applied to control of the RX’s new 14in touchscreen infotainment system, for which there is no separate cursor control. Everything, poking and swiping included, is done at arm’s length.

Infotainment aside, there’s a pervading sense of attention to detail about the RX’s interior – from its appealing material trim choices, right down to the clever centre armrest cubby cover (double-hinged so as to open towards either side). Finding even one cheap-feeling moulding or fitting is a tough task.

Meanwhile, although on-board space isn’t quite up there with the most commodious luxury SUVs, a boot with some 600 litres of available cargo space up to the roof, and plenty of room in row two, make the RX’s level of practicality hard to find serious fault with. Unless, of course, you need a seven-seater.

Multimedia

Lexus rx500h rt 15 0

Lexus’s latest infotainment system, Lexus Link Pro, has been developed for better connectivity and better voice control (it responds to ‘Hey Lexus’ commands and works better than some voice recognition systems). It has a 14in touchscreen control console, with permanent heater functions and a volume button beneath it. But there’s no separate cursor controller, so everything you can’t do via voice command has to be done with an outstretched hand. While a home screen with a collection of ‘most commonly used functions’ is a neat idea, changing some settings can be a frustratingly slow, complex process.

The system is fully connected and capable of over-the-air updates without any help from your smartphone. On that score, it offers inductive smartphone charging and wireless Apple CarPlay connectivity but only wired connectivity for Android handsets.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Lexus RX500h RT 32

It’s quite revealing for Lexus to have avoided a PHEV powertrain for this car. Suggestive, perhaps, that it wanted to keep weight down, to make performance stirring but still within the bounds of the sensible, and to reap rewards elsewhere.

There are certainly quicker hybrid SUVs on which you could spend this kind of money, some of them arrayed over the page. The RX 500h feels just about potent enough to pique your interest, though. That it hit 0-60mph in 6.1sec does little to mark it out as a bonafide performance product in 2023; but 30-70mph through the gears in 5.5sec says a bit more, as do some of the in-gear acceleration numbers.

There are lots of good active safety systems on this car, but the speed limit alarm isn’t one of them. It bleeps if you stray even one mile an hour over the posted limit, it needs deactivating every time you start and there’s no button for it. Maddening.

This is indeed a Lexus hybrid in which you can select gears for yourself. Pick a higher one, pulling from lowish revs, and you can really feel the boost of the electric motors as they shrug off so much of the car’s mass, and make it feel quite responsive and energetic. When we road tested the current, V6-powered Maserati Levante S in 2019, 50-70mph took 4.0sec in fifth gear. The RX 500h will do it in fourth (it has six gears rather than the Maserati’s eight, so the fifth versus fourth output ratios are closely matched) in just 3.8sec.

Lexus uses digital synthesis to enhance and augment the sound of the four-cylinder engine – more effectively, it must be noted, when you’re using bigger loads at lower revs, and just flexing the car’s muscles in normal driving, than when the engine is working hard (when it lacks some smoothness and high-range freedom). There is a certain kind of multi-cylinder quality about the end result, although it won’t convince everyone.

It’s a little disappointing, however, for Lexus to have gone to such lengths to fit a conventional automatic transmission to one of its hybrids, only to forget about the full locked-out manual mode. Whether you’re using proper manual (M) or part-time manual (D) gearbox modes, the RX’s transmission will kick down if you push past the detent at the bottom of the accelerator pedal’s travel.

Paddle-shift gearchanges are delivered positively, although not always too quickly. Yet picking gears for yourself, and feeling that hybrid powertrain really knuckle down, makes a marked difference when you feel like enjoying what you’re doing at the wheel.

RIDE & HANDLING

Lexus RX500h RT 11

Even without the weight of a PHEV powertrain, the RX 500h isn’t a new benchmark for the large SUV segment on outright agility, handling balance or body control. That might come as a surprise given the car’s billing – and a disappointment, perhaps, to some. But it probably won’t to long-time RX fans and owners, who will be well used to the priority it has always given to comfort, luxury, isolation and easy-driving convenience – buyers whom Lexus won’t have been out to alienate, after all.

The firm defines its particular dynamic character – entitled the Lexus Driving Signature – quite specifically. Its cars are tuned for smooth, rather than sudden, changes of direction; level and controlled, but not firm or aggressive, body control; plenty of steering feel, but slick precision rather than animated tactile feel; and a predictable turn-in, followed by a balanced, poised and accurate but stable cornering line out.

This isn’t really a performance SUV, but instead a pretty plainly American-market-flavoured cruiser; and you don’t need to travel more than a few feet in it to know it. Yet the car is quick enough, and dynamically precise enough, to make plenty of journeys enjoyable, if you choose your routes to suit it.

If that all sounds only moderately, quietly rewarding, that would also be a fair way to describe the RX 500h on a gently twisting road. The car feels quite softly sprung, with what you might think of as an American highway-style ride. It’s a lope almost subtle enough to be imperceptible on better surfaces taken at speed, and that allows it to soak up medium-sized lumps and bumps.
But it doesn’t deal well with complex country roads with crowned middles, transverse ridges and sunken gutters, where the RX suddenly feels its size and weight, as it fidgets laterally on its springs. Lexus’s adaptive dampers seem to run out of answers early when given lots to do to keep body movements in check, whichever driving mode you’re using. They keep the car from wallowing, rolling or pitching hard but admit plenty of head toss.

In tighter bends, meanwhile, the four-wheel steering seems likewise only quite meekly effective compared with rival set-ups. The RX 500h is missing any real bite or agility on turn-in. Drive it quickly through a corner and it’s not the vectoring of that electric rear axle you will feel but instead the sudden arrival of torque at the front axle from the combustion engine as it chimes in, and the disruption of the cornering poise that follows.

This is a pleasant enough car to drive accurately, with some speed and a passing interest in what it’s doing, then, but not one to interrogate with greater enthusiasm. At a more relaxed pace it’s typically assured, but so much could probably be said about any RX in the range.

Comfort & isolation

The RX’s front seats are offered at only medium-high altitude so that many occupants can slide in easily, rather than climbing up to get on board. While leg room is generous in both rows, head room isn’t huge, although it was sufficient for all of our testers, even in row two.

F Sport trim brings leather-and-suede sports seats with reasonable lateral support, but they lack a degree of adjustability (Takumi-grade RXs have extendable seat cushions, F Sports don’t), and some testers found them a little small in one or two respects.

Nevertheless, long-distance comfort in the car is very good, and visibility both forwards and backwards likewise. Several testers were struck by how quiet and well damped the passenger doors sound when being closed, and that both wind and road noise are studiously well-filtered. Our test car’s ride didn’t deal brilliantly with sharper edges and small surface intrusions, clunking noisily at times. Even so, it allowed only 65dBA of noise into the cabin at a 70mph cruise, beating the Range Rover Sport D300 we tested in 2022, if only by a narrow margin.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Lexus RX500h RT 33

Starting at just under £60,000 for an entry-level 350h, with prices extending to nearly £80,000 for a fully loaded 500h, the RX is fairly sensibly priced in relative terms. Those prices make it a closer rival, on price at least, to a Range Rover Velar than a new Range Rover Sport – and a note of moderation in its positioning, combined with Lexus’s habitual healthy dose of standard equipment, stands to do it quite a lot of good at the moment.

Company car drivers can, for the first time, plump for a PHEV whose CO2 emissions and 42-mile electric range will put it in the same benefit-in-kind tax bracket as most other plug-in hybrid SUV equivalents. Those fleet drivers are likely to be opting out of their work schemes if they are taking a regular hybrid instead.

If you want the 500h powertrain, you have to have F Sport trim. Don’t bother with the Takumi pack upgrade (£5000) if you are likely to have taller adults in the back.

But private buyers who couldn’t charge regularly anyway, and don’t see the sense in carrying around a heavy PHEV drive battery, ought to be happy enough with the real-world economy that an RX 500h can record. Long-distance touring isn’t the car’s efficiency strong suit; but around town and on A- and B-roads, the hybrid system can return 35mpg without much investment of attention or effort.

VERDICT

Lexus RX500h RT 37

Being able to pick gear ratios for yourself is a small change that makes a meaningful difference to the driving experience of this hybrid SUV. Its six-speed automatic gearbox is part of a powertrain that really has its moments. It isn’t in any way excessive or savage, but is slick and easy to operate; potent enough in outright terms to make a big, heavy car feel brisk; pleasingly responsive for accessible, real-world roll-on performance; and still efficient enough to feel like a responsible choice in 2023.

So the powertrain in the Lexus RX 500h can be considered a success. Its cabin isolation, its richness and perceived quality, and its wider credentials as a luxury car are impressive, too.

To those who might otherwise have given up their BMWs and Range Rovers for this Lexus, then, it will seem a shame that the RX’s chassis feels so comfort-centred and natively front-driven. The 500h F Sport offers questionable country-road body control and limited handling agility or dynamism even for a big car. There’s enough, perhaps, for an RX devotee to feel good about their smart new purchase, but not enough to recast the RX’s fairly steady, unsporting positioning among much more dynamic rivals.

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Lexus RX First drives