2010 Lexus RX450h

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When the Porsche or Bentley isn’t enough: The Lexus RX450h

IT CAME TO ME while I was at the dump, in line with half a dozen pickup trucks, and then again when I was off-loading 600 pounds of stone for the garden:  This may be a $45,000 Lexus packed with another $16,000 worth of options, and it may even be a gas-electric hybrid (it is), but underneath all that it’s a workhorse.

OK, not in the sense of bolting on a snowplow or hitching up a dual-axle trailer full of construction equipment, and the thought of wedging a 4×8 sheet of plywood into this white leather interior makes me cringe (the garden stone was stacked on a tarp; that white Wilton carpet, or whatever the cargo bed is lined with, was untouched, I assure you, and by the way I didn’t have to fold down the rear seats), but for all the chores that the Porsche or the Bentley can’t manage.

Finally I get this thing. All these years, while it’s been a best-seller for Lexus, I’ve been weighing the RX against the BMW X5 and VW Touareg and so on—even against Toyota’s own Land Cruiser—and thinking I must be thick. High-dollar, high-zoot sport-utility vehicles should coddle their passengers, haul stuff, go when it’s slippery, and impress the neighbors.

The RX, especially the 450h AWD, can do all that. But as a driver I was always looking for some soul, some personality, some of that sense of mastering the known universe that a deluxe SUV should impart.

(Mixed in, naturally, with some self-loathing for using a two-and-one-quarter-ton vehicle for mere personal transportation.) I would have settled for a bit of feedback from the steering or the occasional growl from the tailpipes.

But the thing is, happy Lexus owners don’t care. Driving—at least to the dump and the supermarket and the garden center—is a chore, and to perform chores one has appliances. Appliances should be shiny but otherwise invisible. Appliances with personality might intrude on our lives or somehow disappoint. Above all, Lexus does not wish to disappoint.

With electricity whirring through its bloodstream, the RX450h is even more of an appliance than its gas-only RX350 sibling. The 450’s engine is a 3.5-liter 6-cylinder; its motor is a “high-output, permanent-magnet electric-drive” unit perched over an axle.

The only difference between the front-wheel- and all-wheel-drive RX450h is that the AWD model has two electric motors, the second one at the back, to power the rear wheels as needed. Curiously, Lexus says the total output, gas+electric, for each vehicle is the same, 295 horsepower, even though one of them has two powerplants and the other three.

Doddling around town I got 28.2 miles per gallon, less than the predicted 32 but a lot more than the 18 MPG the gas-only RX is rated for. Top speed is governed to 112 miles per hour.

Lexus has disguised this stepless, continuously variable transmission by programming six “gears” and all-but-seamless “shifts” into its brain, and even added a manual-shift option. Oddly, for Lexus, when the battery is down and the gas engine restarts, it does so with a noticeable shudder.

(Back in Japan an entire powertrain team had to commit ritual seppuku over this. Probably.) Many hybrid cars drive like sugar-free chocolate tastes but, restarting aside, the RX450h feels quite car-like, with just a bit more ankle-flexing than normal required to get the throttle into action.

I should rather say the RX feels quite Lexus-like: as hushed as the Vatican, as isolated from reality as a US Senator, and terribly tastefully decorated.

The RX is far better equipped than my home (and probably safer) and, as usual for this sort of vehicle, many of its features are customizable and adjustable.

Unusually, though, this is accomplished by mousing a cursor over a screen and then clicking “enter.” The joystick seems touchy at first, but you get used to it.

The RX450h is an ultimate automotive appliance: unobtrusive, efficient, multi-tasking. My guess is that when the autonomous vehicle arrives in a few years, the RX will be among the first to be able to operate without a driver.