2013 Lexus RX 450h. Click image to enlarge
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Review and photos by Greg Wilson

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2013 Lexus RX 450h

It wasn’t enough that the world’s first luxury hybrid SUV, the Lexus RX 450h, provided a rare combination of sumptuous luxury, generous utility, all-wheel-drive traction, and the fuel economy and low emissions of a compact car.

Something was missing: apparently, the 2012 model just wasn’t sporty enough.


How else to explain Lexus’ decision to add a new driver-selectable Sport mode to the 2013 RX 450h? By improving throttle response and making the steering quicker, hybrid owners can now drive the 2013 RX 450h like Sebastian Vettel without offending David Suzuki. Well, almost…

That’s not to say the 2012 RX 450h was underpowered. With its 245-hp 3.5L Atkinson-cycle V6 and 123-kW electric motor developing a combined 295-horsepower (20 more than the RX 350) the RX 450h was already a mean green machine. It was just that the power was subdued in the name of fuel efficiency and reduced emissions.

2013 Lexus RX 450h. Click image to enlarge

Now, RX 450h drivers have a choice. As before, the default driving mode is Normal, and using the menu button on the steering wheel, drivers can select Eco mode, which maximizes fuel efficiency by minimizing throttle responsiveness and reducing air conditioning operation. Selecting the new Sport mode results in quicker starts and more passing power by maximizing electric motor power and reducing stability and traction control activation. Sport mode also activates faster steering response. Selecting Hybrid Snow mode reduces throttle input to reduce wheelspin in slippery situations. There’s also a button on the console for electric-only EV mode that allows the RX 450h to run at low speeds on battery power for a couple of kilometres-assuming the battery is well charged.

As well, the continuously variable transmission has a sequential manual-shifting mode that simulates six gears, if so desired.

Fuel economy remains class-leading: Natural Resources Canada rates the RX 450h at 6.7 L/100 km city and 7.2 L/100 km highway using Regular gas. The American EPA rating, a more realistic estimate, is 7.8 city/8.4 highway. My test vehicle’s onboard fuel consumption display was showing a best average of 9.0 L/100 km, but I was alternating between Eco and Sport mode to compare the performance differences. For comparison, the Lexus RX 350’s NRCan rating is 11.8 city/8.3 highway.

In addition to the new Sport driving mode, the 2013 Lexus RX 450h receives more aggressive styling similar to that of other new Lexus vehicles, consisting mainly of a pinched “spindle” grille, a new front bumper design, new fog lights, new LED running lights and new tail lights. I’m not sure I like it. Is it just me, or are new vehicles getting more angry-looking?

2013 Lexus RX 450h
2013 Lexus RX 450h. Click image to enlarge
2013 Lexus RX 450h
2013 Lexus RX 450h. Click image to enlarge
2013 Lexus RX 450h
2013 Lexus RX 450h. Click image to enlarge

Inside, there’s a new steering wheel, a revised Eco gauge, different climate control switches, a larger redesigned centre console storage bin, better audio system, and a second generation mouse-like console controller for navigating the various functions available in the centre screen such as navigation and audio.

Last, but not least, is a price reduction of almost $3,000. The 2013 base MSRP of $56,750 is $2,950 less than the base 2012 MSRP. However, there are five option packages available, some of which can boost the price to over $70,000: the Touring Package ($4,100), Ultra Premium Package 1 ($10,300), Ultra Premium Package 1 with Blind Spot Monitoring ($10,850), Ultra Premium Package 2 ($14,650), and the Ultra Premium Package 2 with Blind Spot Monitoring ($15,200). Our test vehicle came equipped with the Ultra Premium Package 2, which includes just about everything in the other packages. The list is long, but the highlights are 19-inch alloys, a 15-speaker Mark Levinson audio system, radar cruise control, rear DVD entertainment system, heated wood steering wheel, and premium leather seats. Including a Freight charge of $1,995 and $100 A/C tax, the as-tested price came to $73,395.

As with other Toyota and Lexus vehicles powered by “Hybrid Synergy Drive”, the RX 450h is a full hybrid that can run on electric power alone, engine power alone, or a combination of both. In the all-wheel-drive RX 450h, there is an extra electric motor-generator at the rear to drive the rear wheels when all-wheel drive is called for by the electronic controller-there is no drive-shaft connecting the front motor with the rear wheels. In addition, there is an electric motor to drive the front wheels and another engine-driven generator to start the engine motor and charge the battery or add additional power. It’s all controlled automatically by a power control unit.

When the ignition button is pressed, a small Ready light comes on in the instrument cluster. Usually, the engine doesn’t start; the car is ready to go on battery power alone. Starting out and at low speeds, the RX450h uses only electric power, but the V6 engine starts automatically if the driver accelerates briskly-that happens often, I found. The automatic engine start-up while driving is almost seamless; the sound of the engine is more noticeable than any vibration, but it feels funny to have the engine revving independently of the acceleration curve-one of the characteristics of a full hybrid that you’ll need to get used to. When accelerating, both the gas engine and front and rear electric motors provide power, and while cruising only the gas engine operates, driving the front wheels. Except for the sound differences, all of this is basically invisible to the driver and passengers.

In Eco mode, I would describe acceleration as “lethargic”; in Normal mode “acceptable”; and in Sport mode “brisk”. But the relatively quiet cabin and CVT/engine drone are a bit deceiving. Indeed, according to Consumer Reports, the RX 450h zips from 0 to 60 mph in just 7.7 seconds, 0.4 seconds faster than the RX 350. This was achieved in a 2010 model that didn’t have the new Sport mode, so I assume it was driven in Normal mode. It’s possible the 2013 RX 450h is slightly quicker in Sport mode. The gas engine isn’t overly noisy despite the CVT keeping engine revs high while the foot is pressed to the floor. And in normal driving and highway cruising, the RX 450h is very quiet. Coasting or braking downhill, the regenerative brakes help recharge the 288-volt nickel-metal hydride battery residing under the rear seat, and the pedal feel isn’t heavy like it is in some hybrids.

2013 Lexus RX 450h
2013 Lexus RX 450h. Click image to enlarge

The RX 450h’s variable-assist electric power steering feel is almost non-existent, and it seems almost detached from the front wheels. Still, that makes it easy to park and make U-turns! The RX 450h’s turning circle of 11.4 m (37.4 ft.) is tighter than RX 350’s 11.8 m (38.8 ft.).

As it is a tall vehicle with 175 mm (6.9 in.) ground clearance, the RX 450h feels a bit tippy in the corners and you won’t derive any fun on a twisty road. However, stability is assured by its many electronic safety nannies including Toyota’s VDIM system, which automatically corrects oversteer and understeer in slippery situations where you might lose control of the vehicle. As well, the optional Pre-Collision System with Dynamic Radar Cruise Control uses radar waves to measure the distance to the car ahead and maintain a set distance at speed. If a collision appears imminent, the system retracts the front seat belts and primes the brakes for maximum braking force once the driver depresses the pedal.

The step up into the driver’s seat is a bit high for a crossover, but once seated, the driver has a nice driving position with good visibility except for a small blind spot at the right rear pillar. Rear parking sensors and a rear-view camera with a wide-angle lens help eliminate any blind spots when reversing.

2013 Lexus RX 450h
2013 Lexus RX 450h. Click image to enlarge

A height-adjustable driver’s seat and power tilt/telescopic steering wheel help most drivers find a good position, but I found even the lowest seating position higher than I liked. The cabin is roomy with plenty of headroom and legroom at the front and rear. The front seats have a power lumbar adjuster for lower back support and seat heaters with three temperature settings.

In the instrument cluster where the tachometer would normally be is an eco gauge that shows when the battery is being charged (decelerating, braking) and when power is being drawn from it (accelerating). It also shows the “Ready” light and an “Eco mode” or “Sport mode” indicator. Both round gauges are brightly backlit for easy viewing day or night. Between the gauges is a white-on-black information display with a menu controlled by a button on the steering wheel. Here, the driver can see a graphic of the real-time power distribution, average fuel economy, current fuel economy, tire pressure, cruising range, average speed, as well as a fuel gauge, outside temperature and gear indicator.

2013 Lexus RX 450h
2013 Lexus RX 450h. Click image to enlarge

The RX’s unique “haptic touch controller” in the centre console is like a computer mouse. By tilting it one way or the other, the driver can move the arrow on the centre screen and press down to select an option from the menu. A pleasant popping sound occurs when an item is selected. Generally, I liked this mouse, but its operation is very sensitive and it takes a little practice to move it accurately. As well, it’s a distraction when driving and due care should be exercised. The controller allows the driver to adjust the audio, climate control, navigation, phone, information, and setup functions on the screen, while both the audio and dual-zone climate systems also have conventional dash buttons.

Between the front seats is a padded armrest that slides forward for comfort, and underneath is a large storage bin with USB and 12-volt outlets. The bin includes a separate lower bin with a lid, where longer objects, like a small umbrella, can be stored. In my opinion, you can never have enough cabin storage!

The RX 450h’s trunk area is fully carpeted and easily accessible through the large hatch opening, however the loading height is rather high for heavy objects. Behind the rear seats is 1,132 L (40 cu. ft.) of cargo space, and with both rear seatbacks folded down, there is 2,273 L (80.3 cu. ft.).

2013 Lexus RX 450h. Click image to enlarge

The RX 450h doesn’t really have any direct competitors: the Porsche Cayenne S Hybrid is a bit too upmarket and the Audi Q5 hybrid is a bit downmarket while the Cadillac Escalade Hybrid is too big and the Toyota Highlander hybrid isn’t a “luxury” vehicle. A diesel VW Touareg is also in a different class, so the closest I could suggest is the Mercedes-Benz ML 350 Bluetec. Of all of these vehicles, the RX 450h is probably the least fun to drive but has the best fuel economy.

The Lexus RX 450h is currently built in Kokura, Japan, but Lexus announced recently that the hybrid RX 450h will also be built next to the RX 350 in Cambridge, Ontario starting in early 2014.

Pricing: 2013 Lexus RX 450h
Base price: $56,750
Options: $14,650 (Ultra Premium Package 2: 19-inch tires and aluminum wheels, premium leather seats with front power thigh adjustment, heated wood steering wheel, leather and wood shift knob, woodgrain trim, smart key, 15-speaker Mark Levinson sound system with subwoofer and single CD, XM real-time traffic updates, voice-activated HDD navigation system, two-screen rear DVD entertainment system with two wireless headphones, audio and DVD remote control, Dynamic radar cruise control, Pre-collision braking system, Parking Assist, head-up speedo display, LED head lights, and illuminated front door sills.)
Freight: $1,995
Price as tested: $73,395

Audi Q5 Hybrid
Cadillac Escalade Hybrid
Mercedes-Benz ML 350 Bluetec
Porsche Cayenne S Hybrid
Toyota Highlander Hybrid
Volkswagen Touareg TDI

Crash test results
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)
Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS)

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