Twin Review: 2011 Lexus RX350/RX450h FWD

By Roger Boylan

Your average SUV once lumbered across the land with all the grace of a sauropod. Think of the Scout, the Excursion, the Grand Wagoneer, and others with more utility than sport, and little in the way of creature comfort. Then, as birds evolved from dinosaurs, but in a far shorter time span dictated by the market rather than Darwin, crossovers evolved from SUVs, and a kinder, gentler beast was born. There’s a lot of variety in this market now, from high-speed machines like the Porsche Cayenne Turbo to more mundane critters like the Ford Edge. Some drivers are looking for something fast but elegant. Others want to cruise along in a hotel suite on wheels. The Lexus RX should satisfy on both counts—and I mean both Lexus RXs, the gasoline-powered RX350 as well as its hybrid sibling, the RX450h. I had the privilege of test-driving each, back to back. As they’re essentially the same vehicle, except for price, the obvious difference under the hood, and a few details on the instrument panel, I’m doing a unitary review of the RX genre.

The RX is a luxury vehicle that, from its ride height and stance, displays its SUV lineage. The RX line has always been sleek, but a partial redesign in 2010 de-emphasized the ovoid look in favor of the 4-door coupe aspect. It’s a great-looking vehicle in any color, but especially in the dazzling Black Opal my 450h came in, a rare and beautiful hue. My 350 of the previous week was in Inferno Red, not bad at all, if a bit more familiar from other Toyotas. Externally, the RX 450h differs from the 350 with a different grille and front bumper, energy-saving LED headlights, no roof rack, and emblems and logos in a lovely midnight-blue surround.

Inside, they both look basically the same, with the exception in the 450h of an ECO driving indicator that displays fuel economy in a bar graph, to make you feel all high-tech like, and a hybrid system indicator that replaces the tachometer to tell you when you’re charging the battery, as during braking, for example, and when you’re just plain charging, as in ahead, with concomitant drop in economy. Otherwise, both models share an elegant swooping dashboard panel with soft-touch surface and wood accents everywhere, and an arched center console that protrudes like a small bridge, atop which, conveniently to hand, are cupholders and storage cubbies, also adorned in a gleaming walnut lookalike–which, we are told, is the genuine article, even if it looks fake. (But then it must be the real thing, because to me real wood in a car always somehow looks more fake than fake wood.)

Both my test vehicles were FWD and well equipped, and both rang the cash register at around $50,000, once all the goodies had been loaded up. The RX350 starts at $37K or so, the hybrid 450h at $42K, but I’d be willing to bet that very few such “strippers” ever make their way off the lot. Why buy a Lexus, after all, unless you and your passengers (ideally, four; five would be a bit tight) can cruise around in comfort fore and aft on heated and ventilated leather seats amid an ocean of luxury, including a Mark Levinson audio system with 6-CD changer and Sirius XM satellite radio; a one-touch power moonroof; power outside mirrors that fold in like tiny wings when the car is locked (with your remote lock/start keyfob in your pocket, you have but to lay a hand on the door handle and it locks the whole car); a good grippy wood/leather steering wheel and gearshift lever; an MP3 MiniPlug with USB Audio Plug; a power liftgate, a really fun feature that awoke my inner 10-year-old, or moron (“Whee! Up! Whee! Down! Whee!”); illuminated scuff plates; bi-xenon high intensity discharge (HID) headlamps with automatic high beams; rain-sensing automatic wipers; and on and on.

It’s an American Dream in miniature (maybe the only size we’ll be allowed, from here on out), and overall very appealing, although I must confess I freaked out at first over the utterly unintuitive onboard computer controller for the navigation screen. It was a vivid contrast to the simple and logical layout I’d just finished raving about in my review of the Toyota Camry SE V6. But after I sat in a parking lot studying Volume 2 of the enormous driver’s manual—“The Navigation System of the RX,” about the heft of Anna Karenina but not quite as gripping a read–and after about 10 minutes, pretty good for me, I had it all figured out. Indeed, by the end of my two-week RX experience I was enjoying snapping off commands and following through with the hypersensitive mouselike controller and hearing the little plosive “boing” as the cursor changed screens. But I still don’t recommend it. Like it or not, it’s a distraction from driving.

And you don’t want to be distracted from driving the RX, which in both gas and hybrid iterations is (so to speak) a gas on the highway, not in the way a Mazdaspeed 3 is, or a Subaru WRX—or even a Jaguar S-Type– but with sufficient feedback and responsiveness to actually make fast trips down curvy roads fun, with light steering that verges on twitchy but ultimately conveys enough road feeling for purposes of control at high speeds. The car’s oomph comes from the superb V6 under the bonnet, which in the RX350 pumps out 275 horses and 257 lb.-ft. of torque; the 450h gets an additional 20 ponies from its electric-gasoline combo as compensation for weighing 300 lb. more than the gasoline 350.

Both RXs are spunky, though. Toyota/Lexus claims a 0-60 time of 7.4 sec for the RX350, and I approximated that: 7.5, according to my trusty Swiss chronometer. The 450h, if anything, feels slightly faster, once you’re used to the single enormous gear (or myriad tiny gears, depending on your point of view) of its CVT (the 350 has a 6-speed automatic); but I had no opportunity to confirm this impression. It may be an aural illusion caused by the engine’s roar, for roar it does, in somewhat un-Lexuslike fashion, when you drop the hammer, and growls hairily until your desired speed is attained and the CVT adjusts to the engine’s RPMs, at which point Lexan serenity returns. Also in the 450h,  tire noise is slightly greater because of its low-rolling resistance tires, but wind noise is less than in the 350, because the hybrid goes bare-headed, with no roof rails. Both features, of course, are in the interest of economizing on dino juice. Which, obviously, is the main difference between these two near-twins.

The surprise, though, isn’t how economical the 450h is–which it is, averaging 24 mpg in my week of mixed city and highway driving (EPA estimates are 32 city, 28 highway)—but how relatively frugal the gas-engine RX350 proved to be, attaining 25 mpg on the highway when my right foot was resisting gravity and temptation and the cruise control was on. These are impressive figures for an SUV/crossover; the rival Acura MDX, by comparison, is rated at 16 city/21 highway (admittedly with 300hp and three-row seating). Mind you, both Lexi drink premium, but that’s to be expected at this price point.

And an elevated price point it is, to be sure, from whose heights you can look down upon the restless packs of mere Camrys and the like. But it’s not just the bling you pay for. The RX is a very safe vehicle, top-rated by the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS). You get your standard full raft of airbags for your front, your side, and your knees; active headrests in the front seats; driver and front passenger seatbelt pre-tensioners; three-point seatbelts with pre-tensioners for all three rear seating positions; a tire pressure monitoring system, of which I heartily approve; four-channel ABS with brake assist; enhanced vehicle stability control; and my personal favorite, the backup camera. These things are good to know, and worth paying for.

Let’s face it, in either gas-only or hybrid guise the RX is a lot of car, or SUV, or crossover, even for the price. It’s a fine family vehicle for long trips. It looks good, it’s solidly built with a fine reliability record, it drives surprisingly well for a vehicle its size, it’s relatively economical (the 450h is actually economical, period), and it’s among the most comfortable such vehicles I can remember driving. Yeah, I’d deign to park one in my driveway. And take it out for a 3,000-mile jaunt now and then.

Author: Roger Boylan

Aside from being the only Autosavant writer with a Wikipedia page, Roger Boylan is an American writer who was raised in Ireland, France, and Switzerland and attended the University of Ulster and the University of Edinburgh. His novel “Killoyle” was published in 1997 by Dalkey Archive Press and has been reprinted four times. In 2003, a sequel, “The Great Pint-Pulling Olympiad,” was published by Grove Press, New York. Roger’s latest novel, “The Adorations,” in which a Swiss professor named Gustave, Adolf Hitler, Hitler’s mistress, the Archangel Michael, and a journalistic sexpot meet at the intersection of history and fantasy, has been published as an e-book and is now available on Amazon.com and other online bookstores. Boylan's light-hearted memoir, "Run Like Blazes," has also been published as a Kindle e-book and is also now available on Amazon.com.

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