Once upon a time there was a French hatchback, and a very nice hatchback it was. It was called the Renault 16, and it caused a revolution in automotive design and functionality whose reverberations can still be felt. It wasn’t the first hatchback—the Kaiser Traveler and Renault’s own 4L came before—but it was the first mass-market, middle-class hatchback to sell in large numbers: over 1,845,959 R16s were produced during the car’s 15-year lifespan.
Of course, the French were always in the vanguard of automotive artistry, going back to the glory days of Bugatti and Delahaye and Citroën. Renault, the state-owned giant (now affiliated with Nissan), had been turning out quirky and popular little runabouts and family sedans since the 1920s. When we lived in Europe, my family owned one that was part runabout, part sedan: a Dauphine, which I’ve written about elsewhere in these pages. I liked Renaults in general, so naturally I was ogling the 16 as soon as it first appeared in 1965, and started a nagging campaign to get my parents to buy one. It failed: Dad had his eye on a German Ford (Taunus 17m), and mother was quite satisfied with her boxy Simca, the Dauphine’s successor. So as consolation I went out and found an R16 to drive, one belonging to a neighbor, who came along for the ride to give me legal cred (I only had a learner’s license) and tips on how to shift the four-on-the-tree gear lever. Apart from mistaking reverse for second, I had a great time. I still remember the odd Renault new-car smell, heavy leatherette with a kind of vinegary underlay. I always wished I’d owned an R16.
Why am I rambling on about this defunct French car, you ask? Because for the past week I’ve been driving a Lexus RX 450h. You don’t see the connection? Perhaps not. But as I was approaching the RX laterally from the rear the other day I was struck by its flowing good looks and suddenly saw a resemblance to the R16 of yore in the sloping roof and character lines, and it occurred to me that the true ancestor of this car, and of many of today’s “crossovers,” isn’t a Jeep or a Scout or a Land Rover but a stylish, practical family-hauling hatchback—just like the R16. After all, today’s crossovers are really just high-riding hatchbacks, with in some cases mere residual traces of the macho off-road image inherent in all-wheel-drive, meaty tires, roof racks, etc. But not all crossovers have even these. In fact, my RX didn’t even have roof rails. They were eschewed for aerodynamic purposes, i.e., to save gas, this model being a hybrid with impressive EPA ratings: 32/28 mpg City/Highway for the front-wheel-drive model like mine—another savings, albeit not of much. The all-wheel-drive version posts 30/28, also very good indeed for an SUV—or crossover, or hefty hatch, or whatever you want to call it.
Under the bonnet of the RX 450h dwells a 3.5-liter V6 yoked to a hybrid powertrain. Between them, they corral 295 restless ponies that are good for a 0-60 sprint that I timed twice at just under 7 sec. That forward movement is facilitated by the single enormous gear of the CVT, which, under heavy acceleration, introduces the sole clamorous note into the ambient hush. Otherwise there are no sounds, not even the wind. At low speeds the car glides silently about on electrical power only, and above about 20 m.p.h. it moves serenely along, like a small mobile stately home, insulating its occupants—interior exigencies dictate that there be no more than 5—from the outside world’s hurly-burly. The RX drives cleanly and tightly, and feels as well-put-together as you expect a Lexus to feel. And when it’s time to arrest that serene forward progress, the brakes work with instant efficiency and no fade, even after several hard applications.
Good brakes make for a safe car, but these days no vehicle is complete without a raft of other safety devices undreamed-of back in the heyday of the R16. (The one I drove, as I recall, had seat belts, a rare innovation then.) The RX 450h boasts airbags galore: front; front-seat mounted side; front and rear roll-sensing side-curtain; driver and front passenger knee and side. I may have missed a couple. Plus, there are active headrests for the front seats; force-limiting seatbelt pre-tensioners for the driver and front passenger; three-point seatbelts with pre-tensioners for all three squeezed into the back seats; a tire-pressure monitoring system that I found to be excessively alarmist, like all such systems I’ve dealt with—flashing the little “low-pressure” icon for no good reason; but nothing’s perfect.
The car also has four-channel ABS with brake assist, enhanced vehicle stability control, and, last but not least, a pre-collision system, blind-spot monitor, and dynamic radar cruise control. (The latter will usher you out of harm’s way by automatically resetting the car’s speed if the little darling in front of you suddenly hits the brakes on the freeway in response to a really special text message.) All this no doubt makes the RX a pretty safe vehicle, but we’ll have to wait for the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety’s verdict. The last RX they tested, an ’03, achieved top safety scores (the 2003 was the first-generation RX; presumably scores have improved in the ensuing decade).
Being a luxury car, the RX doesn’t stint on the fripperies. Equipped with the Premium and Comfort Plus Packages, my test vehicle bore a sticker price of $48K, for which princely sum the lucky owner will wallow in supple and sumptuous leather seats, heated and ventilated in the front. He or she will also enjoy a power glass sunroof; power-folding and auto-dimming outside mirrors; a rear armrest storage console; rain-sensing wipers fore and aft; a rearview camera; Bluetooth hands-free phone and automatic phonebook download; Lexus Enform 2.0 with Safety Connect, which takes over in case of accidents or theft; a remote-touch navigation controller; HD radio with iTunes “tagging”; an advanced voice command and voice- recognition system; and good old SiriusXM radio with a superb 15-speaker Mark Levinson audio system.
All of which is fine and good and pretty boring. Fortunately, the car’s aesthetics are pleasing, too, inside as well as out. Lexus has redesigned the RX series, and it looks good—a swift profile etched in metal, just like the R16—but the redesign owes a good deal to Audi, as evidenced by the LED running lights outlining the tapered headlights. But Audi’s the cutting edge of car design these days, and it’s no shame to follow a good example, as Japanese manufacturers have proven time and again. (Think Miata). Another fresh element in the redesign of the RX is an hourglass or spindle-shaped grill across the entire Lexus line-up, save the IS (and that car’s time is surely coming). Perhaps the lords of Lexus are hoping that someday the spindle grill will be as instantly recognizable as BMW’s dual-kidney grill, or Alfa Romeo’s—or Audi’s.
Inside the RX 450h the aesthetics are equally pleasing. The dash is elegant and functional and echoes the car’s external swoopiness, with no sharp corners or straight lines to be seen anywhere. Maplewood trim accents that look entirely fake and must, therefore, be genuine, are the ideal complement to sundry brushed-aluminum inserts and handsome saddle leather. A deep cowling in front houses clean and clear aquamarine-tinted gauges, plus an Eco driving indicator that displays a bar graph indicating fuel economy. There’s also a hybrid “system indicator” in lieu of the standard tachometer. These are all well laid out, logical, and user-friendly.
The only sour note for me was the myriad functions on the in-dash monitor controlled by the mushroom-like “mouse” on the center console—radio, navigation, stock market reports, weather forecast, music, dinner reservations, etc., etc., every single one of them a distraction from the road. Of course, Lexus expects owners of its vehicles to be grown-up and responsible and never to play computer games while they’re driving; but in the real world, we all fall prey to delusions of invulnerability, especially in a high-riding, solid vehicle like this, and the temptation to spice up a boring drive by browsing Satellite Radio’s 100 Biggest R&B Hits can be strong—and potentially fatal. It’s one of the few ways in which a 1965 Renault 16 could be said to be superior to the 2013 Lexus RX 450h: the driving was all about driving, and fancy appliances stayed home, where they belonged.
And that concludes today’s old-fogey rant. That one defect aside—and in today’s hi-tech marketplace there’s no reason to single out the RX for being hyperequipped—this is an exceptionally comfortable, well-designed and pleasant vehicle. It’s a Lexus, so you can be pretty confident it’s going to be reliable. Sure, at $6000 over the base sticker of the non-hybrid RX350, the admission price for the hybrid is a bit steep, and according to the EPA it would take 8½ years to save the equivalent in fuel of the hybrid’s price premium; but the RX 450h is less expensive and more fuel-efficient than its competitors in the hybrid-luxury SUV market, such as the diesel BMW X5 and the Porsche Cayenne Hybrid. And it’s nice to get 400 miles out of a tank of gas in a vehicle that actually makes you want to hop in and go for a 400-mile drive. I’m not sure that I’d ever have wanted to do that in a Renault 16, for all my nostalgic enthusiasm.