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Lexus redefine the hybrid


Connotations of unacceptable girth, gas guzzling and general global destruction have, of late, conspired to make 'SUV' something of a dirty word amongst those prone to the wearing of socks within their Nazareth knockabouts.

Indeed, it's a good job that cars in this category inevitable come with air conditioning, since it obviates the need for drivers to open the window and risk a serious, Richmond-upon-Thames traffic-light flecking from the vitriol driven spittle of incensed, bicycle-propelled beards.

Odd, however, that it should be Lexus – makers of easily the world's best-selling SUV, the RX – which has stolen such a significant march when it comes to the acceptable face of Chelsea tractordom for the new millennium. After all, compared to the energy-profligate and environmentally-disinterested American, Russian and Chinese markets at which the RX is targeted, sales in the increasingly CO2-conscious UK constitute somewhat small beer.

In the case of the new RX, Lexus' two-pronged attack on the established ordure takes the form of a gently pointless, rose-by-any-other-name change, and a rather more meaningful upgrade to its sophisticated, hybrid drive technology. And that's just as well, since Lexus now deems the UK unworthy of its conventional, petrol engined RX 350, and this RX 450h hybrid will be the only version available to us.

Lexus asks that we call this new SUV a Crossover, which sounds altogether smaller, friendlier and less prone to kick sand in your face on the beach. However, this is a bit rich coming from such an acronym-obsessed company, so, recognising the RX's lack of true MPV-style seating flexibility and in keeping with current trends towards steering your 4x4 well clear of any such ghastly beastliness as mud, I suggest WOE –Wafty Outsized Estate.

Not quite as elegant as its predecessor, the RX is styled rather more for looks and easy passage through the air than practicality. The fastback makes a good deal of the boot inadequate for boxy load-lugging, and injudicious slamming of the tailgate will leave your Labrador with a thumping headache.

Happily, however, the next generation hybrid powertrain proves almost altogether wholesome. The previous RX hybrid was criticised for not realising the fuel economy benefits boasted, so Lexus has thoroughly upgraded the entire shooting match to produce a car that will tackle 0-62mph in 7.8 seconds and thump on to a governed 124mph, whilst still returning nearly 45mpg and hilariously slight CO2 emissions of only 148g/km.

For those unfamiliar with hybrid technology, the RX 450h is a full series/parallel hybrid, capable of operating in both petrol engine and electric motor modes alone, as well as a combination of both.

The main, 295bhp drive unit features a 246bhp 3.5 litre, V6 petrol engine, a 165bhp electric motor, a generator, a high performance battery, a power control unit, and a power split device which employs a planetary gear set to combine and re-allocate power from the engine, electric motor and generator according to operational requirements. A second, rear axle-mounted, 67bhp electric motor, mechanically divorced from the main powerplant, provides four-wheel drive when the electronic system nanny sees fit.

Sadly, you don't simply add all this diversely sourced horsepower together to arrive at a total power output figure, but a quoted 295bhp sounds respectable enough, and certainly does the job.

Lest we forget, this really is a masterpiece of packaging. Give the same problem to a bunch of university engineering PhD students and they'd probably come up with something towing a trailer to house the bewildering quantities of expensive electronic and mechanical gubbins involved. But with all the RX 450h's highest tech' housed in a transmission casing no larger than a conventional automatic gearbox and the raft of system batteries snugged under the rear bench seat, the only way to identify the, er, crossover as a hybrid – bespoke blue badging aside – is to drive it.

Switch on and the instruments wake up, but absolutely nothing else happens. Silence. Press the throttle gently and the Lexus moves off under electric motor power alone, displaying a level of stealth matched only by those electric buggies that roam car-free Zermatt high in the Swiss Alps, flattening unwary après-skiers. At speeds below 25mph, the petrol engine only cuts in if you stomp the throttle with sufficient vigour, or battery charge becomes low enough to require that it runs, merely to power the system generator.

Thus armed, you may potter about the city for a mile or two in hilarious conditions of near silence, the only downside to this being that it makes it all the more easy to hear the appalling racket emanating from the car alongside, whose owner has turned the whole thing into one giant loudspeaker. Interestingly, and speaking as an ex-city dweller, I found this unwarranted noise pollution far more relentlessly galling than the vehicle exhaust emissions the Lexus hybrid so artfully address.

Indeed, before finally fleeing London, I did road-test a cure for this horrendous Drum 'n' Bass malaise: Simply fill empty paint-ball gun ammunition with something properly unpleasant, like cat diarrhoea, and fire as many shots as possible through the inevitably open window of the offending car. If nothing else, the driver should wind his window up pretty smartish, cutting unwanted noise levels in half at a stroke…

But I digress… With the petrol engine and motor working in tandem to boost surprisingly impressive acceleration, and the car cruising at motorway speeds under petrol power alone, the RX 450h drives exactly like a conventional automatic, the only perceptible difference being an entirely seamless continuously variable transmission which sees the engine leap instantly to peak torque revs with a stout prod of the throttle, to accompanying noises off which suggest they're filming an episode of Bonanza under the bonnet.

The powertrain may be flawless, but the RX 450h's ride quality isn't. Criticism of the previous car has stung Lexus into trying to make it handle like a saloon, which it never will. Undercarriage alternatives include conventional springing, with our without adaptive stabiliser bars that only come into play as you turn into a corner, or a pricey, air suspension option. The upshot of the first alternative is a WOE that corners acceptably, but sacrifices too much straight line ride comfort, leaving customers no choice but to pay for the optional air suspension which, happily, does much to rectify the damage done.

Priced from £41,600 to £55,505, the new RX 450h boasts a comfortable, respectably re-styled interior incorporating a standard equipment specification as revoltingly comprehensive as that of any Lexus. A raft of new toys includes an excellent Head-up Display which projects speed, sat' nav' details and other essential information onto the base of the windscreen. And, at the pricier end of the range, a superlative, 15 speaker Mark Levinson stereo which, aside from playing CD's at sufficient volume to outdo our cat pooh-spattered suburban chums, will also allow you to view films in spectacular, home theatre 7.1-channel surround sound.

I can't help but be mildly irritated by cars that are better equipped for entertainment than my own living room. Then again, ownership of the RX 450h would at least give me an entirely satisfactory, popcorn munching place to spend the evening after a tiff with the missus.

My only real criticism of the latest lashings of on-board technology with which Lexus cannot help accompanying every new car to the launch pad is in the replacement of Lexus' outstanding, stab 'n' go touch-screen control system with a gently fiddly, computer mouse-style offering. With the driver's arm resting indolently on the centre armrest, the system does work well enough, but seems to me to neatly negate the benefit of putting the multi-information screen more readily within the driver's line of sight by actually taking his eyes off the road for far longer as he chases the cursor round the screen.

The Japanese engineering penchant for gratuitously replacing fundamentally sound, wholly intuitive technology with something that doesn't necessarily constitute an improvement aside, the new hybrid Lexus still constitutes a great deal of technological bang for your bucks. The hybrid technology itself works exceptionally well, and with surprisingly sprightly performance ganging up with 45mpg, road tax of only £105 per annum and London congestion charge exemption, I might even be tempted to overlook that gently disappointing ride quality.

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine


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