Lexus RX plug-in hybrid proves a smooth operator

Japanese premium brand builds on well-earned reputation for reliability and refinement with latest generation RX

Lexus RX450+ PHEV

You’d never know it from the big front grille, but there is something inherently subtle about the Lexus RX. The premium Japanese car brand occasionally makes a bold, brash statement — like the LFA sports car — but in the main, it’s parked at the conservative end of the forecourt.

Lexus has encroached into the space once occupied by the Swedes: a premium player that’s an alternative to the typical German fare. It’s the sensible choice.

There was a time when you would have to justify the premium purchase of anything other than a German brand. These days Lexus just warrants a knowing nod. That’s largely down to a well-earned reputation for reliability and comfort features.

At the international launch event for this car, I got to drive an original 1998 version of the car. Sure, it looked rather dinky next to the new car, but it drove incredibly well for its age. The suppleness of its suspension and refinement exemplified how well Lexus put its cars together when it first landed on our market. The tales of blood, sweat and tears that went into engineering the first models are well told, and the reputation the brand has earned over the years is testament to their efforts.

Lexus RX450+ PHEV

Now in its fifth iteration, the RX SUV crossover is following on from the smaller NX in embracing the popularity of plug-in hybrid. Given Toyota’s self-promotion as a pioneer of regular petrol hybrid technology, you would have thought it — and its premium offshoot Lexus — would have been in the vanguard of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV). Yet it has been reluctantly dragged to the party by a market looking to hook up with a plug socket.

You get the sense from talking to its engineers that the logical Japanese think PHEV is a fad, a distraction between regular hybrid and full electric. Yet it’s such a big one that they can’t ignore it.

So the latest sleek RX450+ SUV comes with a plug socket, an 18.1kWh lithium-ion battery pack powering two electric motors and a 2.5-litre petrol engine. The result is a sizeable five-seater SUV that can deliver an electric-only range of 65km, is capable of all-wheel driving with a 0-100km/h time of 6.5 seconds and claims a fuel economy of 1.2 l/100km (235mpg).

Yet what makes the RX stand out from rivals — many of which claim high EV ranges — is that when the plug-in power dissipates, the Lexus reverts to its long-established hybrid capabilities. With most other rivals, once the battery runs out you are entirely dependent on the petrol engine, only it now has to haul an extra 100kg or more of empty battery along for the ride.

It’s in this trait that the RX stands out, and arguably benefits from the firm’s decades of hybrid experience.

Lexus RX450+ PHEV

Lexus has opted to keep the RX as a five-seater, which may limit its appeal to some family buyers. Yet for those who can live with this format, you get plenty of legroom. There’s certainly room in the back for two 6ft passengers, while boot space is now 612 litres, enough to cater for four full-size golf bags and more than capable of matching its rivals.

Up front the dash is dominated by the new touchscreen system first introduced on the smaller NX. Here you get a 14-inch touchscreen that’s intuitive, responsive and smartly laid out. A heads-up driver display is offered on the higher grade version, though it’s not quite as informative or detailed as similar systems offered by BMW, for example.

Lexus RX450+ PHEV

An abbreviation that’s become a mantra among Lexus engineers and press briefings is NVH. Standing for noise, vibration and harshness, it’s the troublesome threesome that’s the bane of every premium car brand experience.

Crack the NVH code and you are on to a winner. Lexus has made it something of a crusade, something that’s all the more merited given the tendency of hybrids to high-rev when you kick down the throttle.

Hybrid engine whine has long been the biggest issue I’ve had with this powertrain format, but Lexus has done the decent job at keeping it cocooned in the engine bay and out of the cabin, partly down to a mix of using larger engines and some clever acoustic engineering.

Certainly the RX benefits from having a decent 2.5-litre petrol engine to move things along when the battery runs out, while all those years of acoustic work will only stand to the firm when the silent age of EV motoring really takes hold.

The new RX isn’t as engaging to drive as the equivalent PHEVs in form of BMW’s X5 or the Range Rover Sport P440e, nor arguably as adept at wafting over the potholes as the Range Rover. It has much improved steering though, certainly more responsive than the last version, while there’s also a lot less body roll in the bends.

It has minor pretentions of sportiness, but in truth that’s never what this car is about. Neither is it a rugged off-roader, despite design attempts to give it some menace, courtesy of that massive front grille.

Overall, this Lexus RX is a smooth operator with plenty of premium appeal. And while prices start at an eyewatering €87,330, you get a lot of quality tech and safety features as standard, while a quick comparison with rivals suggests that steep five figure sum is actually quite competitive.

Lexus has built on a solid reputation with yet more refinement and the end result deservedly broadens the brand’s appeal to well-heeled Irish customers.

Lowdown: Lexus RX 450h+

Power: 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine along with two electric motors supported by an 18.1kWh lithium-ion battery pack delivering four-wheel drive and a combined output of 309hp.

0-100km/h: 6.5 secs.

Emissions (motor tax): 26g/km (€140).

l/100km: 1.2 (WLTP).

EV-only range: 65km (WLTP).

Price: From €87,330.

Our rating: 4/5.

Verdict: A smooth operator that epitomises the brand’s efforts at refinement with the added bonus of plug-in power.

Michael McAleer

Michael McAleer

Michael McAleer is Motoring Editor, Innovation Editor and an Assistant Business Editor at The Irish Times