By Andy Enright
At first, it was easy to scoff at hybrid Lexus sports utility vehicles. They only plumbed that technology in there because they didn't have a decent diesel engine to put into them, we chuckled. While there was an element of truth in that, none of us cynics realised quite how committed Lexus was to the cause. The early RX 400h set the template but the RX 450h was a massively improved proposition. Would it be a better car if it had a diesel engine under the bonnet? I'm not certain it would Here's what to look for when shopping for a used version of this very successful SUV.
While other manufacturers and industry pundits debated the pros and cons of hybrid vehicles, Lexus got on with building and selling them. It has now reached the stage where hybrid technology is inextricably associated with the Lexus brand and the company is well down the road of developing and refining its petrol/electric drive system while rivals nervously pace the water's edge wondering whether to take the plunge. We've now seen BMW, Audi, Mercedes and Porsche take tentative steps, so perhaps Lexus has every right to feel a little smug.
It is, after all, two and a half generations of car along that particular road. The RX 400h, which first arrived back in 2005, was the precursor and sold well to buyers who didn't want a diesel but valued decent economy and, at the time, free entry into London's congestion charge zone. By 2009, that loophole had closed but the RX 400h's successor, the RX 450h we look at here, had a number of other attractions. It was a good deal more powerful, more economical and better equipped. The range was bolstered in 2011 with the addition of a mildly rugged-ised SE-I Lifestyle edition that targeted winter sports and country types. In summer 2012, the RX 450h received an extensive update, with the revised Lexus spindle grille grafted onto the front end, uprated trim levels and the addition of a ritzy F Sport flagship.
What You Get
There are obvious echoes of the old RX 400h in the styling of the RX 450h. The look was kept fairly conservative and evolutionary in the best Lexus traditions but there are engaging details such as the heavy shoulder line and the way the headlights integrate with a front grille that features a blue-tinted Lexus badge at its centre. A turning radius of 5.7m hints at decent manoeuvrability and inside, there's a 495-litre boot adding to the practicality of the car. The seats split 40:20:40 and can slide backwards and forwards to increase the luggage space behind. There are also levers in the boot which fold the rear seats down at a single touch for greater convenience when loading. There's a huge array of technological features on the RX450h - even without taking the car's powertrain into account. The car was the first Lexus to get the Remote Touch control system which operates the audio, navigation, climate, phone and vehicle set-up systems through an eight inch colour display screen and a control knob located on the centre console. There's also an optional heads-up display that projects crucial driving information onto the lower part of the windscreen (so there's no need for drivers to look away from the road) and a park assist system which uses cameras to give an unrestricted view of what's behind the car on the display screen.
The 2012 revision was led by the spindle-shaped grille that is rapidly becoming a signature Lexus design cue. Moving round to the rear, you'll spot a set of neatly redesigned tail lights too. There are also a number of detail improvements throughout the cabin. There's a revised steering wheel, incorporating a new selector switch for the hybrid system's drive modes, and the operation of the Remote Touch controller was also revised so that it worked more like a computer mouse. The Lexus attention to detail even extends to increasing the opening angle of the centre console box lid to make it easier to reach items inside. It's still not the biggest SUV in the cabin, but the 496-litres of boot space with the seats in place is respectable.
What to Look For
Lexus has an excellent record for reliability, so when I mention that the RX 450h is its least reliable model, don't get too alarmed. When compared to other SUVs, it's still got a great reliability score. It's just that this class of car tends to be used harder than any other. Look for signs of overenthusiastic off-roading and check all non-engine electricals, such as the touch screen and sunroof/windows. You should have no issues with the hybrid power unit, as these seem to be bulletproof, with some owners having put over half a million miles on them with no adverse effects. As a consequence of this, don't be put off by high miles on a used RX450h. People bought them from new to keep a cap on fuel bills on big journeys, so a very low mileage car should attract caution, as it might well have had a harder life as a city car.
(approx prices based on a 2010 RX 450h SE-I - ex Vat) Lexus parts aren't particularly cheap and should you take the 4x4 title a little too literally and ground your RX 450h out off road you could be looking at £1,000 for a new exhaust minus the cost of the catalytic converter. Brake pads are £70 for fronts and £60 for rears while tyres are around £160 per corner.
On the Road
In case you're still unfamiliar with hybrid technology, it's essentially a method of powering a car using a combination of an internal combustion engine and an electric motor. Diesel hybrids are now available from other brands, but the RX450h and the other Lexus hybrid models all have petrol engines supplemented by battery driven motors. The petrol unit in question here is a 246bhp 3.5-litre V6 with a number of innovative features designed to enhance its efficiency. It's supplemented by a pair of electric motors, one for each axle, which give the four-wheel-drive Lexus a maximum potential output of 295bhp. Though in theory, that's a 10% increase in power over the old RX400h, the 0-60mph sprint time (of 7.8s) and the 124mph top speed are pretty much unchanged. Still, while this doesn't place the car in the league of the quickest V8 luxury 4x4s, it remains pretty rapid for a car of the RX450h's size and weight.
The RX450h required a luxurious ride and a responsive chassis if it was to compete with the leading luxury 4x4 contenders, some of which are remarkably agile on the road given their bulk. To this end, Lexus engineered a clever and much improved suspension set-up comprised of MacPherson struts at the front and a double wishbone arrangement at the rear while giving the car a wide track for extra stability and a highly rigid body shell. Only the top specification models got electronically controlled air-suspension but all RX450h models feature VDIM Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management that controls and distributes power from the complex drive system.
The Lexus RX 450h is an easy car to recommend to a used buyer, even with big mileage on the clock. It's worth pausing to figure out whether it's the right vehicle for you, as it's not great off road and it won't seat seven. It works if you've got a family and want a decently sized and very refined vehicle that doesn't cost the earth to run. As Lexus has discovered, that's a broad church.