In the 2013 Lexus RX 450h, luxury meets conscience

Lexus deserves credit. Among luxury automakers, the company was the first to make use of gasoline-electric hybrid technology, defining a new class of buyers who were keen to demonstrate their Earth-consciousness but unwilling to forego creature comforts.

The trend started in 2005, with the introduction of a hybrid version of the company’s RX crossover, the RX 400h. Eight years on, the formula has endured, but a steady course of revisions has kept the hybrid RX top of mind, and of segment.

For 2013, Lexus is letting a bit more emotion, and a touch more sport, filter into its best-selling line. There is even a new F Sport package for the RX 350, with a stiffer suspension and 19-inch wheels. But Lexus knows its buyer. The focus here remains on luxury, smoothness and isolation from the outside world. At the wheel, it is still mostly whispers and whipped cream, which is very much the way RX loyalists like it.

The RX 450h uses the same 3.5-litre V6 engine as the non-hybrid RX 350, but sees the addition of the Lexus Hybrid Drive system. One motor assists the gasoline engine in driving the front wheels through a continuously variable transmission. A second motor in the transmission serves as a starter for the V6 and handles regenerative braking during deceleration. And, when all-wheel-drive is specified (a $1,400 option), a third motor kicks in to drive the rear wheels during full-throttle sprints or when the stability control system detects a slippery surface.

With front-wheel drive, the RX 450h is rated at an admirable 32mpg in the city and 28mpg on the interstate, compared with 18mpg city and 25mpg highway for the RX 350, and this with 25 horsepower above the RS 350, boosting total output to 295. The additional power is offset by the weight of the batteries and other hybrid hardware – 342 pounds – which partially explains why the more powerful RX 450h is a tenth of a second slower to 60mph than the RX 350.

For 2013, all RX models wear the signature Lexus spindle grille flanked by revised headlamps featuring LED daytime running lights, as well as updated tail lamps and an expanded palette of exterior colours. The list of standard equipment is long, but highlights include 18-inch aluminium alloy wheels, a nine-speaker premium audio system, dual-zone climate control, a full complement of airbags, power everything and genuine wood trim. Rest assured, there are plenty of extra-cost features — a whopping $16,000 worth of them on the tested vehicle, leaving a bottom line that fell just shy of $65,000.

The steering wheel now features a ‘mode’ button. Press it to engage the Sport mode, which heightens the response of the continuously variable transmission, lessens interference from the stability and traction control systems and (slightly) increases the level of steering effort. Oh, and the background lighting on the gauge cluster switches from blue to red. Frankly, that detail may be more noticeable than any noticeable change in performance.

Staying the course, sometimes, is the best course.

Vital Stats2013 Lexus RX 450h

  • Base price: $48,205, inclusive of $895 destination charge
  • As tested: $64,280
  • EPA fuel economy: 32mpg city, 28mpg highway
  • Drivetrain: 3.5-litre V6 engine with electric motor assist (295hp system total); continuously variable transmission
  • Major options: Comfort package ($825); head-up display ($1200); Luxury package ($6135); GPS navigation, Lexus Enform, rear-seat entertainment system ($4920); Mark Levinson audio system ($995); parking assist ($500); Pre-Collision system with adaptive cruise control ($1500)