The driving experience of your modern SUV owes a great deal to the Lexus RX. When it took home our inaugural SUV of the Year in 1999, we praised the RX for not compromising on ride quality, fuel economy, and handling the way most other SUVs did for the benefit of occasional off-roading. The success of the RX is part of the reason your crossover doesn’t drive like a shrunken pickup.
It’s been a sales leader for Lexus for the last two decades, and we can definitively say the 2020 RX 450h is the best of this bunch. Not the gas V-6 model, not the three-row RX L, definitely not the flashy and expensive F Sport or F Sport Performance variants; the hybrid. That’s not to say it’s a car without flaws—it most certainly is not—but rather that it’s a midsize luxury SUV worth your attention. Let’s dive in, shall we?
RX 450h Engine and Fuel Economy
For the RX 450h, Lexus takes the 3.5-liter V-6 from the RX 350 and augments it with three electric motors: a starter-generator that also controls transmission ratios; a 165-hp front drive motor; and a 67-hp rear drive motor. Peak system output sums to 308 hp and 247 lb-ft of torque. That gives the hybrid more power but less twist than the standard RX. When we drove both cars back to back in Costa Rica last year, the hybrid was noticeably more energetic.
The hybrid also swaps the RX 350’s eight-speed automatic for an e-CVT that chooses the optimal transmission ratio of gas and electric power input for the amount of propulsion requested by your right foot. All hybridized RX models feature standard AWD. As you would expect, all the electric motors and variable ratios result in a significant fuel economy advantage.
The RX 450h is EPA-rated for 31/28 mpg city/highway. Those numbers are up from 19/26 mpg in an AWD RX 350, and they exceed the slightly more powerful Acura MDX Sport Hybrid’s 26/27 mpg by some margin.
Even with the extra equipment and consequent fuel economy advantage, the hybrid model commands just a $1,250 premium over a comparable RX 350. That’s a 2.6 percent price jump in exchange for a 36 percent gain in efficiency. For a little context, Acura charges an extra $1,500 to upgrade to MDX Sport Hybrid from a comparable gas MDX, but it requires that you spec the $5,000 Technology package and only offers 23 percent fuel economy gains. Although the hybrid Acura and Lexus are similarly priced when similarly equipped, the Lexus has a lower starting point by over $5,000.
This fourth-generation RX was introduced for the 2016 model year, and it receives a mid-cycle update for 2020 with significant changes to the infotainment system. Both the standard 8.0-inch and optional 12.3-inch infotainment displays gain touchscreen functionality, and all RXs now include Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and Amazon Alexa integration.
The laptop-like touchpad we’ve aimed not-so-nice words at in the past is still a flawed interface. I was always able to eventually highlight the intended section of the screen, but the touchpad is imprecise; identical inputs didn’t always generate the same output. Haptic feedback that vibrates through the touchpad with each new selection improves the situation slightly, but I’d still prefer a rotary dial.
Our complaints would be mitigated if the new touchscreen was a pleasure to use. It is not. I have no complaints about its response times or fingerprint accumulation or touch detection.
Problem is, the cabin ergonomics just weren’t designed for a touchscreen, and as a result, it’s just out of comfortable reach from the driver’s seat, even with this 6-foot-1-inch editor’s lanky arms.
I do, however, have great appreciation for the buttons and knobs in the center stack. There’s nothing exceptional about the hardware itself—other than the lusciously weighted volume knob that might be my favorite aspect of the vehicle—but rather, their presence in the first place.
Even the least technologically literate driver or passenger will have no problem adjusting the temperature, changing the radio station, or activating their (optional) heated and cooled seats. That’s not something that can necessarily be said for screen-heavy interior design from automakers like Mercedes-Benz, Audi, and especially Tesla. I’ll also take this opportunity to express my fondness for the handsome analog clock.
Apple CarPlay and Android Auto functionality are a sizable step forward from a user interface standpoint. There’s nothing heinous about the Lexus systems for media or maps, other than looking about a decade old. With music and navigation running through a familiar app on your phone, the system is effectively future-proofed.
But what about actually piloting the RX 450h along its navigation software’s low-res pixelated roads?
Driving the RX 450h
This is a car that’s shockingly easy to accelerate smoothly. It feels as if the first third of the throttle pedal’s travel only opens the throttle about 10 percent. I found it nearly impossible to pull away from a stop without a level of grace.
That ethos carries over to the rest of the RX’s inputs. The brakes have an initial softness that makes them exceptionally easy to modulate. The responsive CVT consistently delivers the right ratio for the engine to deliver the level of power needed. The steering is slow and light, and there’s not much feedback, but the RX is effortlessly placeable. After 10 minutes behind the wheel of the RX, you’ll be driving like a Rolls-Royce chauffeur school alumnus.
I had been firmly in camp “CVT bad, real transmission always better,” but this RX has me reconsidering my loyalties. Sure, it has the engine moaning at constant rpm like an overstressed generator when you’re accelerating, but most of the time it keeps the engine humming quietly along around 1,000 rpm, ready for you when you need it. When you do need it, the engine and electric motors provide ample power for accelerating from a short on-ramp or passing cars on the highway. It’s a superior unit to the RX 350’s reluctant eight-speed auto.
There were plenty of instances in my time with the RX that I was able to forget this car even has an engine. It begs the question, why bother with the V-6? The RX seems like a natural candidate for the Toyota RAV4 Prime’s 302-hp plug-in hybrid drivetrain. If the current engine isn’t adding to the experience, why not replace it with a more efficient plug-in hybrid four with similar power and usable electric range?
The suspension delivers a comfortable and yes, smooth, ride. It’s one of the better cars I’ve experienced on I-405’s broken road surface in that regard. There’s little body roll and decent control over body movements, but the RX without question prioritizes the softer, more comfort-oriented side of the ride-handling balance. The tires will audibly protest lateral forces earlier than some, but only when I was driving more aggressively than I expect most owners to drive a car like this.
Let’s see, what did I forget? There’s plenty of room in the back seat for me to sit behind my own seating position. Room for three, too, thanks to the lack of a drive-shaft tunnel that would create a sizable hump where the center passenger’s feet would live. The optional head-up display is not sufficiently bright to contend with southern California sun. There are six USB charging ports. If you close the door with the window down, you’ll hear a hollow thwonk that I’d criticize for sounding too cheap on a $20,000 car.
But more than anything, the driving experience of the RX, and specifically the RX 450h, is the polar opposite of truck-like. After more than 20 years and countless competitors, it still delivers a comfort-first drive matched only by certain luxury sedans and air-suspended SUVs that eclipse its relatively modest price point.
It’s the best value in its segment, posts the best fuel economy numbers of the group, and has been a pleasure to live with. Shortly stated, it’s the best RX yet.
|SPECIFICATIONS||2020 Lexus RX 450h|
|LAYOUT||Front-engine, AWD, 5-pass, 4-door SUV|
|ENGINE||3.5L/259-hp/247-lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6 plus 165-hp front & 67-hp rear electric motors; 308 hp comb|
|TRANSMISSION||Cont variable auto|
|CURB WEIGHT||4,800 lb (MT est)|
|L x W x H||192.5 x 74.6 x 67.7 in|
|0-60 MPH||7.0 sec (MT est)|
|EPA FUEL ECON||31/28/30 mpg|
|ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY||109/120 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.66 lb/mile|