Lexus Aims to Fend Off Crossover Competition With New RX Model

A luxury hybrid is less about saving gas money than it is a lifestyle statement — helping the owner do his or her part for the environment, oil independence or whatever the reason.

But luxury refinement is expected, and the new RX crossover fulfills that criterion in typical, obsessive Lexus style.

Is it too much of a good thing?

Lexus couldn’t have known when it launched its RX crossover in 1998 that it established the benchmark remedy for the bouncy sport utility vehicle, boasting a carlike ride and comfort features. All automakers came to study, ponder and mimick.
And for years, the RX was one step ahead.

Now its reign is being challenged by many able-bodied competitors, including the Audi Q7, BMW X5, Buick Enclave and Lincoln MKX.

In their third generation, the 2010 RX 350 and 450h hybrid are familiar but all-new. The footprint is a little bigger — 1.6 inches wider and longer and a tad taller with a 1-inch-longer wheelbase — but the curb weight is up by more than 400 pounds on the base RX 350. It feels heftier to drive, and its turning circle is 3 feet wider — now 40 feet — which does not help maneuverability.

It’s not the zippy crossover it used to be.
But with the weight came more horsepower, improved fuel economy and more features for less money.

The 2010 RX 350 front-wheel-drive model has a starting price of $37,625, which is $700 less than the ’09 model. The all-wheel-drive RX 350 starts at $39,025, and pricing includes the $825 freight charge.

The 2010 RX 450h has more than $2,000 in additional standard equipment over the ’08 model (there was no 2009 model), but the base price went down by $230 for all-wheel drive and $420 for front-drive.

The front-wheel-drive RX 450h starts at $42,535; the all-wheel-drive model starts at $44,125. Pricing includes the $875 freight charge, which is $50 more than last year.
The V-6-powered RX 350 is just rolling into dealerships. The hybrid model goes on sale in midsummer.

The RX 350 uses a 275-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 and six-speed automatic transmission, which replaces a five-speed. On hard acceleration, the transmission will shift from sixth to third or fifth to second, skipping gears to get the quickest response. Ninety percent or more of its 256 foot-pounds of torque is available from 2,300 to 6,100 rpm, where it is best felt and applied around town.

Fuel-economy ratings improved by 1 mpg for the all-wheel-drive model, to 18 mpg city and 20 highway, on 91 octane. The front-drive model went up by 1 mpg in the highway rating and stayed the same in city, 18/21.

The all-wheel-drive system introduces Active Torque Control, which quickly puts power to the wheels as needed. At steady speeds, torque is sent only to the front wheels, improving fuel economy.

But the new RX drives larger and heavier. It’s still an accommodating vehicle, although the fast styling compromises back-seat access — occupants will bang their heads getting into the back seat until they learn to duck. That is offset by the flat second-row floor, which makes this a very comfortable cruiser

A new mouse-style controller to access cabin functions, audio, phone, navigation and more fits comfortably to the driver’s hand on the center console, but I was slow to adapt to its use and became frustrated at times. It also takes up space on the console that could be used for better cup holders.

I spent time in both models of RX, but more time in the hybrid. It is a full hybrid that will operate on battery power alone and a combination of battery power and gasoline engine. Regenerative braking captures energy and sends it to recharge the batteries.

The nickel-metal-hydride battery pack fits under the rear seat and is more compact and lighter than in the previous model. I noticed no compromise in seat comfort or cargo area, which is flat and almost level when the seat backs are folded.

The updated 3.5-liter V-6, Atkinson-cycle engine is integrated with lighter electric motors, a smaller and lighter power-control unit and other fuel-saving innovations. With engine and electric power, total horsepower is 295, which is 27 more than the current-generation RX 400h.

Fuel economy ratings are 32 mpg city and 28 mpg highway. I was getting 27.1 to 27.8 in combined — and vigorous — city/highway driving.
Lexus claims V-8-like performance with mileage of a four-cylinder sedan, but I found the power to be more V-6-like. Acceleration was dutiful, but merging with interstate traffic required forceful acceleration, followed by the remorse of using more fuel and generating more emissions.

The multimode, continuously variable transmission didn’t enhance the driving experience. It has sophisticated calibrations to hold the optimal “gearing” range on long downhills or ascents, and the driver can make a manual downshift for engine braking. But somehow, the artificial intelligence is a step behind when a driver needs immediate results.

Five years ago or longer, when the new RX was being planned, North America was a competitive, grow-grow marketplace. Vehicles were getting bigger and more accommodating, but consumers now have pulled back to do more with less.

Despite Lexus’ pedigree as the trendsetter in luxury crossovers, I’m not convinced a bigger RX is what the market wants.

2009 LEXUS RX 450H

Body style: midsize, five-passenger crossover in front-or all-wheel drive
Powertrain: parallel hybrid system with gas engine, electric motors and nickel-metal-hydride battery pack
Engine: aluminum, 245-horsepower, 3.5-liter Atkinson-cycle V-6, with 234 foot-pounds of torque at 4,800 rpm
Combined gas-electric power: 295 hp
Transmission: electronically controlled, continuously variable automatic
EPA fuel economy estimates: 32 mpg city, 28 highway; 30/28 AWD; 91 octane recommended
Fuel capacity: 17.2 gallons

Cargo space: 40 cubic feet behind second row; 80.3 with seats folded
Front head/leg/shoulder room: 39.1/43.1/58 inches
Rear head/leg/shoulder room: 37.7/37/57.6 inches
Length/wheelbase: 187.8/107.9 inches
Curb weight: 4,520 pounds; 4,652 AWD

Standard equipment includes: SmartAccess keyless-entry system and push-button starting; 10-way power-adjusted front seats; reclining/sliding fold-down 40/20/40 rear seats; automatic dual-zone climate control; nine-speaker audio system with in-dash, six-disc CD changer and USB port for digital music; power tilt-and-telescopic steering column; electronically controlled disc brakes; hill-start assist (uses brake pressure to prevent rolling back when starting on an incline); 18-inch aluminum-alloy wheels; LED brake and tail lights; rear-windshield wiper integrated with roof-edge spoiler; water-repellent front door glass; LED turn signals in side mirrors; carpeted floor mats
Safety features include: 10 air bags (including front knee bags and rear side bags); anti-lock brakes with brake assist; vehicle stability control and traction control

Base: $42,535, including $875 freight charge; price as tested $47,375
Options on test vehicle: Premium Package, $2,400, includes one-touch open-close, tilt and slide moon roof; power tailgate; rear armrest storage; leather-trimmed seats; memory settings for seat, steering and mirrors; iPod head unit control/USB; electrochromic (autodimming) outside mirrors. Navigation Package ($2,440) includes navigation system with voice command; rearview camera; XM Traffic; navigation Bluetooth (with phone book download); 12-speaker audio system; auto recirculation; remote-touch navigation controller
Warranty: 48 months/50,000 miles basic limited coverage with roadside assistance for 48 months/unlimited miles; 72 months/70,000 miles powertrain and restraint system. Hybrid-related components — including the battery, battery control module, hybrid control module and inverter with converter — are covered for eight years/100,000 miles
Competition: Acura MDX, Audi Q7, BMW X5, Buick Enclave, Hyundai Veracruz, Infiniti FX, Lincoln MKX, Volvo XC90
Where assembled: Japan

The 3.5-liter V-6 in the RX 450h uses what is called the Atkinson cycle. This design of a gasoline engine closes the intake valves late to delay the beginning of compression, which results in a higher expansion ratio.
That reduces intake and exhaust energy losses for more efficient combustion and improved fuel economy. Exhaust temperature is reduced, too. Ford also uses the Atkinson cycle in its hybrid vehicles.
(set image) May060909-visual.jpg (end image) (set caption) The 2010 RX 450h hybrid has that familiar Lexus style. Photo courtesy of Lexus. (end caption)