Good: build quality, refinement levels.
Not so good: infotainment system, lacks expected fuel efficiency.
The Lexus RX 450h looks like no other SUV on the road today. Depending on your standpoint and taste this is either massively positive or hugely negative. There doesn't seem to be any middle ground. Compared with the smaller Lexus NX, this all-new RX is a touch more shapely, but its design has evolved significantly from its more rounded predecessor. It has grown in both length and wheelbase and sits with much more purpose now. If impressive looks are your thing go for the F Sport specification as this benefits from the mesh-like front grille and larger 20-inch alloy wheels that nicely fill those arches.
Underneath that part-origami, part-spaceship exterior lies a roomy five-seat SUV that uses a hybrid powertrain consisting of a 3.5-litre petrol V6 engine and electric motor that is powered via a Ni-Mh battery pack. Some will say that this isn't as advanced as such plug-in hybrid systems offered by the likes of the Audi Q7 e-tron, BMW X5 xDrive40e or Volvo XC90 T8, but Lexus is keen to stress that, although it may be using older technology, it is better proven and more reliable. What that means in reality is that in the Lexus you can't drive anywhere near the same distance using only electric power as those plugin models, and nor will you get the same motor tax savings, with 127g/km of CO2 being emitted you will incur an annual tax bill of €270 for its Band B1 status. You also won't get the phenomenal official fuel economy figures of those others, which often stretch well into three-figure mpg, but the Lexus's 51.4mpg is, as it turns out, more on a par with what you will actually get from any of those other plug-in hybrid SUVs in the real world.
The pairing of the Lexus hybrid powertrain and 3.5-litre petrol V6 delivers a buttery smooth drive when simply cruising around at urban speeds. Its continuously variable transmission (CVT) setup, usually the favourite kicking bag of the automotive journalist, actually works quite well in this case. Providing you aren't trying to drive everywhere flat out the overall experience is of comfort and near serenity when moving under just electric power.
When you're ensconced inside, the outside world seems to almost disappear. Sound insulation is of a high standard and inside there isn't even the slightest hint of a squeak or rattle. Every button feels of high quality, the volume knob for the stereo, for example, has the feel and resistance in operation seen on seriously high-end sound systems. My personal favourite is the electric window operation that slows as it closes, giving the kind of pleasure inside those few who appreciate it will understand. The downside is the car's infotainment system. Yes, the centrally-mounted 12.3-inch colour screen looks superb, but flick over to the satnav for example and it looks horribly dated and not befitting of what you would expect from a car like this. Lexus has also stuck with its mouse-like controller that is fiddly to use especially when on the go, requiring far more attention than the more intuitive BMW iDrive rotary controller for example.
Put your foot down and that V6 engine will scream, and continue to scream in a disproportionate way to the speed at which the speedometer needle moves around the dial. Yes the CVT is better than before, but it still can't rival the slick seven- or eight-speed automatic gearboxes offered by some of its rivals. In fact, the chassis overall still feels tuned more for comfort than dynamic driving and can feel wobbly and ponderous through a series of higher speed bends. In the trade-off between handling and comfort Lexus has definitely erred on the side of the latter.
On paper it is easy to rule out the Lexus based on the official efficiency figures of the plug-in hybrid SUVs, but as I said, these are rarely achievable numbers in the real world. The more important numbers are price-related and this is where the Lexus loses some appeal. Yes it is exceptionally well put together inside, but it lacks the space offered by some of its rivals and remains just a five seater whereas you can get seven in the XC90 T8 hybrid. But if it is comfort and refinement that you're seeking and want something that stands out from the crowd the Lexus RX 450 h won't leave you disappointed.