When I look at the 2010 Lexus RX450h — the hybrid version of Lexus' luxury crossover model, now in its third generation since 1998 — I see evidence of the steady migration of a social norm toward more fuel-efficient vehicles. • Honda and Toyota together have sold more than 1.3 million hybrids, and this once-alien technology has been applied to vehicles including hulking SUVs (Chevy Tahoe Hybrid) and nondescript sedans (Ford Fusion Hybrid). What was once subversive is increasingly orthodox. The RX, now arriving in dealerships, will make for an interesting experiment.
The gas-powered RX350 is priced at $37,625 in front-wheel-drive configuration, and $39,925 for all-wheel-drive. Bigger, more powerful and more prepossessing, and besotted with high-tech features and options, the 2010 RX350 is actually priced $900 less than the 2009 model. It gets reasonable fuel economy: 21 miles per gallon for the FWD version, 20 mpg for the AWD.
The hybrid RX450h, arriving in showrooms in a few months, is likely to be priced about $7,000 more. This is the second generation of Lexus hybrid luxo-ute, replacing the RX400h. There are a few value-added niceties, but it's basically the same car with the same performance as the RX350 (0-60 mph in 7.4 seconds), except that the hybrid gets 28 mpg with FWD and 27 mpg in AWD.
The fuel economy itself doesn't justify the higher cost. So given the increasing social acceptance of hybrids, will more people step up to the hybrid, even though it's not in their economic best interest?
Not that the RX450h doesn't have other compensations: When it's gliding silently on electric power in midtown, the world safely shut out by the acoustic-laminated glass, the RX450h is a deliciously tranquil place.
Lexus has poured a lot of design and technology into the cabin, and both come together in the car's unique asymmetric console. This is part of what Lexus calls its L-Finesse design language — stronger visual gestures with more organic detailing.
The RX also debuts Lexus' Remote Touch, a multifunction controller, kind of like a computer mouse that is hand-stitched by Prada. Situated in a small, leather-bound lump in the central console, the Remote Touch directs a point-and-click arrow through the LCD's various display menus, such as navigation and audio functions.
The RX450h is well equipped in standard trim, including loads of leather, wood and chrome; LED brake and taillights; six-disc CD changer with satellite radio and iPod connectivity; Bluetooth, and safety features like active headrests, and braking and stability assists.
Among its signature options, the RX offers adaptive front lighting (high beams dim when they sense oncoming traffic), side-view monitor, electrochromic (self-dimming) outside mirrors, voice-recognition navigation.
The vehicle's Eco mode maximizes fuel economy by increasing regenerative braking, dulling throttle response and generally dialing out any kind of liveliness. In Eco mode it's possible to get in excess of 30 mpg.
Complaints? The big hybrid's continuously variable transmission moans a bit at highway speeds, and if you're climbing a significant grade the moan becomes a lament.
To slow down, the car ordinarily uses regenerative braking, not hydraulics. Electric brakes, in other words. But if you hit the brake pedal harder than usual, the full force of the hydraulics come online and everything in the car winds up on the windshield.
As for handling, even with the Sport suspension package, the RX450h rolls like a tugboat off Cape Hatteras.
Is the RX450h the right thing to do?
Well, you could always get a Toyota Prius and get 50 mpg, so it's more accurate to say the big hybrid ute is less wrong than right. Search your conscience and your wallet.