Pioneer it might be, but the five-seat RX has just nine per cent of that market. It doesn’t take the combined genius of Sherlock Holmes, Inspector Morse and the Famous Five to figure out that what they need is a seven seater. We saw their first attempt at last year’s Los Angeles show and it’s now on sale, set to do battle with the big Swede, but also Porsche’s Cayenne, the Range Rover Sport and Velar, BMW’s X5, Audi’s Q7 and Mercedes-Benz’s GLE.
First the good stuff. With a rear bodywork increase of 110mm, Lexus has managed to get two extra seats in there, with crash protection, one-touch folding and their own air-conditioning controls, all the while adding precisely 125kg –that’s engineering and then some.
Not so good is that this car weighs in at a whisker under 2.3 tonnes. And that’s partly because it’s carrying a couple of power units, in the form of a hybrid petrol/electric driveline. The prime mover is a 255bhp/247lb ft, 3.5-litre, V6, short-stroke, naturally-aspirated petrol engine with 24 valves, port and direct fuel injection and variably timed double overhead camshafts. There’s an epicyclic transmission for the three-motor hybrid system, which has separate motors for front and rear wheels. It’s a derivative of the famous Prius hybrid driveline, given a bit more bite and drive to both ends of the car.
To store the energy of overrun braking, there’s a nickel-metal-hydride battery, which some might say is yesterday’s battery chemistry, but Toyota maintains is robust, environmentally-friendly to recycle, and suits its combined 303bhp hybrid system better than anything else. Top speed is 112mph, 0-62mph in 8 seconds and Combined fuel consumption on the 20-inch tyres is 47.1mpg, with CO2 emissions of 138g/km – at modest speeds on Swiss roads we achieved 34.5mpg.
Let’s face it, the RX in five-seat form isn’t the best looking thing on the road and an extra two seats hasn’t done a lot to improve that. The angular bodywork has its moments, but a five metres in length there’s a lot of it and from some angles it looks like an abandoned spaceship. Our test car came with 20-inch wheels which still don’t fill the ample wheelarches and the 18-inch wheels on the base SE version will look Lilliputian.
The brochure spec on the seats is promising – leather upholstery, one-touch folding, 40/20/40 folding on the second row and a third row of seats. Most of this is born out in practice, too. The seats are spacious and comfortable and the driver’s moves every which way (as does the steering) to get a comfy position. In the second row there’s copious head and leg room with passenger USB ports, although it’s far too easy to turn on the centre console mounted rear-seat heater buttons with your elbows.
In the very back, the twin seats are big enough for a couple of children and access is reasonable, but don’t try and get a full-sized adult in there as leg and head room is so tight, you’ll never get them out. What’s more you have to move the second row forward to get any sort of leg room at all, which compromises most of the car’s passengers comfort. Oh, and putting those rearmost air-con controls on one side of the vehicle is a fight between your children just waiting to happen.
The boot is high off the ground, but well thought out and at 495 litres with the third row of seats up, just big enough (space extends to 966 litres if you fold the second row of seats). Cleverly Lexus has allowed the tonneau bar to be stored under the floor when not in use, but it cannot be used when the third row of seats are in place, so all your stuff is in plain view.
Up front the dashboard is a mix of old (analogue instruments) and new (joystick controlled centre screen), which works well enough, but is fiddly and looks very North American. Fit and finish is exemplary, but if you’ve experienced the twin touch screens of a vehicle like the Range Rover Velar, you’d not want to go back. Or would you?
In the battle for the hearts and minds of politicians, Toyota’s self-contained hybrid system appears to have lost out a bit to the plug-in behemoths and self-appointed recharging czars. That’s a shame as the Lexus system is one of the smoothest and best of these systems. True, it hasn’t got a massive electric-only range, but it pulls away in EV mode and stays that way for a decent interval before the petrol engine starts.
Drive it like you stole it and the engine gets a bit vocal as the continuously variable transmission always pushes the revs up to peak torque values at around 4,500rpm. It’s reasonably rapid though, something the bare figures don’t indicate, but the extra torque of the twin electric drive motors adds a noticeable push. One of the cars we drove had a graunching from the driveline on pulling away from the standstill, though that appeared to be an isolated example.
The ride on 20-inch tyres isn’t bad, but it’s worth recalling that this was on immaculately manicured Swiss roads. There’s some pitching over crests and cork screw motion on cambered roads. The chassis has a lot of roll resistance, which manifests itself as a tendency to shake passengers’ heads from side to side over less-than perfect surfaces.
Dynamically the RX450 hL isn’t as good as the German opposition. The steering is accurate but lacks feedback and has an unpleasant over-centre feeling in the more dynamic suspension modes – as so often, you are better to leave it in the standard mode. Push the nose through the turns and the body heels over like a ship in extreme rudder testing, but it holds on well and you can drive it with a surprising amount of spirit.
For all its dynamic drawbacks, the RX is actually quite a nice car to drive long distances; refined, quiet and comfortable, but tax and the number of seats will determine its fate in this luxury SUV market. That customers are well heeled isn’t in dispute, but they buy on finance packages so purchase price is less of a consideration than the PCP deal and the amount HMRC take out of their wallet each month. The Lexus RX is now in the game with its accommodation, but the less punitive tax treatment of plug-in hybrids could hold the RX back from realising its true potential.