The 2011 Lexus RX 450h may be the star attraction of the most popular model in the entire Lexus line. Now in its third generation, the RX mid-size crossover utility vehicle has become the de facto standard for upscale suburban families.
Its hybrid model adds a suitably green conscience to this otherwise tall, heavy luxury family vehicle. Just don’t expect anyone to recognize that it’s a hybrid unless they’re in the know; aside from some badges and trim, it looks just like gasoline-only RX models.
On the other hand, the front-wheel-drive version of the RX 450h is rated by the EPA at 32 mpg city, 28 mpg highway, for a combined overall rating of 30 mpg. (The numbers drop to 30 mpg city, 28 mpg highway, and 29 mpg combined if you add all-wheel-drive.)
That’s far better than its RX 350 gas counterpart, though of course any possibility of payback will depend on the miles you cover and how long you keep the car.
The powertrain, shared with its simpler Toyota Highlander Hybrid sibling, is comprised of a 3.5-liter V-6 engine mated to the Hybrid Synergy Drive system. That system uses a pair of electric motor-generators in an electronic continuously variable transmission, meaning that the RX 450h is variously powered by electricity alone (at low speeds under gentle acceleration), the gasoline engine alone, or a combination of the two. The motor-generators variously power the car and recharge the nickel-metal-hydride battery pack located under the rear seat.
If you want all-wheel-drive, Lexus adds a third electric motor to power the rear wheels. This is a system designed for muddy suburban soccer fields and snowy driveways, though, not hardy off-roading. The rear electric motor is designed to shut itself off if load rises above a safety threshold, to avoid damaging itself. That carries at least the theoretical possibility that the all-wheel-drive could vanish just when it’s needed most.
As a five-seat luxury family vehicle, the RX offers ample accommodation for five adults, dramatic interior styling, and the requisite amounts of leather, metal trim, and comfort features. There’s slightly more drivetrain noise in the hybrid RX than the standard version, though never enough to move the driver from awareness to annoyance.
The 2011 Lexus RX 450h is an IIHS Top Safety Pick, with 10 airbags and a host of interesting technology options, including a Pre-Collision system that cinches down the safety belts if it senses an impending accident. Adaptive lighting that swivels to show what’s around corners is another, and a heads-up display for basic information like speed works surprisingly well.