The Lexus 450h is the perfect luxury crossover

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PORSCHE’s 520-horsepower (hp) Cayenne Turbo SUV will get to 60mph almost a second quicker than its tiny Boxster S convertible. It’s also Porsche’s best-selling model.

Audi’s handsome SQ5 SUV comes with 14-speaker Bang & Olufsen surround sound and adaptive cruise control. Plus LED lights and Google Earth 3D Satellite Imagery.

And next year Bentley will launch a stout new SUV trimmed in burl walnut and the trappings of a champagne-fuelled picnic (woven basket included).

Which brings me to the subject of today’s review: the 2015 Lexus RX 450h. You see, crossovers remain the biggest and most lucrative market for luxury automakers in the United States. They’re warehouses for the newest technology and best engineering that luxury car brands offer in the US.

Crossover history

And, as you may recall, Lexus was the first premium brand to put forth the idea of a posh little SUV in the first place. Oh, its RX 300, which debuted in 1998, is nowhere near the calibre of what we can expect from Bentley next year. But it offered a then-admirable 3.0-litre V6 engine and assorted creature comforts (leather seats, winter-weather upgrades) that up until then premium brands had offered only in sedans and sports cars.

In those days the RX became a revelation to upper middle-class parents who were all too aware of what driving a minivan did to their image (and self-respect) but were unsure of what to do about it.

(Let’s face it: cool station wagons like the diesel ones from BMW and Mercedes have just never taken off in the US like they have in Europe. More’s the pity.)

Without the RX to prove what huge appetites Americans had for such conveyances we might not have the well-respected and financially successful crossovers from Audi, BMW and Mercedes of today.

The US$47,620 (RM156,670) RX 450h is one of three RX variants in the RX family, the other two being the entry-level 350 and the 350F sport. It’s part of the third generation of RX SUVs and the best-selling hybrid that Lexus makes. (An AWD version costs roughly US$2,000 more.)

I drove a mahogany one around New York City last week — we cruised through Manhattan, Brooklyn, even Queens. It was the type of driving at which this midsized rig excels: a combination of highway and city commuting, in rain and sun, morning and evening, over pot-holes, gravel, cobblestone and pavement. Mr Toyota would be proud.

Handling the (soft) handling

A full hybrid, the RX 450h will run in electric-only, gas-only, or combined gas and electric modes. It has four drive modes (EV, Normal, Eco, Sport).

It comes with a 295hp engine that gets a combined mileage of 30 mpg for both city and highway driving. That’s admirable for a car of its size and considerable weight (4,500 pounds). But it’s also slow. Asking for nearly eight seconds to get to 60 mph, as this SUV does, is asking for quite a dispensation of grace. That split time is downright pedestrian.

Of course, you wouldn’t be considering this car if you wanted a sprinter: the RX 450h is not the most athletic of its class. (For that check out anything in BMW’s M line, which does indeed extend to its SUVs. Now those are a lark.) In fact, almost everything about RX feels soft: the braking, the steering, the turning radius, the acceleration. It’s nice, not nimble. Like Mom or Dad jeans, it’s stable, not sexy.

There when you need it

Like Dad and Mom, the RX 450h is there when you need it; nurturing, safe, efficient and reliable. Air bags, active head rests, and adaptive braking are paired with eight-year, 100,000-mile (160,935km) warranties galore. The car routinely wins automotive-critic awards for these admirable character traits. It can also handle your messy inclinations (back seat and rear storage big enough to hold large dog kennels, multiple bags of yoga gear, and a golf bag or two) in a tidy, smooth fashion.

It’s also not worried about “keeping up” a particular “image”. While the RX used to provide the so-called sexy alternative to minivans, its rounded topline, wide platonic grill and thick tyres, are more backyard barbecue than soiree, if you know what I mean. It’s a relief to be able to be in something that is so unassuming.

I should note: There is a US$1,100 “Sport Appearance” package available for 2015, though I’m instantly suspicious of that nomenclature. It seems disingenuous. That extra will get you 19-inch alloy wheels and a minimally different front bumper. I think it’s like putting on some costume jewellery hoping it’ll make you feel five pounds slimmer. But that’s just me.

Inside the soccer SUV

Good bones on this one, though. The interior cabin has excellent build quality with durable materials on the knobs and trim, comfortable front seats and plenty of flexibility to play with the leg room in the back. It’s all solidly built by a proven brand that always gets it right.

I did not like the weird console controller up front, however. While you can touch the middle computer screen that controls everything from the radio and climate to the navigation and efficiency systems, you can also use a black little rectangular fob knob thing down to the right of the driver’s side to manipulate the radio options. You flick it this way and that way with the tips of your index and middle fingers. It feels like one of the joysticks you see on wheelchairs made for people who have lost the use of their arms. And it seems totally out of place, confusing, in a luxury SUV.

Pick and choose

The RX 450h falls in the middle of the pack in terms of what it offers as standard versus what it makes you pay extra for. Brake assist and regenerative braking come standard, as do the sequential shift, sport, and snow modes. So does the power rear door, power moon roof, and power-adjustable mirrors and seats. And the back-up camera. This is all good.

On the other hand, an accent like the wood- and leather-trimmed steering wheel (polished marble-smooth) is optional. So are the heated seats and roof rails. And the dual climate zones and power dimming mirrors. And the illuminated “Lexus” logos in the footrests of the doors, which are included with things like headlamp washers in the US$6,000 “Luxury” package. They’re some of the few things that look cool on this rig, and it’s too bad they cost extra.

Comfortable, not crazy

You see, all things considered, the RX 450h is a good car. The RX 450h does all things — reliability, safety, efficiency, affordability — well. She has been around a long time, and she’s superior to competitors like the Acura MDX and Jeep Grand Cherokee.

But here’s what you should know: It’s not going to blow your mind. It will give you a comfortable, predictable, long life. But it will never blow your mind.

And for some people — for a lot of people — that’s perfect. — Bloomberg

A full hybrid, the RX 450h will run in electric-only, gas-only, or combined gas and electric modes. It has four drive modes (EV, Normal, Eco, Sport). It comes with a 295hp engine that gets a combined mileage of 30mpg for both city and highway driving.

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on November 3, 2014.