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2012 Lexus RX450h (Toyota/Toyota)
2012 Lexus RX450h (Toyota/Toyota)

2012 Lexus RX 450h

A Lexus SUV suffering from an identity crisis Add to ...

Can an automobile be all things to all people? Lexus seems to think so with its RX 450h.

This upscale SUV has hybrid drivetrain technology, everyday versatility and just about every luxury modcon in the book. Theoretically then, that takes care of environmental concerns, fuel economy, practicality and comfort, in one fell swoop.

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But there’s a fly or two in the ointment. For starters, it’s expensive. Before taxes, you’re looking at almost $65,000, which makes this particular SUV one of the pricier models out there. After the dust settles and everyone’s been paid, say goodbye to $73,000-plus for this baby.

Secondly, this is a confusing vehicle. I concede that I don’t understand this market. Never have. Why on earth would you spend this kind of money on an SUV that isn’t meant to be taken off-road, has less interior elbow room than a minivan and offers decent – but not outstanding – fuel economy?

If you want luxury, there are any number of upscale sedans out there with all the comfort features you could ever ask for and infinitely superior handling. Ditto with practicality. You want to carry stuff without the stigma of a minivan? Even Toyota’s own Highlander or Venza can do this for you, no problem. Yes, the RX 450h does feature all-wheel-drive, but so do lots of other similar vehicles with price tags thousands of dollars less.

That said, one thing that the RX 450h does have going for it is decent fuel economy. According to Natural Resources Canada’s Energuide, the RX 450h delivers 6.7 litres/100 km in town and 7.2 on the highway, which tells us that it’s thirstier on the highway than it is in the city, thanks to the hybrid technology. Still, few SUVs of any stripe can top this. Interestingly, Toyota’s Highlander Hybrid offers virtually the same fuel economy.

Which brings us to the drivetrain. This is Toyota/Lexus’ proven Hybrid Drive system, which in this instance, consists of a 3.5-litre V-6 married to three electric motors, with a nickel metal hydride battery pack. The engine is of the Atkinson variety, which means it keeps its intake valves open longer than usual, resulting in lower compression and greater efficiency. The downside is power loss, but Atkinson cycle engines are also used by Hyundai, Ford, GM and Mercedes, to name a few.

Depending on the driving circumstances, this setup will carry you on pure electric power up to about 40 km/h, give or take, at which time the internal combustion engine cuts in. The transition is virtually seamless, and the only real indication you have that you’re running on the electric motors is an almost complete absence of take-off power.

Unless you put your foot in it, the RX 450h is a slug. Of course, that defeats the purpose. If you like to drive with enthusiasm, this is definitely not the one for you.

Part of the performance deficit can be explained by the fact that the transmission in this case is a CVT. Despite Lexus’s claims to the contrary, it does not provide “quick, smooth acceleration and optimum performance.” Quite the opposite, in fact, and, given its price tag, this particular hybrid SUV deserves better. For the record, the RX 450h has a total power output of 295 horsepower and 234 lb-ft of torque. Once the revs get up and you need reserve power, it’s there, but you gotta hunt for it.

Like all self-respecting hybrids, the RX 450h also has regenerative braking and a heavy-duty starter that shuts off at stop-lights and restarts the car when you take your foot off the brake pedal. Again, seamless and unobtrusive. Add to this a hill start assist feature, traction control, three powertrain settings and a vehicle stability control system, and you’re pretty much looking at the state of the art these days.

My tester also featured the Touring package ($3,050), which, among other things, has Lexus’ remote touch console control. This is a stationary mouse that lets you scroll through the climate control system, audio pre-sets and so on. A top-mounted toggle gets you where you want to be and you thumb-click on your selection via a side-mounted button. I tend not to be a fan of these kinds of systems, but this one is straightforward and easy to manage. Were I in the market for this car, I still wouldn’t choose it, but it is user-friendly.

In fact, overall, the RX 450h is a user-friendly vehicle. Duh, it is a Toyota, after all.

But I remain confused about its true purpose. Is it just an upscale SUV for rich folks with an environmental conscience? Is it aimed at those SUV drivers who first and foremost want optimum fuel economy? Is it a practical hauler with luxury modcons? Is it just a green status symbol?

You tell me.

globedrive@globeandmail.com

Tech specs

2012 Lexus RX 450h

Type: Hybrid SUV

Base Price: $59,700; as tested $64,835

Engine: 3.5-litre V-6 and three electric motors with nickel metal hydride battery pack

Horsepower/torque: 295 hp/234 lb-ft

Transmission: CVT

Drive: All-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 6.7 city/7.2 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Toyota Highlander Hybrid, Audi Q7 TDI, Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid, GMC Yukon Hybrid, Mercedes M350 BlueTec, Volkswagen Touareg TDI

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