We get behind the wheel of the sporty RX 500h – the first-ever turbocharged Lexus hybrid…
The three Cs (‘confidence, control and comfort’) are the cornerstones of the Lexus driving experience.
There’s no mention of ‘sport’, yet the latest version of the big RX SUV we’ve been testing seems to embrace performance and driver engagement as much as the three Cs.
What’s more, efficiency takes a back seat too, along with another Lexus fixture – the much-maligned CVT transmission.
So. the RX 500h (marketed as a ‘performance hybrid’) is a genuine curiosity and marks something of a departure for Toyota’s upmarket sister brand.
Just to recap, the original RX 450h was the world’s first luxury hybrid SUV when it was launched in 2005.
The RX is now in its fifth generation and buyers can choose from a 350h hybrid or 450h+ plug-in hybrid, plus the new range-topping 500h.
All offer four-wheel drive, but the 500h is the first-ever Lexus turbocharged hybrid.
The 500h mates a 2.4-litre petrol engine with two electric motors (front and rear) and a conventional six-speed automatic gearbox.
For the record, the engine develops 366bhp and 550Nm torque, translating into a brisk 0-62mph acceleration time of 6.2 seconds.
There’s also a new ‘Direct4’ torque-vectoring electric rear axle and four-wheel steering.
Priced from a hefty £77,195 and available in F Sport or Takumi trim, the 500h looks much the same as its siblings (the 350h and 450h+) which is no bad thing, and it’s a tad smaller than a BMW X5.
The RX’s design has subtly evolved from the previous generation. It’s retained much the same shape and athletic presence, but the styling is sharper and more refined, while its new pointy nose (complete with trademark Lexus spindle grille) is the biggest change.
Inside, the RX is luxurious, comfortable and beautifully built. The cabin is light and spacious, and there’s ample leg and headroom in the back.
You can then add 461 litres of luggage capacity (seats up) or 621-litre (seats up, loaded to the roof), expanding to 1,678 litres with the rear seats folded.
On the tech front, the latest RX has ditched the previous model’s fiddly touchpad infotainment control and there’s now a more conventional 14-inch central touchscreen, alongside a digital driver’s display. The system is on the quirky side and takes some getting used to, but it’s an improvement on RXs of old.
However, it’s on the road that the Lexus RX 500h (we tested it in F-Sport trim) comes into its own.
Firstly, the old-school auto gearbox has transformed the RX 500h. Gone are the days of easing the accelerator in order to avoid the temporary din of high engine revs (a CVT gearbox foible). Instead, the six-speed shifts smoothly with just the right hint of aggression.
It’s a big 4×4 and weighs 2.1 tonnes, so it’s never going to be the kind of car that can barrel up to fast corners and get away with it, but thanks to some clever tech, it’s more capable and fun than you might think.
Body lean is better controlled than lesser RXs, and there’s plenty of grunt, especially in the mid-range.
The steering is responsive and there’s a powerful engine note, while the hybrid system works imperceptibly in the background.
The ride is in on the firm side, but on A-roads and motorways, it’s the composed and confident cruiser you’d expect from a Lexus.
Of course, no car is perfect, and the Lexus RX 500h is no exception. Lexus claims it can return 34.0-35.3 mpg, yet we managed closer to 25mpg. With a bit of restraint 30-ish mpg is possible, but considering Lexus’s pioneering hybrid history, we expected more.
Verdict: The Lexus RX 500h is something of a revelation. The addition of a conventional automatic gearbox, a turbocharged petrol hybrid powertrain and other clever tech delivers performance and attitude to an already accomplished big SUV.