Road Test: Lexus RX 450h luxe hybrid

At $45,700 with all-wheel drive, the Lexus RX 450h is an expensive way to save money. But, despite forgettable looks, the hybrid's an appealing vehicle for its V-8-like power, comfortable ride, good handling, fun-to-drive character, sumptuous and roomy interior, top-drawer safety ratings and Lexus' reputation for reliability and dealer service.

Even at today's inflated gasoline prices, however, it would take more than five years of fuel savings to pay for itself, assuming 15,000 miles a year of driving.

Here's the math. The combined government city/highway mileage estimate for the all-wheel-drive hybrid RX is 29 mpg. The model starts at $45,700 with freight. The conventional V-6 model delivers a combined 20 mpg, says the federal agency and starts at $40,250 -- $5,450 less.

Note that premium gas is recommended for both and that it averaged about $4.50 a gallon on Long Island Wednesday. So, using the EPA estimates and Wednesday's gas price, in 15,000 miles the hybrid will use 517 gallons costing $2,326. The standard RX will use 750 gallons, costing $3,375 -- or $1,049 more. The $5,450 you paid extra for the hybrid divided by $1,049 means a payback time of more than five years. Obviously, the less you drive, the longer the payback time. But it shortens as gasoline prices rise.

Zero-to-60 mph performance is nearly identical for the conventional model and the hybrid RX: a quick 7.5 seconds. Note, however, that the hybrid's automatic transmission is of the stemless or "continuously variable" type. It delivers better fuel economy but tends to accentuate engine noise. Both transmissions offer the option of clutchless manual shifting.

Introduced in 2004 as the 2005 RX 400h, the hybrid version got a major remake for 2010, along with the conventional RX. For 2011 the changes are minor.

The 2011 RX gets four out of a possible five stars for frontal crash protection and five out of five for side impacts in the federal government's new and tougher rating system. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety likes the RX even more, calling the RX series a "top safety pick."

Consumer Reports has both versions of the RX on its recommended list and says reliability should be good. So does J.D. Power and Associates.


 

2011 Lexus Rx 450h

 

Vehicle tested:

Engine/motors: 3.5-liter V-6/ three permanent magnet, 295 total system hp.

Fuel: Premium recommended for best performance.

Transmission: Continuously variable automatic, all-wheel drive

Safety: Eight air bags, including knee; 4-wheel disc brakes w/anti-lock, stability control and brake assist; Lexus Enform telematics with automatic crash notification; rear video camera; swiveling headlamps with washers; fog and daytime running lamps; tire pressure monitoring; auto-dimming outside rearview mirrors with directional signals; front and rear-obstacle detection and warning.

Place of assembly: Kyushu, Japan

Cargo room: rear seat backs up, 40 cubic feet; seat backs down, 80.3

EPA fuel economy estimates: 30 mpg city, 28 highway

Price as driven: $61,524 including freight

Bottom line: For the affluent tree-hugger

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