The first Lexus SUV, and also the best-selling model of the Japanese brand on a global scale, has just been renewed. It now boasts an ultra-sleek design, an interior with the usual Lexus high quality and a host of new safety and infotainment features. Sadly, there is only a modest evolution in the hybrid powertrain, and that leaves the creator of hybrid cars in the shadow of the direct German competition. A good opportunity has been missed.

The hesitations of the Toyota Group over their hybrid strategy may well contribute to the overthrow of the German premium brands in this niche market. The audacity that led to the pioneering launch of the first Prius in 1997 (18 years ago, and since then more than 8 million hybrid cars have been sold globally by the two Toyota brands, Toyota and Lexus) seems to be absent, at a time when Lexus is coming out with the fourth generation of the RX, the third available with a hybrid powertrain. At a time when Mercedes, Audi and BMW announce a long list of plug-in (PHV) models in the pipeline (and some of them already on the road), Lexus continues to rely on the full hybrid system, with limited environmental performance (2 km in electric mode, when rivals are offering 15 times more, and lower consumption), probably in the wake of the poor commercial results achieved by the Prius Plug-in.

However, the Japanese marketers and decision makers may well have overlooked two crucial details: not only that the most expensive plug-in technology should have been launched in a Lexus, and not in a Toyota (that´s what "premium" stands for, and the premium customer is willing to accept a price increase in the region of 6000 euros), as the Prius PHV itself cannot provide more than 30 km of electric range (Golf PHV adds 20 km to that distance). There is plenty of proof that the PHV market has a lot of potential: for example, the fact that the best-selling model in 2014 in Europe (the Mitsubishi Outlander PHV) sold 20,000 units, roughly 1/3 of the sales of the most popular hybrid (Auris hybrid). And when wireless charging is here (2 years down the road), it will greatly boost PHV relevance.

With a sales growth scenario in Europe (+28% this year compared to 2014), and globally (forecasting 620,000 new Lexus cars on the road worldwide, 200,000 more than in 2011) it would make sense for the alter ego Toyota brand to have taken that step, in order to keep the RX´s success (with accumulated sales of more than 2.2 million units since it established itself as the first Lexus SUV, in 1998) and Toyota´s edge in the hybrid market.

The new RX goes on sale this coming January, with different powertrains: 200T (using the same 4 cylinder engine introduced in the recent NX), with 2WD and 4WD versions; 350 (V6) and the RX 450h, which is the most relevant for Europe, and in several markets in this region it's the sole powertrain available.

On our first look at the new RX, we immediately recognized the same very bold design we saw emerging in the more compact NX SUV (Toyota president, Akio Toyoda, pushed the styling envelope just a month before the RX was supposed to start production, giving the development a thumb´s-down and forcing them to add more drama to the body lines). We see creases and edges everywhere, almost as if a geometric form of life were trapped inside the body, desperately scratching at the surface for air, leaving its fingerprints on the skin of the new RX. The other major styling highlights are the large radiator grill, with the now-familiar spindle shape, much in line with those in the rest of the Lexus family, but gaining relevance in the SUV range with amplified dimensions, and also the nearly horizontal rear pillar which, together with the stretched side rear window, creates a floating roof effect.

Body dimensions were kept, both in height width (in this case, just 1 cm was added), while the length increased by 12 cm (5 of which are in the wheelbase). The main practical consequence of these changes is the increased legroom for the second row passengers, and more space for luggage (the trunk volume rises from 446 to 539 liters in the standard seat configuration). The front seat height has been lowered by 2 cm, resulting in a sportier driving position, and helping to make more evident the amphitheater effect for those sitting in the back, who will also be grateful that there is no intrusion in the central footwell area. The back of the rear seats may folded down (40/20/40) for better functionality, and the rear door can be electrically and remotely operated, but it may also be conveniently opened if the user motions with one hand towards the Lexus badge (or with an elbow or even a gloved hand).

Once inside, it is clear that the usual Lexus high quality standard reigns, both in terms of materials and in fit and finish. The ​​air conditioning and the audio control zones in the center of the dashboard are now more clearly separated, the instrument panel provides easy reading and a sober choice of colors (matching the selected driving mode), helping the driver in his important task, just like the information provided by the new head-up display, which again is a contribution to help keep eyes on the road ahead. The driving mode circular knob, placed between the front seats, allows you to change damping, throttle and steering responses (when fitted with adaptive suspension, it doubles-up Sport mode, into Sport S and Sport S+). Next to this knob, you will also find the EV button, to force fully electric operation from the hybrid system, and also the CVT gear lever (in the previous generation, it was installed on the vertical part of the central console).

Another new addition to the RX is the big central color display (12.3 or 8 inch) on top of the dashboard, properly distanced from the driver, so that he is always able to keep a good peripheral vision of what happens on the road, even when referring to the information contained on it. The infotainment control logic (via a joystick and a pad) has also been improved, an important step forward as, in previous generations, ease of use was not among its qualities.

The hybrid propulsion system consists of the V6 3.5 liter gas engine and two electric motors, one on each axle (on the four-wheel drive version). The latter were kept unchanged from the previous generation (still generating a maximum 167 ps and 68 ps, front and rear, respectively) but the gas internal combustion unit received a new cylinder head (D-4S) with direct injection, meaning it is capable of performing both types of injection (port and direct), and also working in Atkinson cycle (different from the four-stroke Otto cycle), aiming for lower consumption. The V6 3.5-liter engine increased the top output from 249 to 263 ps, and the maximum power of the hybrid powertrain system was increased from 299 to 313 ps. A first in a hybrid Lexus, a sound generator uses air intake pulsations to increase the sound pressure level, with three different resonances.

As it is the norm in the Toyota Group, this hybrid SUV uses an continuously-variable automatic transmission, which the Japanese engineers say was improved, o provide better response and a more proportional sound, in relation to the actual acceleration of the RX 450h (and with 8 steps, created to simulate different gears, as well as steering wheel mounted "shift" pads). Torque is sent to the rear wheels when the system detects it is needed, allowing the rear motor to act as a generator to charge the battery when the vehicle is in regenerative brake mode.

The chassis is essentially identical to the one used by the previous generation, having been the subject of some improvements: the larger front stabilizer bar diameter allowed for softer spring rates, which cumulatively served to increase overall ride comfort, without affecting cornering stability. This also benefits from the (optional) adaptive variable suspension system, individually controlling each electronic damper in each of the wheels. And it is now possible to save the drive mode preferences of each driver, and store them in the "Customize" function, for ease of use.

What is the practical result of this cocktail of technical solutions to the way the car drives? Comfort is actually raised to a very high level, without an obvious sacrifice of cornering stability, meaning Lexus was able to somewhat keep its promise. Bumps, holes and other irregularities on the ground are swallowed by the RX suspension with striking ease, and the soundproofing of the cabin deserves a very stiff thumb´s up. Both steering and brakes worked to perfection in this dynamic experience in Portland, Oregon. The rather less positive side of the RX 450h driving feel concerns the powertrain performance, as well as the driving modes settings: in the first case, and regardless of the fact that we were told that the continuously variable transmission was improved for an overall better response, it still doesn´t satisfy. Acceleration is slow, there is no kick-down function (meaning you will struggle to get that sudden power peak to overtake, for example) and even if we use "shift" pads to simulate the 8 transmission steps, the engine noise is never proportional to the vehicle´s speed, nor is there the sense of braking shift-downs, as most drivers are used to, in manual or automatic gearboxes (either torque converter or dual-clutch types). In the second case, we were not convinced by the tuning of the driving modes, as the differences between each of them (Eco, Normal, Sport or even Sport + and Sport + S) are almost undetectable in the way engine, throttle, steering and damping respond. At first we gave it the benefit of the doubt, and thought it had to do with the fact that we were driving a pre-production car. But chief engineer, Takayuki Katsu – in charge of the development of the last two generations of the RX – clarified that this was not the case: "The tunings of these RXs you are test driving today, in terms of engine, box and chassis, are final and the driving modes have little difference between them because we want future owners to always feel calm, with no surprising mood changes from the RX when they are behind the wheel." Right...but hardly worth having a driving mode device to vary the driving parameters, then...

Looking at some figures alongside the competition, it becomes clear that the RX 450h will struggle to raise the bar to the level of a, say, BMW X5 xDrive 40e. The German plug-in hybrid uses a 2-liter 4-cylinder turbo gas unit to offer the output (313 ps), but slightly more torque (350 Nm vs 335 Nm) than the V6 3.5-liter naturally-aspirated Lexus, and is capable of delivering a higher top speed (210 vs 200 km/h), better acceleration (0-100 km/h in 6.8 s vs 7.7 s) and lower average consumption

(3.4 l/100 km vs 5.2 l/100 km), in addition to the advantage of proposing a 100% electric range of about 40 km, against the 2 km EV range offered by the RXh, and a zero emission top speed of 120 km/h (only 50 km/h in the Japanese SUV).

Feb. 11, 2016 Driving photo: Lexus

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