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Posted: December 15, 2009

Executive wheels: 2010 Lexus RX 450h

Try it -- you'll want it

Jeff Rundles

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When a hybrid model of a vehicle was due in my auto review rotation over the years, I looked forward to it with great anticipation and fascination because hybrid technology was so new and so different that it was like a whole new ballgame.

Hybrid vehicle technology is still exciting, but the good news is that it isn't so new and so different anymore. Indeed, in this new 2010 Lexus RX 450h you really have to think about it to make the connection. In all regular driving respects, the hybrid doesn't feel or act differently than any other similar, gas-only vehicle. Hybrid, especially in the hands of Toyota (the Lexus parent company), is now so advanced you don't notice it.

What you do notice in this new Lexus small SUV is that it is a wonderful vehicle, a beautiful vehicle, a classy vehicle, and, frankly, a vehicle that I can't imagine anyone wouldn't want to have if they got behind the wheel for, say, two seconds.

Of course, you all know the Toyota and Lexus reputation for quality and innovation, and you all know the Lexus reputation for sheer luxury. All that is here in the new RX 450h. It has been slightly redesigned from the 2009 and before models, with a nice refinement on the front grill, somewhat smoother lines and some updated lighting. But you really have to look at pictures or vehicles closely to notice the differences, and then I, at least, said, "Yeah, that's a nice change." Nothing radical; they took marvelous and made it uber-marvelous, the kind of expert and minor facelift that if it happened on a person you would think, "Wow; she's in a good mood."

Like most vehicles in the luxury or near-luxury category, this RX 450h has all of the bells and whistles, safety equipment and nice extras that you'd expect. The difference from, say, BMW and the Germans in particular, is that in the Lexus the technology doesn't overwhelm you and you don't need a degree in mechanical engineering to operate it.

The navigation system - a $2,400 upgrade that includes voice command, backup monitor, XM Nav Traffic and Nav/Weather - is pretty easy to use; I did it manually (pushing the touch screen) and by voice, and found both intuitive and easy. Plus, it speaks out the directions (although it didn't seem to mute the sound system enough or crank the volume enough for my taste; it was sometimes hard to hear). Also, through another $1,200 add-on - the Heads-Up Display, that normally just shows the speed reflected in the windshield - you get turn-by-turn directions in an easy-to-see display.

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And, of course, it's a Lexus, so it was quite quiet, which lent extra value to the ($1,610) stereo upgrade to a Mark Levinson Surround Sound with a DVD Changer and 15 speakers (the standard sound system only has 9 speakers). Additionally, it had Bluetooth and XM satellite radio. Loved it all.

My favorite feature of the car, before we get to the driving, was the rear lift-gate. It was automatic, operated from a button on the key fob, and it was quick, quiet up and down, and so easy to use. The rear area also had plenty of storage.

I had the chance to drive the RX in some pretty challenging conditions, although, alas I didn't hit any winter weather to test out the AWD this time around (I have before and it is quite good in the snow). We took the vehicle up to the Buck Snort Saloon outside of Pine, so I had highway driving and challenging mountain driving en route. The RX handled beautifully; no lean in the tight turns, smooth ride on some pretty significant bumps and ruts, and power for anything.

That power thing is the most interesting aspect of this car. Normally, Lexus uses the numbers of the car to designate the engine size, so the normal gas RX is the RX 350 because it has a 3.5-liter V6 (with 275 hp). So when I heard I was getting the RX 450h, I just assumed they had put a larger, 4.5-liter engine in the car. Nope. It's the same 3.5-liter V6, but of course it has the hybrid electric engine as well and it boosts to the horsepower to an impressive 295. So the name is somewhat of a misnomer, although I suppose you could argue that the electric engine is another liter. Anyway, the hybrid system here boosts the power, but it does so with added efficiency - the gas RX is rated at 18 mpg city/25 mpg highway. This RX 450h garners a 32 city/28 highway rating.

The AWD RX 350 gas model has a base price of $38,650 - pretty competitive in the mid-sized SUV market for a luxury vehicle. This RX 450h in AWD carries a base price of $43, 250. I already mentioned some of the add-ons and there are a few more -- $660 for 19" aluminum wheels; $640 for heated and ventilated front seats; $2,400 for the Premium Package with leather, heated mirrors, moonroof, MP3 miniplug with USB audio plug; memory seating/seat/steering wheel; and $1,500 for Pre-collision system with dynamic radar cruise control. Add in $875 for destination charges, and the bottom line is $56,450.

Aggressive, but there's a lot here, and the hybrid is spectacular. Its cousin - the Toyota Highlander Hybrid 4X4 Limited -- has a base price of $41,020 but with a much smaller engine - 3.3-liter V6 with 208 hp. In this case, make mine the Lexus.

RATING: FOUR WHEELS (OUT OF FOUR)

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Jeff Rundles is a former editor of ColoradoBiz and a regular columnist. Email him at jrundles@cobizmag.com.

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