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Posted: January 07, 2013

Executive wheels: Hybrid fun, Lexus-style

Too bad extras really jack up the price

Jeff Rundles

2013 LEXUS RX 450h

It’s always nice to get a Lexus, and two of them back-to-back makes a car reviewer very happy. But I had a little problem with the RX450h.

The RX is the Toyota luxury division’s mid-sized SUV, and with the hybrid system, it is an amazing vehicle indeed. Several days into my test drive, someone smashed the back window. At first, I assumed it was the work of thieves, but further inspection revealed nothing missing. So I figured it might be vandals out to smash a few windows in “rich” people’s cars. But no other cars on my block had been damaged, including some pretty nice ones, like my neighbor’s Land Rover.

Then it dawned on me: the Lexus RX hybrid is such a nice vehicle with such a nice price for the luxury SUV market, that the most likely the culprit was a Mercedes or BMW dealer making a competitive statement. These three automakers have been duking it out for decades in this segment, and I suspect this relatively new RX hybrid gives the others fits.

The 2013 RX 450h is an impressive vehicle. Quiet, very comfortable, a dream to drive, roomy for the size and luxurious, it would be a top choice in the gasoline version if it got better mileage.

Enter the hybrid. The name – 450h – is a bit of a misnomer since it also has a 3.5-liter V6, but here in the Toyota/Lexus vaunted hybrid technology version, the output is 295 hp and the mileage rating is 30 mpg city/28 mpg highway. This engine is quick and efficient, and that gas mileage is stunning. The competition is way off – the X3 and the X5 are around 20 (no hybrid), while the GLK is 19/25 and the ML, even in BlueTEC, is 18/23.  If you want a luxury SUV and high mileage, the Lexus stands alone.

I am generally not a fan of Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) as I think it saps torque and limits acceleration, but in this vehicle I didn’t even know it had CVT until I read the sticker. As I said, this car is quick. Many people assume that hybrids have no pickup, but that’s not true – the electric part of the powerplant delivers the goods, I can attest to that. The extra here is what I will call the “green mile” light, which I noticed but had to ask about. On the dashboard, behind the speedometer, a subtle blue light would come on from time to time and I really had no idea what it was. Turns out it is a signal that the car is operating at its most efficient level. If you just cruise leisurely the light will come on and stay on; if you punch it, it will go off – when it’s lit it is a signal that you are achieving the highest possible gas mileage, the so-called “green mile.” Once you get the hang of it, you can really extend the life of your last fill-up.  

What I really liked about the RX, aside from the magnificent hybrid, was the electronics. The screen with all of the maps and control readouts is a pop-up. There’s a mouse-like device tto switch from climate to nav to audio, and a handy button to push with your thumb on the console that enters your choice. It’s easy and relatively non-distracting.

This vehicle is quite quiet, very comfortable, handles as well as anything in the class, and isn’t so big that parking is an issue. Also, there’s plenty of room in the auto-lift back for storage.

The base price of the 450h is $47, 310, which is an exceptional price compared with the competition. My only complaint here is that they tacked on another $16,000 or so in extras: $4,920 for the dual screen rear-seat entertainment system, $6,135 for the luxury package (blind-spot monitoring, leather seating, moonroof, heated outside mirrors, heated wood and leather steering wheel), and $1,500 for a pre-collision system with radar adaptive cruise control. These are all nice things, of course, but when you get to a bottom line of $64,339 you can see where the automaker and the dealer are packing in the margin.

RATING: 3.9 WHEELS (OUT OF 4)

 

LEXUS CT 200h

The other Lexus I drove is the CT 200h, also a hybrid. I very much enjoyed this car, but it is the most un-Lexus-like vehicle in the Lexus line ever. I checked around and discovered that it is probably a re-badged Toyota Matrix, a nice little car that’s been around for several years.

The CT is quite small, and the doors are a bit too light for my liking, but it does drive well and it gets great gas mileage: 43 city/40 highway. It also has the “green mile” light system to boost its ecological chops, and it's very zippy.

Some features I enjoyed: When you approach the car the interior lights go on. The heater comes on quickly. It is also quite quiet. The voice activated nav is very easy to use, and the rest of the controls for everything are quite intuitive. It had this very cool Lexus Insider kind of podcast thing that plays helpful mini-tutorials about using the car's features, along with XM radio. 

The trouble with the car is that it is very much the Matrix with some luxury add-ons and a very big price tag. A similar Matrix features a 1.8-liter I4 engine with 132 hp (rated 25/32) and sells for about $20,000. The Lexus CT 200h carries a base price of $31,750, and in my test-drive model they added on another $8,000 for extras. The bottom line: $39,940. It’s a very nice car, but not for $40,000; I’d rather have a Matrix. Too bad the Matrix isn’t available yet as a hybrid.

RATING: 3 WHEELS OUT OF 4 

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

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