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2011 Lexus RX 450h: Hybrid or not, it's plush all the way

Posted by Bill Griffith  August 26, 2011 06:20 PM

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(All photos: Bill Griffith for The Boston Globe). Click photo for larger version.

Ms. Beth, my neighbor's lady friend, has me pegged.

"You're not a big fan of hybrids, are you?" she said (it wasn't really a question), on a recent Saturday afternoon. She was checking out today's test car, a 2011 Lexus RX 450h. That "h" stands for hybrid, and you also can add "crossover luxury SUV" to its name in describing it.

She's right, to a point. I admire the technology, reliability, and fuel economy of the current crop of hybrids, but I also figure that it will take quite a few years of savings at the pump to make up the $5,000 to $6,000 premium they command. For example, the base price for the all-wheel-drive 450h (including destination) is $47,200 compared to a similarly equipped gasoline-powered RX 350's $41,350.

Take an average driver who puts on 15,000 miles a year. Getting 30 miles per gallon overall (the actual figure is 29 in the hybrid 450h) means you'll use 500 gallons of gas per year. Figuring $4 per gallon for premium fuel, that's $2,000 a year. Getting 20 miles per gallon in a very nice and similarly equipped (minus the hybrid system) RX 350 means you'd use 750 gallons per year and spend $3,000 on gas.

It's a classic "You can pay me now or you can pay me later" situation. However, I still prefer the physical response of a traditional internal combustion engine to the driving experience of the hybrid systems.

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Still, I enjoyed driving the RX 450h. You can put it in EV (electric mode) and glide silently in traffic jams or at low speeds in your neighborhood. Using ECO (economy mode) you can try to drive conservatively enough to keep the green ECO light lit at all times. The 450h helps you in that endeavor by using a less aggressive power curve. Set the system to Power mode, as I did in fast commuter traffic, and the throttle response is impressive.

And there's plenty of power. The standard V-6 provides 245 horsepower and 234 lb.-ft. of torque by itself. Three electric motor-generators help boost horsepower to 295.

One motor serves primarily as the starter and charger for the battery pack (which fits nicely under the rear seat). When necessary, that motor also can add power to the other electric motors, one to power the front and one for the rear wheels. An electronically controlled CVT (continuously variable transmission) and AWD controller transfer the power to the wheels.

On the outside, blue tints have been added to the Lexus logos and the clear covers on both headlamps and taillights to designate the RX 450h as a hybrid. Then there are the actual hybrid labels incorporated into the low molding on the rear passenger doors.

Because our RX 450h was fully loaded with the premium package ($2,400), luxury package ($4,800), navigation package ($5,005), and comfort package ($825) among other niceties, it was a plush ride. As it should have been, because by the time we got to the bottom line, the total was $58,310.

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The 450h is heavy (4,652 pounds) but rated at 30 mpg city, 28 highway, and 29 combined. However, the ride is comfortable, predictable, and refined. A double-wishbone rear suspension design is functional and compact, allowing for extra cargo capacity.

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Having the "hybrid gauge" in place of a tachometer is a sure sign you're driving a hybrid, and Lexus has done a nice job overall with the white-on-black gauge package. Interior wood and leather are first class, as is the build quality. This is a Lexus all the way.

While I've been unable to master all the nuances of Ford's Sync system for controlling navigation/audio/climate/telephone, Lexus's console-mounted "Remote Touch" (think a computer mouse with "enter" buttons on either side) was intuitive and easy to master.

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Click photo for larger version.

Mrs. G liked the luxury feel of the vehicle as well as the 10-way power passenger seat. Being able to recline the seat with the touch of a button for a mid-ride snooze sure beats some of the crunching mechanical sounds she's created while struggling to do the same in vehicles with manual seat controls.

She also gave a thumbs-up to the sliding/reclining rear seats and the legroom and amenities for rear-seat passengers, including climate controls, individual entertainment screens in the back of each front seat capable of providing separate programs, and wireless headphones.

And, Ms. Beth, for the record, I'm a fan of the RX, either with or without hybrid drive.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
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AAA's Car Doctor, John Paul John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
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Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
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Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and edits the used car section on About.com. He also writes for the Hartford Business Journal and various weekly newspapers in Connecticut.
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George Kennedy is a senior writer for WheelsTV in Acton, which produces video reviews for Yahoo, MSN, and other auto websites.
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