Lexus changed sport/ute form and function forever when it launched the original RX 300 in March 1999, merging car-derived mechanicals with SUV ride height and versatility. Factor in luxury features and aggressive pricing, and the pioneering RX was a game changer that created the so-called “crossover” vehicle.
Introduced as a 2004 model, the second-generation RX has furthered the notion of affordable luxury crossovers, growing incrementally in size and raising the bar on refinement and content. The first Lexus built in North America (with some units also imported from Japan), the current RX launched again as a one-flavor for all vehicle, now with a 3.3L V-6 powerplant, choice of 2WD or AWD, and healthy roster of standard equipment. The options list enable buyers to select from among the most premium SUV features on the market, giving the RX more technical cachet.
For the 2006 model year, the RX became the first vehicle line to offer a luxury hybrid variant. And Lexus used this technology to create not simply a fuel-efficient iteration, but to treat the RX 400h hybrid as the step-up model with more content and performance, just as Honda had done with the Accord Hybrid.
The 186.2-inch RX is wrapped in smooth, cladding-free bodywork. Its decidedly Japanese shape conveys luxury in the delicate attention to detail, with the fine-lined grille, jewel-like headlamps, and tasteful body lines, with the rear evoking both the 2005 IS SportCross and the GX 470. The RX 400h is distinguished from the 330 by a revised grille, front fascia, foglamps, LED taillamps, and 18-inch aluminum wheels, in place of the 17-inch fitment. The coefficient of drag is 0.35 on both models.
With a gentle step up, entering the richly appointed RX cabin is relatively easy for a sport/ute. The instrument panel features three prominent gauge pods, adjacent to a striking center stack. The design focus is the middle of the dash, now with prominent vertical trim elements with integrated silver controls and slick reverse lighting. Front and center is an available seven-inch touch screen for a voice-activated navigation system that can be coupled with a rear back-up camera display — both standard on the hybrid model. The RX comes with an eight-speaker AM/FM/CD stereo, with an audiophile-grade Mark Levinson system available, with an in-dash CD changer, 11 speakers, and crisp, powerful sound reproduction.
Comfort features abound, with automatic dual-zone climate control, rear HVAC vents, steering wheel with audio controls, HomeLink, and cruise control. The hybrid adds such items as power moonroof, power tilt/telescope steering wheel, and driver memory feature. Both iterations have deep, sumptuous front bucket seats. The driver’s right leg does snug up against the center console, having us wish the seats were shifted an inch outboard. The driver benefits from 10-way power adjustment, and the passenger even has eight-way adjustment. Naturally, the interior is upholstered in soft leather, with the RX330 trimmed in wood and the RX400h dressed with aluminum trim.
The split bench seat is comfortable, with variable rake. The sloping roofline does impede on headroom, as does the moonroof, though the second row is hospitable. Legroom is good for outboard passengers, with the middle rider having to straddle the center console and driveline/exhaust hump. An available rear DVD entertainment system stands out for offering a 110V plug to power video components or game consoles. The rear seats fold forward, clicking positively in place, though they do not quite lay flat and some precious leather is exposed to cargo.
The standard power liftgate can be a welcomed convenience in harsh weather, or when your hands are full. The aft cargo floor is relatively high, but it does provide some underfloor storage, convenient for emergency gear. The sloping rear glass limits hauling ability, but the RX still manages 38.4 cu ft of volume with the rear seats up, 84.7 with them folded forward.
Lexus and Toyota have both made strong moves in outfitting their vehicles with a generous complement of safety gear, as demonstrated by the RX. Dual-stage front airbags, front side airbags, front and rear curtain airbags, and driver’s knee bag help absorb cushion impacts. The RX also features tire pressure monitors, four-channel anti-lock brakes, daytime running lights, and brake pedal regression to minimize leg injuries. Optional gear raises the safety margin, with items such as rain-sensing wipers, high-intensity discharge headlamps, and Adaptive Front-light System (AFS), which swivels lamps based on speed and direction inputs. The 400h also introduces a new vehicle stability system.
The RX 330 is powered by a 3.3L/230-hp V-6 with 242 lb-ft of torque matched with a five-speed automatic transmission. Fitted with Variable Valve Timing with Intelligence (VVT-i), the powerplant is eager and smooth, capable of delivering 7.7-second 0-60-mph times. The real excitement can be found in the hybrid drivetrain, where the 3.3L V-6 is supplemented by the latest version of Hybrid Synergy Drive bringing two electric drive-motor generators to bear. The combined system produces 268 horsepower, good for a 7.3-second 0-60-mph time, even though it carries 500 more pounds than the FWD RX 330. Just as significant, the 400h achieves a combined fuel economy rating of 29 mpg, which exceeds the average for compact sedans and trumps the RX 330 AWD by 38 percent. At 31 mpg city, 27 highway, the RX400h shames other V-6 competitors while delivering V-8-grade performance.
At idle, both RXs have a touch more engine noise than found with the Lexus sedans, something that would not be noticed were another brand’s badge on the vehicles. The RX 330 V-6 is strong and satisfying on the road, with negligible difference between FWD and AWD acceleration. Power is even stronger in the hybrid model, reinforced by a bit more underhood feedback and exhaust growl. At full song, the RX 400h sounds powerful. There are times where the hybrid aspect gives a slightly off feeling due to the continuously variable transmission, with revs rising out of synch with experienced acceleration. Superb on the highway, the RX 400h runs effortlessly at high speeds, tempered only by some wind noise. The regenerative brakes are touchy, requiring sensitive modulation to minimize body pitch during deceleration. These brakes react quickly, though not harshly, unless a rapid pedal depression triggers the electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist systems to effectively drop anchor.
Appropriate for this customer, the RX ride is both comfortable and connected, with the expected isolation from the lux-tuned independent suspension. An available air suspension can further refine the ride quality with four selectable height settings and automatic leveling. Even so, this is strictly a soft-roader.
The segment-defining RX 330 brings together polished road manners, refined cabin, sport/ute versatility, and high style at a price point that stacks up quite favorably against Acura MDX, BMW X5, Mercedes-Benz ML350, and Volkswagen Touareg. Well equipped in base form, the RX 330 can stretch into the deep luxury segment with its generous options list. For those seeking even more exclusivity and performance in a midsize lux/ute, the innovative RX 400h is in a class of one. The combination of eight-cylinder-caliber performance, premium equipment, benchmark fuel economy, and high technology give tremendous appeal to the RX 400h, itself the highest form of a laudable SUV line. As with all hybrids, real-world mileage will vary from the window sticker. In our experience, we saw 22 mpg in the hybrid and 20.6 mpg with the RX 300, though all indications show there should be a wider variance between the two. Hybrid shoppers should temper expectations. As a former IntelliChoice Best Overall Value winner, the RX has a history of Excellent value, and we expect this trend to continue.
A high-value luxury sport/ute the RX line revels in refinement, performance, and technology.
The RX 400h is the world’s first midsize sport/ute hybrid, and also the first luxury hybrid, bringing performance and efficiency to upmarket buyers.
Numerous packages offer the best return on investment, though their scale means significant price penalties for indulging in navigation systems, Mark Levinson stereo, and air suspension. The a la carte offerings for rear DVD entertainment system and nav with backup camera are compelling. Also note, the wind-noise-generating roof rack is not available with the moonroof.