The designers of the new hybrid-drive Lexus 4x4 have produced a silent, silky vehicle that soaks up the bumps in the road like blotting paper.
If you read the motorsport press with the same nerdy attention I do, you might have noticed how hot-shoe journalists, when interviewing their Formula 1 heroes, always ask what car they drive every day. It’s a way of bringing the gladiator out of the circus and on to the same roads as the rest of us. However, at the same time, there’s always the expectation that Carlos Fandango, or whoever, drives to Tesco in a Lamborghini Aventador.
And you might have noticed how the answer is invariably disappointing in this respect and yet quite heartening. F1 stars have nothing to prove, so the answer is always humdrum. As Alain Prost said recently: after an F1 car, nothing comes close, so why bother? That’s why he drives a Renault Espace. That’s why Damon Hill drives a Volkswagen Passat Alltrack. That’s why Lewis Hamilton drives a boulevard Mercedes with airbed suspension. They’ve quite enough urgent cornering every other Sunday.
In the mould of the latter, at least, there’s something for the F1 hero in the new Lexus RX450h. Sure, with its starship styling, it’s not exactly a ‘nothing to prove’ Espace, but it is at home with the fact that it’s a two-ton luxury car, with a tolerance of rather than enthusiasm for corners. It is, as Ben Stiller’s Starsky said, ‘true to itself. And that’s what’s really cool’.
The problem with building SUVs for Europe’s twisty roads was first analysed by Sir Isaac Newton. He wrote something like ‘thou cannot turneth a corner quickly in a mighty cart, lest thou becometh overtipped’. Later, BMW addressed the issue with its X5 and tried to nail down Newton’s centrifugal squirrel with some solid damping and enormously wide tyres, thus creating an SUV that darted down the road like a Scalextric.
We all want to drive an SUV, yet, weirdly, we all want to drive them like racecars. I imagine we’ve now reached the point at which 90% of a given car-maker’s engineers are dedicated to the business of tying down a tall, heavy thing so that it behaves like a low, light thing.
Except for the engineers at Lexus. Clearly, they’re on another mission, more along the lines of making a tall, heavy thing float down the road like an Arabian carpet on a column of air. Rather than fighting physics, the Lexus has learned to love its Rubenesque dimensions.
“It would be hard to imagine being more comfortable short of being in bed”
You have to drive it accordingly, but that’s fine, too. It was a pleasant surprise, frankly, to drive a new SUV that’s happy to lean its bulk into a corner, to trade flatness of poise for an ability to soak up bumps in the road like the proverbial blotting paper. I’ve rarely driven such a silent, silky car.
The hybrid drive helps here. Fire up the Lexus and you get less noise than a Trappist cell at midnight. The car slides away in total silence until, after a few yards, the engine strums into life with a dull, background purr, no louder than a happy cat on the far side of the sitting room.
This three-litre V6 powers the front wheels and batteries the rear, making the 450h Lexus a handy 4×4 of sorts—but one that emits less CO2 than said cat, making it attractive to those who pay benefit-in-kind car taxation. Real-world economy is okay, too: I got 35mpg to 40mpg out of it.
Levels of comfort and technology, on the other hand, are out of this world. As to the former, it would be hard to imagine being more comfortable short of being in bed. The story is the same in the back, where you can also recline the seats.
As to the latter, it’s a contradiction. Great stuff such as a blindspot indicator on the door mirrors and airbags everywhere, but too many pings and bings from one or other of the car’s innumerable driver aids.
The scroll pad is fiddly and saps attention from the real business of driving safely, yet, then you work it out and, hey presto, the automated headlamp system turns out to be amazing.
Now that everyone in the countryside drives a big, black SUV that’s either Teutonic or ends in Rover, a big, silver interstellar 450h dares you to be different and that’s what’s really cool.
On the road
Lexus RX450h: Priced from £48,645
Annual Road Fund Licence: £150
Combined fuel consumption: 54.3mpg
0–60mph: 7.7 seconds
Top speed: 124mph
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