Test Drive: 2019 Lexus RX 450hL

While the Lexus RX series may have started out with the goal of capitalizing on the CUV craze sweeping through the auto world, it wasn’t always a favourite of mine; it had to appease a very broad customer base and when that happens, you can’t really go too far in any direction. As a result, even with its clear taillights and swoopy styling it was a little… vanilla.

Kids-only back there, that’s for darn sure.

Fast-forward to the model’s fourth generation, and all that’s changed. The 2019 Lexus RX, along with much of Lexus’ lineup, has evolved into a properly aggressive piece with a mouthy grille that doubles as a front splitter, baller wheels (measuring 20 inches on my tester), wild side-window shape with blacked-out C-pillars and a pretty sharp roof spoiler. I’m a fan, which is why I questioned Lexus’ decision to add an “L” model with a third row of seating – Lexus already had two three-rowers in their portfolio, even if they were trucky, thirsty, and more than a little gangly looking. The RX was already so successful – the brand’s best seller in Canada – why the L? Was it really going to add that many more customers to the portfolio and draw them away from more established three-rowers like the Infiniti QX60, Acura MDX, or Audi Q7? Crazier still is the “h” in my tester’s name, denoting a hybrid powertrain.

The nitty-gritty is thus: 110 mm of extra overall length over non-“L” models (with the same wheelbase), a power-folding third row but no more height, less legroom in the first and second rows and less cargo volume behind the second row due to needing to accommodate a third row of seating. I’m not going to sugar-coat it: taken on their own, these facts are a little damning.

You won’t really see the extra length from the outside, however; the biggest giveaway is the larger black insert in the D-pillar, whose added length makes it look a little awkward. Not hugely so, but I had trouble ignoring it.

 

Otherwise, the RX 450hL is the same as other models, style-wise. Which, as I outlined earlier, is no bad thing as I’m a fan of the styling overall. Do I wish my tester had the F Sport package and the spindle grille that comes with it? Perhaps. But while I’m a fan of the more aggressive look it provides, I seem to be in the minority as so many people I talk to find it way over the top.

Inside, if we leave the third row out for a moment, you get the exact same treatment as the standard RX. Like the exterior styling, this is no bad thing as it’s a nice place to be, what with its intuitive centre stack, clear gauges (not digital, which is a little behind the curve in this segment) and excellent material and build quality. Style-wise, the way the wood panelling on the centre console sweeps up to meet the bottom right corner of the centre stack looks good, but coupled with the seat heater and electronic parking brake controls ahead of the shifter, it means the only option for storage at the base of the centre stack is a small pad suitable for a phone and not much more. Even for phones it’s not an easy fit, as it’s a narrow slot with a lip on its leading edge; it does keep the phone from slipping out on acceleration, but also makes an awkward fumble when you just want to get it and get into your house after a hard day’s work and rush-hour drive home. In the end, I had to resort to using a cupholder instead, which isn’t ideal, especially if there are two Tim Hortons’d occupants up front.

It is comfortable, though. The 10-way power-adjustable seats are magnificent both in terms of support and comfort, and even though the dash is quite deep (looks three feet deep if it’s an inch), the view out is perfectly reasonable – the triangular windows ahead of the wing mirrors are a big help in this regard. I guess I wish the steering wheel was a little more stylish, but otherwise, this is a well-thought-out interior.

The second row is made up of two captain’s chairs, equally comfortable as the fronts thanks to their ability to both slide and recline. The space between them, meanwhile, means that you can more easily reach the third row. Which, as we’ll see in a minute, is important.

The brown colouring in my car, meanwhile, is probably exactly as I’d have my RX; the red stitching kind of makes the brown look almost maroon in some lights, which is a properly luxurious treatment.

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The 12-inch screen atop the dash is your gateway to infotainment; it’s controlled via a joystick-style unit mounted just ahead of the armrest and while the cursor system it employs makes sense in theory, in practice it’s a little awkward. The cursor is meant to snap to the nearest on-screen button and all too often, it snaps to the wrong place. It’s annoying, and while I’m sure you’d get used to it the more you used it, it doesn’t leave a spectacular impression at the outset. You’d better get used to it, though, because that’s the only way to interact with the system as the screen doesn’t support touch, nor Android Auto / Apple CarPlay. I do like how large and wide it is, though, and it also houses the back-up cam – which, as it happens, is one of the best I’ve experienced.

The camera is clear, yes, but for me it’s the top-down view that really impresses. I’ve tried these before, and I’ve enjoyed them before – just not like this. The clarity of the screen and the placement of the cameras around the car combine to make it so you can place it within an inch of the curb, or perfectly in a stall, no problem. The square surrounding the vehicle image on the screen is a big help in this regard.

Right. The elephant in the room: the third row.

As I mentioned before, the captain’s chairs make it easier to reach than having to climb in through the door, in between the second-row seatback and door frame. It’s important to note, because unlike the QX60, the second row will fold flat and slide forward, but that’s about it. There’s no slide-and-tilt feature and as a result, clambering back there in any other way than through the two captain’s chairs isn’t especially feasible.

Once back there, the seat cushions are comfortable enough, but since they haven’t added any more headroom (in the second row, in fact, there’s less), it’s pretty cramped in that regard and even though there is less room in the front two rows, it’s not easily felt in the third row. Kids-only back there, that’s for darn sure. You pretty much have to move the second row all the way forward to fit an adult back there – even a kid, as there’s literally no legroom if the second row’s all the way back – making the second row even more cramped.

Power from the Lexus Hybrid Drive system is rated at 306 hp, and you can specify power delivery three ways – Normal, Eco, and Sport, all selected via console-mounted wheel; spin for Eco and Sport, press for Normal.

 

All three modes use the entire hybrid system, just in different ways: Eco reduces your throttle input, Normal balances power and economy, while Sport is the only mode that actually changes the steering, adding a little weight for more winding roads. I wasn’t surprised to find that you really have to concentrate to feel the difference, as I can’t imagine there are that many non-F Sport RX 450hL owners who are going to spend much time carving the crests over their favourite back-road.

I did like how it gives you just that much more oomph on throttle, however; the “h” and the “L” in this particular RX’s name make for a none-too-svelte 2,225 kg curb weight (130 kilos more than the non-hybrid RX 350L, and 75 over the standard RX 450h), and for my money, any boost in acceleration is welcome. It’s no sports car, but you can feel the difference, that’s for sure.

In truth, though, I used the RX 450hL like I suspect most would: around town at city speed, just letting the silky power steering and cocoon-like isolation whisk me and my family through town on the day-to-day. Overall, this is some truly regal motoring other than a few surprisingly rattly traverses over smaller, sharper bumps like certain expansion joints. Boy, does it ever swallow up speed bumps and the like; there’s an optional adaptive damper system but this side of maybe providing a little more stability through turns (it seems that the chassis has a little trouble keeping the extra weight in check, and there is some noticeable body roll as turns get more repetitive, shifting weight around), I don’t know if I see the need – again, this isn’t really meant to be a performance SUV.

Better you just keep doing what it’s made to do: move the family from A to B, every day, trying your best to keep it running in full-EV, which it can do. In fact, there’s a button that locks it into full EV; but more than just battery charge level, there are a multitude of factors that govern whether or not this is possible, from the way you’re driving, to the system temp. Still, though; we saw 10 L/100 km in mostly city driving, which is a little more than what Lexus claims but still pretty good for a three-row luxury SUV.

Here’s the thing, though. I like the RX in basic terms, like the looks, interior quality, comfort and so on. I just don’t think it needs to be – or should be – a three-row SUV. It’s expensive (at $77,600, it costs $6,450 more than a non-L RX 450h), there hasn’t ever been one throughout the RX’s 20-year existence, and a cynic may say this three-row version is here simply because every manufacturer feels they need one. People are buying them; I saw a number on the roads during my test, but while the third row is here, it really can’t hold a candle to the likes of the QX60. The RX does a great job when considered against the two-row competition, however, and that’s where I think it should stay.

2019 Lexus RX 450hL
Engine Displacement: 3.5L
Engine Cylinders: V6
Peak Horsepower: 259 hp @ 6,000 rpm; 306 hp combined
Peak Torque: 247 lb-ft @ 4,800 rpm
Fuel Economy: 8.1/8.4/8.1 L/100 km city/hwy/cmb
Cargo Space: 211 / 652 / 1,656 L behind 3rd/2nd/1st row
2019 Lexus RX 450hL
Base Price $77,600
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $2,075
Price as Tested $79,775
Optional Equipment None
Optional Equipment
10 0
Scoring breakdowns 7.9
8 Styling
7 Powertrain
10 Quality
7 Comfort
8 Practicality
8 Drivability
8 Usability/Ergonomics
8 Fuel Economy
8 Features
7 Value