Since 1989, Lexus has upset the luxury segment with quality-filled products and a fastidious pursuit of service perfection — at pricing levels below the competition. At first, the Germans shrugged off their new Asian rival at a steep cost in market share. And looking back, it is apparent that Lexus, as well as other luxury automakers that followed their business plan, have eaten the lunches, dinner and breakfasts of Lincoln and Cadillac.
Today, Lexus enjoys a small sales revival after both Mercedes and BMW (and to a smaller degree Audi) launched a full-on sales assault on the American marketplace, a product siege that stole a lot of Lexus sales, Acura sales and other entry luxury brands. With cars and crossovers more engaging to drive, the Germans have products built for involved drivers, a piece of the Lexus portfolio that remains missing.
Changes at the top at Lexus are meant to change this; Toyota’s new chief branding officer, Tokuo Fukuichi, has been charged with sharpening Lexus’s image and creating a more assertive lifestyle automotive brand, according to interviews in Automotive News. Building on the brand’s strengths of quality and service, Lexus marketers must create “Lexus envy,” the emotional lust that buyers feel for the German brands.
The immediate emphasis will be on sportier vehicles (expensive, high-performance coupes and sedans), but this emphasis will probably be shared across the lineup. A word of caution, don’t kill the golden goose that got you on the map and accounts for one-third of total Lexus sales — the RX-series crossover.
The RX has been Lexus’s best-selling vehicle for almost 20 years. This two-row midsize crossover offers no pretense about off-roading, like a Jeep Grand Cherokee, it brags not at all about its towing abilities, 3,500 pounds, yet it remains the darling of the segment — one of the few aspirational models in the Lexus showroom year after year. Quality, service and its subdued styling have been consistent from the beginning.
Wearing the chiseled spindle-like face that is sweeping the brand, plus a new “floating roof” design that mimics the Nissan Murano, the latest RX is at once distinctive and familiar. Presented here in premium RX450h hybrid trim, the consequential Lexus wagon makes big consumer points with a finely honed and well-detailed interior, lots of driving aids and a coddling cabin that will never go out of style. Highlights include a huge 12.3-inch navigation/information screen atop the dash, a huge panoramic roof and subtle details like wrap-around doors that shrink the entry threshold and leave you with clean slacks on entry and exit.
A supple suspension is betrayed by the shortest wheelbase in this class — only 110 inches — while benign steering feel reinforces the general impressions about most Lexus vehicles; nice to travel in, less engaging to drive for the fun of driving. As the pace quickens, the Lexus was less quiet than some rivals, and there are no driver sensation rewards.
This is more true with the hybrid-ized model. Base RX wagons enjoy a 295-hp 3.5-liter V-6 engine in either front- or all-wheel drive configurations, while the 450h gets electric motors, a battery pack and CVT transmission to increase overall output to 308 hp. These pieces also add 350 pounds and rob a little bit of rear cargo space, all while negating the benefit of additional power. The hybrid model also adds almost $9,000 to the sticker price ($44,520 base AWD, hybrid AWD base $53,035).
The hybrid Lexus generates a strong midrange punch perfect for highway merging. However, the RX revealed that its true operating strengths are at less than the prevailing pace on our highways, as fuel economy precipitously dropped as the speeds increased to keep up with the traveling flow of traffic. Front drive RX EPA estimates are 20/27/23 mpg; AWD models without hybrid power are rated at 19/26/22. RX450h hybrid AWD models are rated at 31/28/30 mpg — a clear depiction that this hybrid wagon is like its smaller Toyota hybrid vehicles in preferring peak fuel economy during city operation, where the battery pack and electric motors can replace the gas engine while driving.
Our realized economy peaked at 26.7 mpg with a weeklong average of 24.5 mpg, somewhat less than the EPA projections as well as less than a conventionally powered Nissan Murano from a year ago. Given that the Lexus also prefers premium fuel for peak hybrid power delivery, the Lexus’s returned fuel economy could be an expensive proposition not only on purchase but over the course of ownership.
Unless, of course, your primary driving is in suburbia, consisting of short bursts into the city, around town commuting or short-distance driving that optimizes the hybrid-powertrain’s abilities. Then, the Lexus hybrid makes sense as an alternative vehicle.