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Lexus RX 450h driven in the slow lane

Dejan Jovanovic jumps behind the wheel of Lexus’ latest hybrid model for a taste of a different driving experience. In the slow lane...

  • “The point this car is trying to make is that you can buy a hybrid and not get ostracised by society.”Image Credit: Stefan Lindeque/ANM
  • 2013 RX 450h model gets updated styling, as well as optional F Sport goodies. Image Credit: Stefan Lindeque/ANM
  • This V6 has the power of a V6. Regardless of what Lexus wants you to believeImage Credit: Stefan Lindeque/ANM

I was interviewing a top executive from one of the world’s most exclusive carmakers recently, and the subject of alternative energy vehicles came up. The bottom line is, nobody in the Middle East gives a hoot.

In other news, it’s still hot out.

It’s admirable, then, that Japanese manufacturer Lexus is brandishing its katana, fighting the worthy environmental battle like a lone samurai. It’s one against millions of us stubborn car buyers who will choose a V8 over a bunch of naughts and ones, minuses and pluses, any day of the week.

And then I drove the 2013 RX 450h crossover, powered by Lexus’ Hybrid Drive featuring a 3.5-litre V6 and a bunch of Nickel Metal Hydride batteries plus a front-mounted electric motor. Total system output is 295 horsepower, which Lexus likes to boast is V8-like performance from a V6. That’s true, if you’re using a Rover V8 from the Seventies as your benchmark.

But I’m only nitpicking at the model’s press material. The point this car is trying to make is that you can buy a hybrid and not get ostracised by society. Maybe your wife won’t even leave you.

“You bought me a what?”

“But habibti, it sips six litres-per-100km.”

“Oh, OK then.”

See? It’s all good.

The all-wheel drive 2013 RX 450h I tested — you can also have a front-wheel drive model, which is even thriftier since it’s 60kg lighter — is actually officially rated at 30 US mpg, which is almost 8.0 litres-per-100km. Yet on a couple of commutes I drove sensibly, as in Nissan Sunny sensibly, and I saw a steady 6.1-litres average. I like saving fuel. The Eco mode in the Lexus and Eco gauge bar motivate you to keep playing along, only in this game you’re aiming for the lowest score.

What’s more, at this very moment I have the 2013 Lexus RX 350, which only has a V6 that gives V6-like performance — and I’m not driving it sensibly, and there are no mini-games inspiring me to symbolically adopt a whale. And as a result the average fuel consumption per 100km hovers at around 12 litres.

At Dh1.78 for a litre of premium petrol in the UAE, and figuring you put about 40,000km on your car over a year, that’s Dh8,544 spent on fuel every 12 months. But you can halve that with the RX 450h, and use the four grand you’ve saved to treat yourself to something nice. Like, I don’t know, petrol for your weekends-only V8 Mustang perhaps?

The Lexus isn’t all about saving you money either because it’s not cheap to begin with. But for the new model year the carmaker has freshened up the exterior with Lexus’s new spindle grille, new bumper designs, LEDs, new taillights and the choice of more colours. The interior gets elegant maple wood trim, metal accents, a steering wheel redesign, USB and MP3 connectivity, even softer leather, contrasting stitching and some rethinking of the centre console.

Being a Lexus, the RX 450h rides beautifully, but you can hear the roar of the optional F Sport 19in tyres and their sidewalls are noticeably stiff. Keep in mind that in Lexus’s lexicon, stiff is the same as marshmallowy to Audi or BMW. There’s no feel coming through that new steering wheel, and none necessary, but the electromechanical system is consistently weighted if totally artificial. You feel like you’re heaving a low-quality force-feedback video game steering wheel instead of directing a mechanical front axle.

Based loosely on the Toyota Camry’s platform, you don’t expect the RX to blow you away with its road holding or quick turn-in and set-taking through the corners. And it doesn’t. The low-profile tyres scramble for the outside kerb all too often, reminding you that you’re not Juichi Wakisaka in an LFA. This is a large luxury-crossover, so it dives under braking, and rolls around like Cristiano Ronaldo in his prime. That’s no large flaw, yet the hybrid drive’s electronic map is a bit, well, 32-bit, since it’s not smart enough to induce zero-emissions electric mobility every time the battery allows it. You have to manually override the system continuously, if you want to see a great high (low?) score in the fuel economy game.

For 2013, the RX 450h is also loaded brim-full with standard equipment such as keyless entry with push-button start, power tilt and telescopic steering column, 10 airbags, and 10-way power front seats. Options include ventilated seats that give you bottom hypothermia within seconds, an excellent 15-speaker 7.1-channel surround sound system, navigation, back-up camera… the works. Radio reception is also exemplary, as tested with my favourite station that normally has the reception of an R/C car.

I’m not sure why we’re so averted to hybrids as practical daily drivers.

I’d love to own one of these RX 450h crossovers. But it costs Dh270K. That’s V8 money. Oops…