If anyone out there thinks that car design is stagnating, and we’re living deep in the era of me-too styling, may I present you with the Lexus RX450h. Here’s a car that’s suffused with slashes, folds and creases and, although it’s a high-riding SUV, many of its design themes scream sports car at you. Here’s the thing, though – before I’d spent my week with this car, I could barely bring myself to look at it, but by the end of my tenure with a car I so wanted to hate, the beast had wormed its way into my affections.
Is that down to its design, or the unimpeachable quality and depth of engineering of the car? After a week behind the wheel I still hadn’t made up my mind. But what I do know is that there was something about this car that got to me. So, let’s do the boring review stuff first before getting down to the original point of this blog – what is the point of design for design’s sake?
As with all Lexus cars, it’s actually most impressive inside. The material quality is beyond reproach, and there’s a substantial feel to all of the controls, even if there’s not quite the soft-feel tactility you’d get with a comparable Mercedes-Benz or Jaguar. The controls are laid out in typical Japanese fashion, and the huge high-resolution central screen is controlled by a neat free-roaming mouse-like device that works well once you’re used to it (like the styling). I rather like the fact it has a traditional analogue clock in the centre of the dashboard, too.
The driving position is good, the seat is supportive and supremely comfortable on longer trips, There’s ample passenger space, and the rear room looks good, even if the boot space is limited by a high floor that’s an inevitable consequence of the hybrid battery pack.
Driving it is to receive an object lesson in refinement. You power it up and, generally, the creamy-smooth V6 won’t cut in until you’re the move, or you hoof the accelerator. The old issue of the hybrid/CVT drivetrain resulting in a constant, flat engine note is less of a problem when there’s a tuneful V6 under the bonnet, than the tinny-sounding Prius/Lexus CT200h four-pot. But newbies will still think it sounds like an old car with the clutch slipping.
Steering in Eco mode is inert and lifeless, but the brakes are strong, and handling is tidy and obedient. At speed it’s hushed, both from wind- and road noise – although there’s an odd on/off feel to the power steering in cruise mode around the centre point, which might have been a side-effect of the lane detection system.
Did it understeer or oversteer? Who cares? It goes, points, steers and grips and, despite ostensibly being marketed as an SUV, never does it feel top heavy or under less than total control. What it does do is munch miles impressively, and lope along motorways smoothly and in a relaxed manner. And that’s what really matters.
Whether you like the idea of a petrol hybrid or not, there’s no arguing that this is one refined beast in comparison with the very best of the turbodiesel opposition. And once again that gives faith in the notion that petrol will – one day – become the dominant fuel of choice in the Europe, as it is in the rest of the world. At £49,995 on the road, it’s expensive, but you’re getting an awful lot of tech for the money – and remember that it’s easy to spec up a Range Rover Evoque to this price level, and that would be powered by a 2.0-litre four-cylinder.
So, yes, the RX450h is a car that on a subjective level ticks all manner of boxes – it’s fast, refined and comfortable. The ride quality and damping are exemplary for motorway drivers, and the accessibility of all of the tech that comes as standard is impressive. On a personal level, I’d say that one very fussy passenger gave it a big thumbs up, once they’d acclimatised to the styling. And in the real world, that means a great deal.
What of the original question raised by this blog, though – the rhinoceros in the room that is the styling? Well, for a company like Lexus, which is constantly and boringly criticised by know-it-all enthusiasts for having no charisma – no soul – this is a very effective way of making it stand out from the crowd. And that gets people talking. Think about it – can you visualise the original LS or GS? Or how about last year’s RX? Probably not… But I bet once you’ve clapped eyes on this beast, you won’t forget it in a hurry. And let’s be honest here – cars that polarise opinions are far more interesting than those that melt into the background.
We love BL and BMC products at AROnline – and, if you think about the company’s most controversial phase, the mid-1970s, it was dominated by cars with exceptionally challenging styling. The Princess, for instance, divided opinions like few others in its sector at the time. And as for Harris Mann’s Allegro and Triumph TR7, you really can’t say they were in any way forgettable. Bad or good? Who cares? Right now, they are brim-full of character and classic appeal.
So, is Lexus buying itself a dose of instant enthusiast kudos with its latest over-designed effort? Perhaps… Will it cost the company any sales, in comparison with the far more anodyne-looking outgoing RX450h? Probably not… Maybe it’s aiming to make an ideal classic car for 2040. But will it cast itself further up anyone’s shopping list. Absolutely yes. Just as it will be dropped off many others’.
So, design for design’s sake – is there a point? In this case, yes.
Would I buy one? Nahhh… But my passenger would.