What is it?
2020 Lexus RX 450hL First Drive
This Luxury Fuel-Sipper Excels in the Corners Too
The RX is Lexus' most popular crossover. Sized for family use, it is available as a two-row SUV or a three-row SUV, in both hybrid and gas engine-only configurations. The 450hL is the three-row version, with a hybrid powertrain consisting of a 3.5-liter V6 engine, a continuously variable automatic transmission and dual electric motors. Total combined power is 308 horsepower, and the RX 450hL is only available in all-wheel drive.
Why does it matter?
The RX is one of today's best-selling luxury SUVs. It's Lexus' top earner and outsells all of the brand's passenger cars combined. If it wore a Toyota badge, it would be the automaker's eighth best-selling model, behind the Tundra pickup.
What does it compete with?
The standard RX 350 competes with a wide variety of luxury SUVs, ranging from smaller offerings such as the Acura RDX and the Audi Q5 to midsizers Mercedes-Benz GLE and BMW X5. The RDX and the Q5 present distinctly more sporting attitudes, while the GLE and the X5 turn up the luxury an extra notch.
As a luxury hybrid SUV, the RX 450hL has the class nearly to itself. Its closest competitor is the Volvo XC60 T8, which is significantly more powerful but also significantly more expensive.
How does it drive?
Thanks to a stiffer body structure and revised suspension settings, the RX's handling has a little more bite and immediacy changing direction when setting up for quick turns. It's a subtle change aided by the RX's new torque-vectoring system, which brakes the inside wheel during cornering to keep the RX on its line.
Fundamentally, the RX's dynamic character isn't altered. The RX hasn't morphed into an Audi Q5 or even an Acura RDX. And that's OK. Knife-edge handling has never been the RX's bag, and we think it's far more valuable for its smooth and absorbent ride.
Surprisingly, the RX 450hL is the better driver compared to the gas engine-only model. The 450hL's low center of gravity, courtesy of its floor-mounted battery pack, gives it impressive cornering stability. And its dual electric motors assist the V6 with seamless power delivery. It's odd to recommend a hybrid as the superior choice, but Lexus has shown uncanny skill at making the most of its fuel-sipping models.
What's the interior like?
There are no fundamental changes to the RX 450hL's interior for 2020. It retains its high level of quality upholstery, cabin accents and seat comfort. This three-row SUV again offers second-row captain's chairs with an easy walk-through to the back. But now the third-row seats can also slide back for up to 3.7 additional inches of legroom, depending on how much stuff you have in the already meager cargo space. It might be enough room to finally persuade friends to ride along for a visit to wine country. Without using the sliding rear seats, the third row remains a kids-only zone.
The arrival of a touchscreen infotainment display is an important update, however. It means you're no longer confined to Lexus' awkward trackpad (what it calls Remote Touch Interface) to find your songs, work the navigation or place a call. The display is available in 8- and 12-inch versions, and it's moved more than 5 inches closer to front passengers for an easier reach.
The RTI doesn't deserve the abuse it's suffered from automotive writers. But its adherence to rigid horizontal and vertical scrolling is at odds with the fluid movements we expect from trackpads. It makes sense, of course; a car hurtling down the highway at 70 mph is no place for a wandering cursor. But it typically ends in a stiff and frustrating experience. The RTI is still there if you want it, but the touchscreen is a nice redundancy that we expect most drivers will prefer.
That you can now also use Apple CarPlay and Android Auto with the new touchscreen is a bonus. Amazon Alexa skills are also integrated into the updated system.
How practical is it?
The RX 450hL remains as practical as ever. This roomy SUV seats up to five passengers in luxurious comfort, with a third row of questionable utility. Adjustable rear seats reclaim some legroom, but it's still mostly suited for small children.
Tech updates for 2020 make the 450hL better integrated and more connected, specifically the addition of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone interfaces. Cargo space remains smaller than some rivals, though. If you routinely need to carry large loads, some of the Lexus' competitors might be a better fit.
What else should I know?
Most of the RX's visible changes are relatively minor. There are some new interior and exterior colors, a couple of new wheel designs, revised head- and taillights, and an improved infotainment interface.
The most significant changes go unseen. Under the sheet metal, the updated RX benefits from hundreds of laser welds in the side pillars, floorpan, rear crossmember, and other strategic structural points.
Even more invisible is the increased amount of structural adhesive sandwiched between panels, covering nearly 10 times more of the joints and body. Not only does this help with body rigidity, but it also cuts down on outside noise.
A stronger SUV body is a good thing. Any opportunity to reduce flex helps for a more stable ride and better handling — but only if the suspension is simpatico. The new RX's increased rigidity meant engineers needed to retune suspension components, adding thicker front and rear stabilizer bars (hollowed for weight savings), reinforced bushings, and revised spring and shock settings.
It's no coincidence that the RX is one of the best-selling luxury SUVs in America, and the RX 450hL, specifically, one of the top luxury hybrid SUVs. It's a benchmark of quality, comfort and consistency. Changes for 2020 appear minor but are significant enough to keep the RX near the front of the luxury pack. The RX doesn't generate the kind of adrenaline rush of some of its rivals, but it has everything you need in equal amounts.