2014 Lexus RX 450h review:

Lexus RX hybrid delivers quiet performance, OK economy

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Starting at $47,815

Roadshow Editors' Rating

7.1 Overall
  • Performance 8
  • Features 7
  • Design 6
  • Media & Connectivity 7

The Good The 2014 Lexus RX 450h is an exceptionally quiet luxury SUV, even when its gasoline engine is running. The optional Mark Levinson audio system is worth every penny.

The Bad Fuel economy was consistently below the EPA's estimates, even when driven with a light foot. Tech and cabin design feels a bit dated for this 2014 model.

The Bottom Line The 2014 Lexus RX 450h isn't a sexy choice, but it is a strong performer and a comfortable luxury cruiser with one of the quietest power trains in its class.

You probably drive past a dozen of these on your way to work -- some hybrid, some not, some new and some old -- and never take a second glance. That is, unless you're lucky enough to find yourself sitting inside of one and enjoying its comfortable ride, reliable performance, and well-thought-out amenities. Even then, the RX seems a bit like a practical decision, not a passionate one. It's a smart choice, if not a sexy one.

This 2014 Lexus RX 450h sits at the top of the model's totem pole, promising the most power, the most efficiency, the quietest cabin, and the best tech that the current RX platform has to offer. While it doesn't draw attention to itself, doesn't overwhelm or overcompensate, the RX 450h is spacious, refined, and comfortable. And over the course of my testing the SUV gave me a few little "A-ha!" moments and even managed to surprise me at a few turns.

Nearly silent, only kind of efficient

Let's start in the engine bay, which is where the RX 450h differs the most from the rest of the RX lineup. Under a sea of plastic engine covers designed to muffle power-train noise and keep you from mucking around with the oily bits, you'll find a 3.5-liter V-6 gasoline engine that is inseparably mated to a 116 kW electric motor via a continuously variable transmission. The combo works together to get you a maximum of 295 available horsepower.

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The automaker hides its engine under plastic shrouds. It hides the hybrid's the total torque output as well. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Our all-wheel-drive variant adds a second 50-kW electric motor on the rear axle to drive the rear wheels on demand with power stored in the RX's NiMH battery pack under the back seats. This drive-by-wire setup eliminates the need for a fore-t0-aft driveshaft, thus saving weight and allowing the SUV to do without a hump in the second-row foot space. Being electric, the torque to the rear axle is instantaneous when needed for accelerating or gripping. As the car's a hybrid, the rear electric motor doubles as a generator when not in use, grabbing extra energy during regenerative braking to charge the battery pack.

Lexus doesn't officially state a torque number for the RX hybrid, claiming that the hybrid's twisting force can't so simply be derived, which is frustrating for those checking the specs. However, the RX 450h feels like it has plenty of pound-feet at its disposal when the time comes to accelerate.

One of the best benefits of the Lexus hybrid system doesn't show up on the spec sheet. The SUV is extremely quiet in its operation, which you'd expect when running fully under electric power, but even when the gasoline engine fires up for freeway cruising or when working with the electric motors to accelerate away from a traffic light at a reasonable speed, the RX is quite quiet. That the gasoline engine's transition from stopped to running is nearly imperceptible helps a lot with that feeling of refinement.

If there is a trade-off to the smooth, silent hybrid system, it's a lack of pedal feel. While the hybrid likes a light foot, it has a tendency to smooth out pedal input, which is good for fuel economy, but can create a slight lag when you need a quick squirt of power for a pass. I suppose that between the CVT and the hybrid system's gas-electric handoff, there's a lot of wiggle room between my foot and the rubber meeting the road.

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All-wheel-drive variants add a second electric motor to the rear axle, which also helps with regenerative braking. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Give it the beans for a quick stoplight drag race and RX does not disappoint with its acceleration. There's no drama and no wheelspin, just a brief surge of electric torque before the engine joins the chorus with plentiful power. Because the CVT holds its ratio, there's no jerking or interruption of power for shifting, but it also means that the engine holds a single Hoover-like induction note. Guilt over being so wasteful with fuel in your Lexus hybrid will have you lifting before the noise gets too annoying.

The CVT features Sport and manual shift modes, so the CVT can shift between fixed ratios with the flick of the shift knob, but you'll probably never use it -- especially without paddle shifters. You may, on the other hand, use the EV mode when the finicky setting will allow it.

Fuel economy for the 2014 RX 450h is stated by the EPA at 30 city, 28 highway, and 29 combined, but I was only able to do 25.4 mpg despite my best efforts at a light right foot. (I promise, I only did one or two zero-to-60 runs during my entire week with the RX.)

Refined, but not revolutionary

The RX's cabin is filled with little nice touches that elicit a grin here and an exclamation there. I particularly like how the power windows slow down for the last few inches of their travel, closing silently rather than thunking shut. It's that sort of consistent attention to detail that really makes me appreciate Lexus as a luxury marquee.

The whisper-quiet power train and excellent noise and wind deadening allow the optional Mark Levinson audio system to shine unmolested, creating the best possible conditions for it to deliver one of the great mobile listening experiences. The smooth ride was a bit floaty, but did an excellent job of isolating me from the imperfections of the road. Meanwhile, our optional Premium Leather and matte bamboo trim was praised by all who spent time in the cabin.

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The RX's interior design is sparse and a bit dated, but wins back points for excellent materials, fit, and finish. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

However, the Lexus' interior design looks a bit dated. The materials are great, but Lexus has come a long way with its interior design for the LS, GS, and IS sedans. The RX's bamboo steering wheel is a gorgeous tiller, but the cabin surrounding feels a bit underdesigned. And the odd champagne-colored asymmetrical center stack is probably the most dated element; I almost expected to see a tape deck hiding out below the CD slot. Likewise, the rear-seat entertainment system with its analog RCA A/V hookup (rather than digital HDMI) is just so turn-of-the-century and a rather expensive option.

Tech that entertains and Enforms

At the top of the dashboard, sunken deep beneath a brow that shades it from the sun and glare, is the color display for the Lexus Enform with Remote Touch infotainment system.

The display isn't touch-sensitive and is controlled by Lexus' joystick-like Remote Touch Controller. This stick fits in the hand like a trackball and moves a cursor around the display to make selections like a mouse. The scheme takes a lot of getting used to and some people will find it easier to adapt to than others.

The Remote Touch Controller's coolest party trick is its haptic feedback, which makes the control stick vibrate and snap to the various onscreen buttons, making it easy to aim by touch without staring at the display. It's very cool, but also a bit weird. It's also positioned in a way that makes it very easy for the driver to reach, but awkward for the front passenger.

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The Remote Touch Controller takes some getting used to, but it fits nicely under your hand and features rewarding haptic feedback. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

At the front of the controller, you'll find two buttons and a rocker-like a mouse, but these are shortcuts to the navigation system's map screen and a main menu where you'll find every other function (apps, audio sources, vehicle information, destination input, settings, and more). This seems a bit imbalanced. Onscreen selections are made by pressing the Remote Touch's square control stick like a button.

The Enform system features voice command that puts many of its features just the touch of a steering wheel button away. While onscreen cues and hints help get over the "What am I supposed to say here" learning curve, most functions require too many individual prompts. For example, entering an address requires pauses to speak the city, street name, and street number.

The navigation system is simple and gets the job done. Like the rest of the RX, it gets its job done without drawing attention to itself. You'll find no 3D Google Earth Web-connected maps here. Just flat, 2D maps and simple traffic with spoken turn-by-turn directions..

As I stated earlier, the Mark Levinson premium audio system is worth every penny of its $1,000 asking price and hooks up a decent selection of audio sources. There's USB and analog auxiliary inputs, the former featuring iPod compatibility. Bluetooth connectivity puts hands-free calling, stereo audio streaming, and text messaging text-to-speech with canned responses into the dashboard. There's also AM/FM radio with HD decoding and Sirius XM satellite radio, both of which support iTunes tagging when used with a connected iPod.

When connected to a smartphone running the Enform app, the Lexus also gains access to a variety of connected services, including Bing, Pandora, iHeart Radio, OpenTable, Yelp, and Facebook Places.

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The RX 450h wasn't as efficient as claimed, but still impressed me with its refinement and attention to detail. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

In sum

I was a bit disappointed by the RX 450h's fuel economy, but impressed by the power train's refinement, quiet operation, and available torque. Attention to detail in the cabin and the generally good appointments left me with an overall positive opinion of the luxury hybrid, yet I still had a hard time getting excited about it.

Our all-wheel drive example of the 2014 Lexus RX 450h started at $47,810, but options and destination charges pushed the price up to $62,074.

In that range, the RX 450h does come into interesting cross-competition with the Audi Q5 TDI . The hybrid versus diesel decision will depend on your personal power-train preferences (interestingly, we got slightly better fuel economy during our testing with the diesel), but the Audi features much more available safety and infotainment tech, which can tip the balance in its favor for technophiles.

Tech specs
Model 2014 Lexus RX 450h
Trim AWD
Power train 3.5-liter Lexus gas-electric hybrid V-6, electric all-wheel drive, CVT w/ manual and Sport modes
EPA fuel economy 30 city, 28 highway, 29 combined mpg
Observed fuel economy 25.4 mpg
Navigation Entune navigation with traffic
Bluetooth phone support Standard
Digital audio sources USB with iPod, 3.5mm aux-input, Bluetooth (audio, hands-free, text messaging), HD Radio, satellite radio, Entune streaming apps
Audio system 330-watt, 15-speaker Mark Levinson Premium Surround Sound Audio System
Driver aids Blind-spot monitoring, rear camera with front and rear park distance sensors
Base price (USD) $47,810
Price as tested (USD) $62,074

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