New Lexus RX 450h adopts radical style, retains stellar hybrid fuel economy

Starting at $57,045

With a roofline that doesn't quite connect with the rear of the car, heavily contoured sides and a grille the size of the Hoover dam, you might think the 2016 Lexus RX 450h has undergone a drastic change. And while the styling is radically different, under the skin the updates are more cautious, bringing in a little more power, a bigger infotainment LCD and some nice interior trim options.

Still, the Lexus RX 450h benefits from its hybrid drive system to achieve an average of around 30 mpg, excellent for a five-passenger luxury SUV. And Lexus adds an F-Sport version, giving it better handling.

Lexus showed the updated RX 450h and its gasoline-only sibling the RX 350, at the New York auto show earlier this year, then gave me a chance to get behind the wheel during a press preview in Portland, Oregon. I've always liked the RX 450h as a comfortable and economical cruiser, with light driving controls requiring virtually no effort to drive.

2016 Lexus RX 450h
The Lexus RX 450h adopts a whole new look, accentuated by its floating roof. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Gazing on the radical styling of the 2016 model, I was faced with a love-it/hate-it decision, and I swayed towards the former due to the roofline. Lexus called it a "floating roof", as the rear pillar is blacked out to make it seem the body-colored metal of the roof merely hangs over the back of the car without quite touching it. I particularly like the edge of the roof line, accented by a chrome strip, forming a graceful arch with a little kick at the end. It looks straight out of a car designer's sketchbook.

The massive grille and the very busy sides are more likely to throw potential buyers.

The rear liftgate and the hood are now aluminum, to lessen weight, but under that hood we still find a 3.5-liter V-6 engine sending its power to a planetary gearset, what Lexus calls an electronic continuously variable transmission (e-CVT). Power also comes into the e-CVT from a drive motor getting juice from a nickel-metal hydride battery pack, similar to the previous generation. All-wheel-drive versions of the RX 450h get an additional electric motor driving the rear wheels, engaged when it needs extra traction.

Lexus made engine improvements for the 2016 model year, bumping the overall output of the system to 308 horsepower from 295, while fuel economy remains about the same, 31 mpg city and 30 mpg highway for the front-wheel-drive version and 30 mpg city and 28 mpg highway for the rear-wheel-drive version.

The version I drove in Portland was the 2016 Lexus RX 450h F-Sport, which gets a mechanically adaptive suspension engaged by its special Sport Plus mode, an addition to the Eco, Normal and Sport modes in the standard version.

Immediately behind the wheel I felt something different -- the steering required more effort than the one-finger turnability of the previous generation. I like that; it makes the steering feel a little more engaged with the road.

2016 Lexus RX 450h
In F-Sport trim, the Lexus RX 450h gets a firmer, mechanically adaptive suspension. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Lexus added a mechanical engine-sound amplification system, letting more of the engine note enter the cabin under heavy acceleration. Flooring the RX 450h F-Sport, which comes with all-wheel drive, the tires broke grip just a little and it launched with better-than-average force. As it built up speed, I heard the engine note come through as a low purr, nothing super aggressive but not what you would have heard from the previous generation.

Paddle shifters on the steering wheel control programmed shift points for the e-CVT rather than actual gear changes, but I found these fake shifts quick and convincing.

In the turns, with Sport Plus engaged, the suspension showed a bit more firmness, mostly keeping the RX 450h's body from wallowing. It's an appreciable handling improvement, but nothing revelatory. The RX 450h showed understeer when I made a less-than-perfect turn entrance.

In Eco and Normal drive modes, the suspension loosens up a bit, but it wasn't a drastic change in feel from the driver seat. The F-Sport version retains a bit more firmness than the standard R 450h under normal driving conditions. Driving it through the turns and accelerating off the line, I could also feel the car's substantial weight, which emphasizes a solid luxury feel rather than nimble sports handling.

Perched on the dashboard, the tablet-style 12.3-inch LCD shows a big, colorful screen. Unlike the previous generation, I could view maps and other functions in full screen or with an auxiliary side screen. In the limited time I had with this car, I found it difficult to figure out how exactly to go from split to full-screen.

2016 Lexus RX 450h
The RX 450h uses a joystick-style cursor controller, mounted on the console, for its infotainment interface. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

And rather than the touchpad Lexus installed for infotainment control on its RC 350 model , the RX 450h retains the joystick-style controller on the console, which moves a cursor on the screen. This control scheme often proves annoying, as it's far too easy to skip across the onscreen icon or menu you want. Even with the new system, I frequently had to track back to try and hit my desired function.

The infotainment software looks similar to the previous generation, no big changes here. It is nice to see the maps displayed in a such a huge format. And the car continues to offer the Lexus Enform Apps feature, which powers a number of useful features, such as online destination search, from a Bluetooth-paired smartphone. I quite like this system for Toyota-branded models, although in the upscale Lexus there really should be a built-in dedicated data connection, so owners don't have to mess around with set up.

A few other tech goodies, which I didn't get to try in this car, are available. You can option up the RX 450h with a color head-up display, showing speed and navigation. A Mark Levinson audio system, with 15 speakers, sweetens the sound. Lexus bundles a set of active safety features under the Lexus Safety System Plus package. Using radar and a camera, the system includes adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assist, both useful for longer road trips.

I like the 2016 Lexus RX 450h for its excellent fuel economy and comfort, and I appreciate the updated styling, but I'm not really sold on the F-Sport edition. Even with the firmer suspension, this is not a car I would enjoy driving aggressively. As a reasonably high-tech luxury sedan replacement, though, it has a lot to offer.

Lexus has not announced pricing for the 2016 RX 450h as of this date.


Editor's note:CNET accepts multi-day vehicle loans from manufacturers in order to provide scored editorial reviews. All fuel and vehicle insurance costs are covered by CNET. All scored vehicle reviews are completed on our turf and on our terms. However, for this feature, travel costs were covered by the manufacturer. This is common in the auto industry, as it's far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists. The judgements and opinions of CNET's editorial team are our own and we do not accept paid content.

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