Hybrid, electric and autonomous technologies promise a revolution in the way cars are shaped and packaged, yet the truth is that the boundaries aren’t yet being pushed. Lexus is one of the few car makers striking out on a path of incorporating hybrid drive systems in all its models, although it will sell you a petrol-only model should you so desire. At the same time, the Japanese luxury brand has attempted to redefine the avant-garde, conjuring up a new design language that satisfies both the traditional high-end car customer and those in search of something a little more cutting-edge.
The new RX450h is where these ambitions collide. A large-size hybrid SUV, the RX series has been a mainstay of the Lexus line-up since the very first model back in 1997. RXs do especially well in the US, where the appetite for big, comfy cars is undiminished, but it’s also an increasingly visible presence on European roads. The marque was famously created from scratch by Toyota, a luxury brand without a heritage but with a fistful of focus groups instead. Meticulous research paid off from the outset, and although the first Lexii (copyright Douglas Coupland) were conventionally styled to the point of anonymity, the past few years has seen a sea change in the corporate approach.
Contemporary Lexus is striving for a third way in automotive design, eschewing convention without casting off the obvious constraints of things like wheels and doors and headlights. In the absence of self-driving pods or building-climbing concepts (witness the company’s Lexus-badged vision for the 2002 film Minority Report), Lexus is making the best of what it’s got, pushing for angles, creases, lines and surfaces that no other manufacturer dares to embrace. Although we suspect Lexus’ team would like nothing better than to sit around making expressionist sculptures all day long, they’re also in the business of transportation design.
For a more relaxing drive, Adaptive Cruise Control maintains a set distance between the RX 450h and the vehicle ahead, even if that vehicle varies its speed
As a result, the RX is a bold addition to a genre that was born deeply conventional. It is undeniably different, a rolling barometer of personal taste. For some, the angular front end, dominated by what the company has dubbed the ‘spindle’ grill, is the absolute epitome of automotive modernism. It’s often said that car designers only have a few centimetres of depth to work their magic on a car body surface, as dictated by the fixed and immovable location of engineering hard points below. The RX pushes this maxim further than most with a series of deep creases and kinks that do a good job of concealing the otherwise deeply conservative SUV body shape.
On the road, the benefits of hybrid drive are felt immediately. This is a car that starts and glides away in total silence, with the highly refined engine only cutting in when required. For bursts of speed, the battery pack delivers an extra whoosh to the car’s accelerative powers. The in-car entertainment and navigation falls a little short of class best, relying on Lexus’ brave but ultimately doomed decision to use a cursor-based screen selector, operated by moving a little joystick. It feels and looks wobbly and lacks feedback or user satisfaction.
The RX is still a class leader, although the differentiation of design is starting to give way to those who prioritise tech over form. Tesla’s Model X is an obvious rival, as is the forthcoming Jaguar i-PACE, both all-electric cars that mate innovation with interesting form. At a company as design-driven as Lexus, we expect great things in the years to come, as its many years of experience are leverage to let form be given the free reign its designers so obviously desire.