Review: How does the Canadian made Lexus RX 500h hold up in a 14,000
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Review: How does the Canadian made Lexus RX 500h hold up in a 14,000

Jun 05, 2023

The Lexus RX 500h beside the Old Trans-Canada sign near Borden, PEI.Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

Much has already been written about the new Lexus RX 500h, though I don’t know that any journalist has driven one for 14,000 kilometres, as I just did to cross Canada.

At the end of it all, my back hurt, but that’s probably because I’m 60 years old and was sitting much of the day, every day, for five weeks. The seats in the Lexus loaner were comfortable enough, with adjustable lumbar support bars, and there’s only so much they can do without any yoga to help. My friend Peter, who came along for the ride, and is even older and lazier than I am, had no such issues.

I wanted to drive the fifth-generation RX because it’s a spacious SUV – though not overly roomy compared with some of its direct competition, such as the BMW X5 – and because it’s made in Canada. After all, a drive on the Trans-Canada Highway deserved to be taken in a Canadian-made vehicle. I could have also chosen a Canadian-made Ford Edge or a Lincoln Nautilus, or even a Chrysler Pacifica or Grand Caravan, but the RX 500h was offered by Lexus and I was intrigued by its all-new power plant.

The 2023 Lexus RX 500h has a 2.4-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine attached to an electric motor.Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

It’s a 2.4-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine attached to an electric motor, similar to the engines in the Toyota Crown sedan, the new Grand Highlander and the upcoming 2024 Tacoma i-Force Max. There’s a second motor on the rear axle that’s used to drive the rear wheels, when needed. With all four wheels providing power, the big RX can produce 366 horsepower and up to 406 lb-ft of torque.

The $79,800 RX 500h is unusual in that almost every hybrid on the market uses a continuously variable transmission for better fuel economy, as does the less powerful RX 350h, but the 500h is tuned for performance when wanted and so it uses a six-speed automatic transmission. In practice, this is the difference between the feel of the vehicle being pulled up to speed by the bands and pulleys of the CVT, or being pushed up to speed by the cogs of the gearbox.

This was irrelevant most of the time, just sailing along the highway and letting the Lexus govern its speed using active cruise control. On side trips, however, the performance came into its own. The RX 500h comes standard with adaptive variable suspension, which works well to soak up bumps and off-camber ridges, together with MacPherson struts at the front to help keep the steering precise.

There are touch-sensitive buttons on the hub of the steering wheel that are duplicated as an image on the heads-up display.Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

In New Brunswick, we picked up a hitchhiker who was thumbing for a ride on the secondary road beside the Saint John River. “This is a Lexus, eh?” he said from the back seat. “What’s so special about it?” Where to start? So I mashed the throttle to the floor, briefly. “Whoa!” he yelled. “She’s got some go, doesn’t she?”

The Lexus brand has a reputation for plush suspension and vague steering, favoured in Asian markets for sedans and SUVs alike, but the new RX is one of several performance-oriented models to break this mould. The 500h even has dynamic rear steering: the rear wheels will turn up to four degrees, either in line with the front wheels at higher speeds to quicken its response through corners, or in the opposite direction at slower speeds, to tighten its turning circle.

This cross-Canada drive, however, was not only about performance but reliability, comfort, efficiency and convenience. For reliability, the vehicle never put a wheel wrong, despite being officially a prototype that was built to test the first days of the manufacturing process in Cambridge, Ont. For comfort, the leather sport seats were snug but otherwise unremarkable. This new generation offers only two rows of seating, unlike the three rows of the previous versions; if you want to carry more than five people in a mid-sized SUV, Lexus is soon to offer the all-new TX.

As for efficiency, the 500h uses its hybrid electric motors to save on fuel while coasting on cruise control, but to augment the power of the gas engine when needed or wanted. It’s a good system: my average consumption over 14,000 kilometres was 8.5 litres per 100 kilometres, which is a tick less than the official claim of 8.6, despite the strong prairie headwinds. It’s also more than a litre better than the claimed 9.9 average of the less-powerful, non-hybrid RX 350. A new plug-in hybrid RX, the 450h, will join the lineup soon, but it won’t be available until at least the end of the year.

And then there’s convenience which, for the sake of making everything simpler and safer for the driver, also makes the vehicle considerably more complex.

This new generation of the vehicle offers only two rows of seating, unlike the three rows of the previous versions.Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

The door handles, for example, are fixed units with buttons to pop open the doors, but they were a challenge for new passengers who, without exception, had to be told how to open them from inside.

As well, the triple-beam LED headlamps with adaptive high-beam assist, which are one of the many features available with the sole optional package at this level that costs an extra $6,450, are extremely effective at illuminating the road while keeping the lights out of the eyes of oncoming drivers. I hate to think how much they’ll cost to replace after a fender-bender, though.

Fortunately, the new RX does away with the annoying haptic mouse controller of previous generations, which forced you to select features by pushing your finger around a small touchpad. This was a particular challenge while actually driving. Its party trick now is to have a touch-sensitive steering wheel – there’s no need to jog the wheel while driving to prove you’re awake and holding onto its leather grip. It also has touch-sensitive buttons on the hub of the steering wheel itself that are duplicated as an image on the heads-up display, for choosing cruise control and radio stations and the like. This way, you don’t need to take your eyes off the road to see what you’re selecting on the wheel’s buttons. The HUD can be seen through polarized sunglasses (unlike those in BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes), but commands are usually a multi-step selection process that quickly loses its appeal.

Over all, however, I was very satisfied with the Lexus RX 500h as a vehicle for crossing the country. It helped that I didn’t have to pay for it: the tester rang in at $88,588.20 before taxes, though as a prototype, it will never be sold. It’s expensive, but so are its rivals. There was never a day I didn’t look forward to driving it and seeing a little more of our wonderful country, and there was never a time it disappointed me. And the fact that it’s built here, by Canadians, will always be a bonus.

The Lexus in Cutler, Ont., on the north shore of Lake Huron.Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

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