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2012 Lexus RX 450h (AWD) Hybrid

by Martha Hindes

2012 Green SUV Buyer's Guide - Road & Travel Top 10 Picks

Audi Q7 TDI Clean Diesel

Jeep Grand Cherokee FFV

BMW X5 xDrive 35d Diesel

Lexus RX 450h Hybrid

Hyundai Tucson Hybrid

Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid

If ever there was a visionary winner in the luxury hybrid rankings it would have to go to Lexus. And the head of the class for a luxury hybrid sport utility undoubtedly would be its SUV flagship. That vehicle, the 2012 Lexus RX 450h, doesn't seem to be bothered by the competition that has surfaced since it first appeared on the luxury hybrid SUV landscape some six years ago. When you're first out of the gate, you undoubtedly have a jump on the pack.

There's been a quiet evolution in the hybrid RX since the wraps first came off as a concept. The idea of a hybrid at the time related mostly to smaller, more spartan vehicles for the greening-of-the-earth crowd or those in such places as California who could drive them to qualify going solo in car pool vehicle lanes. But luxury? Would anyone care? Apparently so, as the RX has emerged as the leader of choice among many premium hybrid SUV buyers.

If there's any vestige of oddity in the appearance of today's hybrids, it won't be found on the RX. This is one beautifully balanced, and proportioned vehicle with the contemporary sloping and rounding of corners indigenous to current crossovers. Front headlamps and grille curve in a smooth frontal sweep that flows rearward. A high beltline defines the profile before it meets the window line of the rear hatch under a deeply recessed overhead spoiler. High rising rear tail lamps signal the edges of more ample cargo space inside than some smaller competitors have. This could be any well-tailored luxury crossover that doesn't hint at its highly sophisticated underpinnings. But what's underneath is drastically different.

Powering the hybrid RX is a mix of gasoline engine and small electric motor power that combine to give superior mileage to a larger, higher occupancy vehicle. The foundation is a 3.5-liter, 245-horsepower, V-6 gasoline engine. Merged with electric motor-generators that drive the wheels and work in tandem with the engine, the result is a combined 295 horsepower rating.

This is not a plug-in recharge vehicle. While the engine shuts down while idling at stoplights to save fuel and conserve electricity stored in batteries, trips to a high test gasoline pump are necessary to keep it going. But it will go further on that fuel than an SUV running on engine power alone.

The best mileage comes from the front-drive RX hybrid with an EPA rating of 32 city/28 highway MPG. The all-wheel-drive version rates at 30/28. Urban driving scores better fuel economy numbers since regenerative braking helps recharge the battery during stop and go traffic. Since the RX is a "full" hybrid that can run on either power source by itself, it can cruise along on electricity alone for a while if one stays at subdivision speeds.

Don't expect the RX hybrid to knock your socks off. Apparently that's not its intention anyway. In keeping with Lexus' premium tradition, the RX hybrid leans toward pampering rather than punch. Think of this as a delicious day at the spa, rather than a jump off the dock into a spring fed lake. If invigorating is a driving need, there are more sport-minded choices, although an available sport package adds a little more performance dimension to the RX. And while the powertrain has plenty of oomph when needed, in the Lexus it's tuned to maximize a comfort ride for five in serenity and interior quiet with the polished, comfort-directed surroundings that whisper luxury. Even the business of transitioning from engine to motor power is barely perceptible.

Comfort also is apparent in interior technology that augments advancements such as push button start with easy to use gauge setups. Interior luxury touches include real wood trim and leather trimmed steering, and crystalline Mark Levinson sound. The RX also is loaded with active and passive safety systems.

Any hybrid vehicle adds a premium to the cost, even more so now for Lexus since money saving federal tax credits no longer apply. Lexus parent Toyota has surpassed the magic number for such support. Expect to pay $44,735 base for the front-drive RX hybrid. Crank that up to $46,325 for all-wheel-drive, both a premium above the high $30K range of a non-hybrid RX. But for one in the market for a luxury hybrid sport utility, that could just be one more justification this is top of the line.

For more info on Lexus brands, click here.

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