THE STEERING COLUMN

Lexus RX 500h review: Tyrannosaurus RX

The Lexus RX 500h isn’t a wild drive, but it offers a surprisingly intimate experience behind the wheel

Who says a big, burly Sport Utility Vehicle (SUV) with a premium badge automatically has to come from Germany? Granted, cars like the Audi Q7 and BMW X5 do a terrific job of combining bulk with ruggedness and poshness, so I wouldn't judge you for wanting one. Or maybe I would, now that the new Lexus RX is out.

It's Japan's answer to those luxury SUVs, though it's slightly less big and burly. Mind you, Lexus would accuse those cars of being the German answer to the very first RX, which came out in 1997 - 2 years ahead of the BMW and 8 years before the Audi appeared.

Does it matter who did it first? After all, The Beatles had 2 drummers, and it wasn't the original fella who ended up marrying a Bond girl.

Whatever it is, the latest RX bursts onto the scene, redesigned from scratch along the lines of what Lexus now thinks a big luxury SUV should be. There's no longer a 7-seat version (and apparently never will be), and the car itself seems to have spent a bit of time in the gym - not to gain bulk, but to shed it.

The body is stronger but lighter, and though it's the same length as before and slightly wider, it's also less tall, which gives it a more athletic shape. Inside, there's a wee bit more legroom in the back, while the cabin tones down the old-school polished wood aesthetic from the last RX for a more modern, cockpit-like environment.

Current RX owners will be glad to know the weird Lexus touchpad controller is history. Instead, you get a 14-inch (35.6 cm) touchscreen with menu systems that replace most of the physical buttons, so the air-con system isn't as user-friendly as before - but such is the way of the world.

The most striking thing about the new RX is probably its distinctive face, which blends the front grille into a solid section artfully. Elsewhere, it's simply more sculpted than before, and the tail lamps that stretch across the back complete a visual overhaul that makes the German incumbents look drab in comparison.

If any RX is bound to turn heads, it'll be the new top-of-the-line RX 500h F Sport Performance. Between its mean-looking 21-inch (53.3 cm) dark wheels, piano black body trim and mesh front grille, it looks ready to blow other traffic into the weeds.

It could do it, too, because it's fairly rapid. There's a bit of kitchen-sink engineering here, in that the RX 500h has a turbo engine, a 6-speed transmission, an electric motor up front and another in the back to give it 4-wheel drive and 367 horsepower.

Floor it and you'll see 100 km/h in 6.2 seconds, which is fairly exhilarating but nowhere near frightening. If it's cold sweat you want, the German brands will be happy to sell you SUVs with half a thousand horsepower each.

The Lexus isn't wild, but it's sharp. It has quick steering and a certain tautness to the handling, matched by effortless roadholding, and when you speed up through a country road the RX 500h is one of those cars that seems to shrink around you. It all makes for a sense of intimacy between man and car, which is a welcome change from the bucking, white-knuckle experience that other high-performance SUVs offer.

The price for the secure handling is a firm ride that borders on the jiggly. The RX that actually strikes the sweetest ride/handling balance is the 450h+, a plug-in hybrid version that can cover more than 50 km on electricity for daily duties, with a 2.5-litre engine, so you can hit the links in Malacca on weekends.

Then there's the RX 350h, a 2.5-litre hybrid with soft suspension and gentle acceleration, but the classic Lexus experience of smooth, quiet motoring. All 3 versions should hit town by January, but it's clear that they're all meant for different people because they all feel different.

The RX 500h is the clear choice for the action man, not least because its punchy drivetrain also comes with a cabin sound generator that gives it a sporty growl. It also has 4-wheel steering, which ought to make it more manoeuvrable at low speeds yet more stable on the highway.

The RX 500h also feels dressed up and tuned to tackle the German offerings, so if you did fancy an Audi or BMW, you might as well have a go in the Lexus. It's good enough to prompt some serious thought about whether you really want a burly SUV, or wouldn't prefer something a little more slender and sharp.

Lexus RX 500h F Sport Performance Direct4
Engine 2,393 cc, turbocharged in-line 4
Power 275 hp (estimated)
Gearbox 6-speed automatic
Electric motors 64 kW (front), 76 kW (rear)
Battery Nickel-metal hydride
System power 367 hp
0-100km/h 6.2 seconds
Top speed TBA
Fuel efficiency TBA
Agent Borneo Motors
Price TBA
Available January 2023

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