Few things are as unwelcome in central London as a big, gas-guzzling SUV. One of them is a big, diesel SUV sporting a Volkswagen Group badge. Anti-diesel resentment has been bubbling for a number of years, culminating in the VW “dieselgate” emissions scandal that rocked (and continues rocking) the motor industry.
However, one manufacturer has been quietly turning its back on diesel for a number of years. Toyota’s premium brand Lexus has stuck firmly with petrol models, offering hybrid versions of its entire range as an alternative to diesels.
It has been a moderately successful strategy for the Japanese marque. It doesn’t sell the same huge numbers as premium German rivals, but it’s building a good reputation as a maker of clean, efficient and reliable motors that are well-liked by (usually loyal) owners.
Sales have been gradually climbing in recent years and, in the wake of the emissions scandal, the firm is optimistic for 2016. It hopes to break the 16,000 cars barrier this year (compared to 13,269 in 2015), and around 3,500 of those will be its new RX SUV.
The RX is now in its fourth generation, and has progressed gradually since it was launched in 1998. The latest model is based largely on the same platform as its predecessor, but boasts a longer wheelbase, resulting in increased interior space.
Around 90 per cent of UK sales are expected to be the hybrid RX 450h, which combines a petrol engine with an electric motor and starts at £46,995. Alternatively, you can (but shouldn’t) buy an entry-level petrol version for £39,995.
Inside, Lexus has worked hard to make the RX a tempting proposition and draw buyers away from the likes of the BMW X5 and Range Rover Sport. It’s certainly more spacious than before – passengers sit 19mm lower, so there’s more headroom and a greater feeling of space.
It still isn’t the most practical SUV on sale, however. While the rear seats fold flat for those Ikea trips, the hybrid system does eat into luggage space with the seats up. It’s got a smaller boot than both the aforementioned rivals – something that might start to irritate if you’ve got a family and all their detritus to lug around.
The interior feels premium, with high levels of standard equipment and optional wood or aluminium inlays, but it’s not particularly special. One downside to the amount of kit is the plethora of buttons drawing the driver’s attention away the road. Lexus says the RX’s new centre console has simplified things, but to me it still looks cluttered.
If you’ve never driven a hybrid car before, you needn’t be particularly concerned about making the switch from a conventional petrol or diesel vehicle. As the hybrid RX isn’t a plug-in model, it generates its electric power solely from the petrol engine. With no need to find a charging point, it’s easier to live with than plug-in hybrid or electric-only alternatives.
The disadvantage is that it will only go a handful of miles at low speed before the petrol engine kicks in. But it’s fairly unobtrusive; there’s no grumbly diesel noise here. Drive the RX gently and it’s a very relaxing SUV, but it does get flustered if you try to work it hard.
The economics of the Lexus RX (in hybrid 450h form) make it an appealing proposition. Finance packages start at £559 per month, while business users will pay a BIK rate of 20 per cent – although you will have to pay London’s congestion charge.
In all other areas, the RX remains relatively unconvincing. It hasn’t got the premium image of German rivals (although that might appeal to some) and the driving experience is average. It’s not as practical as its competitors, and the interior isn’t as premium as I’d like. Still, at least it’s not a big diesel VW SUV.