Review: 2023 Lexus RX500h in Malaysia - In a time where everyone's 'innovating', it's perfectly OK to stick to your lane
Sanjay · Feb 12, 2024 02:19 PM
If there's one thing that's remained a constant with Lexus, it's consistency. The air of curated conventionality their line-up possesses is a fresh breath in a time where carmakers are equally concerned about trying to redefine words as they are with the business of car-making.
Coupé certainly doesn't mean what it did 30, 40 years ago...
Overview: 2023 Lexus RX500h
371 PS combined
550 Nm combined
Yet, it's what some might term as a double edged sword. We can see the logic, these changing tides mean that not making jacked-up, two-and-a-half tonne, five-seater 'coupés' might be a tough answer to the suits, especially when it affects the bottomline.
Then again, there's always a few who believe in the beauty of the traditional, and the latest Lexus RX500h we've had recently is the stalwart devotee to this philosophy.
A short look back
Lest we forget it is its very progenitor that started the whole luxury SUV concept in 1997 (predating the inaugural BMW X5 by a couple of years), something one might call monumental for both Lexus and the industry.
To say it's been a 'good decision' undermines the insane success its gone on to be; over 3.6 million units have been sold since its debut, making it Lexus' best-selling nameplate, ever.
However, any champion will tell you that maintaining the top spot is measures harder than actually getting there in the first place. There's the obvious goal to make the next iteration better than the last, yet that has to be balanced with keeping it familiar for loyalists, and attracting new ones all at the same time.
Three years since we reviewed the last-gen car (the suspension was a standout positive) and Lexus Malaysia has introduced the latest RX, and in our hands is the RX500h, today's range-topper.
This evolution also means it loses two advantages its predecessor had over European competition – it's RM 508,888 starting price places it dearer than its nearest plug-in hybrid rivals, the Volvo XC90 and the verbose BMW X5 xDrive50e M Sport, and within RM 8k of the Mercedes-Benz GLE.
That, and it's now a 2.4-litre turbo-hybrid. No more 2.0-litre road tax advantage to consider.
Exterior: Relatively simple, affords great visibility
With that in mind, even the most carefree spenders will have to think twice on what exactly then is the deal with the RX. May we start things off by proffering that this is quite simply, the best and most beautiful RX yet?
The key in appreciating the RX is in its simplicity. There's lots to like about its rather conventional form; there's nary an overdone line swooping across the rear that eats into visibility, and despite its rather large footprint, the straight lines by the hood make it easier to judge the RX in tight areas.
Interior: Impeccable quality, clean design
Much of the platitudes can also be extended to the interior design. Lexus likens this personal space as the reins of a horse (tazuna), a sanctum upon which the relationship between car and driver is formed – basically direct and intuitive control.
It largely achieves this with thoughtful design of both hard touchpoints and software. We like how the 14-inch touchscreen skews towards the driver, plus the placement of the buttons on the central stack and steering wheels are simple enough to reach and read.
Yet for an otherwise stupendously well thought-out interior, there's a few pain points that come off as simply...puzzling. One is the lack of an obvious drive mode selector – the RX500h offers five different settings, on top of a Custom option – so there's no other choice than fiddle with layers of submenus within the screen on the go.
Perhaps its just growing pains with the relatively-fresh Lexus Interface, and we think it'll benefit greatfly from a smoother man-to-machine connection. The software offers plenty of information, yet actually navigating to them isn't quite fun with the layers of screens to sort through. Yeah, we don't miss the weird trackpad, but we reckon a Mazda-style rotary knob wouldn't be out of place.
Where software is discussed however, it's noteworthy to say that it responds to voice commands pretty accurately and smoothly, almost natural in fact in the way you'd get it to Post Malone's White Iverson on Spotify. Within the system there's its own navigation too, however you'd be using Apple CarPlay and Android Auto most of the time anyway, but it's a shame that the latter is wired.
Amidst all that, quality is certainly up there with a pleasant mix of materials, replete with Ultrasude and perforated leather upholstery and a F Sport-bespoke aluminium trim around the cabin.
A big nod in here is the attention to detail on some of the seemingly indiscernible things: not an imperfection in the stitching, and the folding mirrors, electric windows, door locks, hell even the cubby covers, operate in silence. These do wonders in elevating the RX's feeling of serenity and quality.
Pertinently, space is generous in the Lexus RX. Up front is a wide expanse; and it's straight-up big in the rear. Five people can sit comfortably, and there's a 461-litre boot that's perfectly adequate for a fully-laden trip away.
Driving: Tons of power, comfort is priority
Coming from the RX350 that already was quite an accomplished drive, the RX500h ups the ante with two major improvements: boatloads more power, and a suspension set-up that's unique to the F Sport.
We're looking at 371 PS and 550 Nm available off its 2.4-litre turbocharged four-pot mill (T24A-FTS) and hybrid system, which is also aided by a front-mounted electric motor and an electric axle 'round the rear. All-in, this is a full-time all-wheel drive (AWD) ride that bears the Direct-4 moniker.
Anyway, these numbers mean that on a good day you may dust a Cayenne (0-100 km/h in 6.2 seconds here, 6.32 seconds in the Porsche) though note that to get the most out of the powertrain, one needs to prioritise smoothness over hustling; gradual over abrupt.
There's a distinct, almost six-cylinder like quality in how it delivers power. The switch between the instant torque electric motor and petrol engine is imperceptible, and the powertrain rewards buttery inputs with a gentle stream of power.
It's a very well-mannered system, this. Combine that with silken shifts from the 6-speed torque converter, this is the SUV in its class for long-distance wayfaring. It's all a delicate flow, and the more you work with it, the better things are for you.
The other reward behind all this? Fuel economy's a winner – it averaged about 9.3 litres/100 km, roughly 11 km to the litre – in a 500 km journey that saw it shuttle five passengers and a full boot between Tanjung Sepat and KL.
Also, its series-parallel hybrid system means there's no need to plug it in at home; everything works on its own under the hood, which might prove to be more convenient for certain residential arrangements.
Handling and comfort is brilliant as expected, and the F Sport name brings its own set of specially-tuned suspension. Don't let the 'sport' bit turn you away though, as this is still every bit a grown-up SUV that puts comfort before all else.
The adaptive damping does a swell job ironing out lumps and bumps of the daily grind, and they also offer a level of adjustability to tailor the chassis to your liking. Adding to that is the impressively hushed ride over most surfaces, though we note that the large wheels and performance tyres (Michelin Pilot Sport 4 SUV) transmit a bit of road roar on rougher blacktop.
Tying it all together is the rear-wheel steering (RWS) that injects a little more talent into its abilities. Helpful in tight parking lots and sharp U-turns, but it still won't transform it into a Cayenne-beating corner carver when all's said and done.
There's much you can tell about what a company stands for in the products they put out. You can always tell when something is done passionately, versus another item that's just made to fill a certain niche.
Lexus' dedication to the craft of sticking close to the idea that spawned a million other competitors/imitators is one that will make Simon Sinek proud – the why of creating a luxury SUV has not faded even all these years later.
We can appreciate that it sticks to the traditional recipe from its first-generation model, albeit gently caressed into the modern day. Sure there's still some teething issues with the newfound minimalism and fresh software, but it's still the one that exudes quiet confidence, and leaves little to the imagination on why it remains as Lexus' sales darling – it never tries to be anything else.
With humble beginnings collecting diecast models and spending hours virtually tuning dream cars on the computer, his love of cars has delightfully transformed into a career. Sanjay enjoys how the same passion for cars transcends boundaries and brings people together.