New hybrids offer electrifying experience

In a sign of the times, where petrol-electric hybrid power is becoming more prevalent, we recently had the chance to drive three new luxury SUVs with hybrid propulsion back-to-back in a bid to choose the most impressive. 

At the centre of the test is the newest competitor, the Lexus RX 450h.

Representing Germany is the BMW X5 xDrive40e, featuring a turbocharged 2.0-litre petrol engine, an electric motor, eight-speed automatic transmission, and four-wheel drive.

Maximum outputs are 313hp and 450Nm, while its emissions rating is 78g/km and it uses 3.3 litres/100km (85.6mpg) on the mythical combined test cycle. It will also accelerate to 100km/h from a standstill in just 6.8 seconds and it has rock-solid body control at high speeds, though oddly weighted steering.

Next up was the stylish Volvo XC90 T8 Twin Engine, with one of the best interiors in the segment. It too features a four-cylinder 2.0-litre petrol engine under the bonnet, an eight-speed automatic transmission and four-wheel drive, but uses turbocharging and supercharging to increase performance.

In combination with an electric motor, the peak outputs hit 400hp and 640Nm, helping it do 0-100km/h in 6.4 seconds, despite plenty of weight to carry around. Emissions are 49g/km and fuel consumption is 2.7 litres/100km (104mpg). It’s the only seven-seat car here.

Lexus has been making hybrid SUVs for a lot longer than anyone else and this year it launched a brand new car, the latest generation RX 450h. Under the sharply styled bonnet is a 3.5-litre V6 petrol engine (naturally aspirated, unusually) and it’s assisted by an electric motor when needs be, driving all four wheels through an electronically controlled continuously variable transmission.

Peak engine outputs are 313hp and 335Nm, resulting in 0-100km/h in 7.7 seconds. On the efficiency side, Lexus quotes emissions of 122g/km and consumption of 5.2 litres/100km (54mpg).

Reading those figures, you’d be forgiven for thinking the Lexus is considerably outclassed, but it turns out to be anything but. The apparent gulf in terms of fuel economy and emissions is down to the fact that the BMW and Volvo use lithium ion batteries, which may be charged up from an external socket.

Lexus has stuck with its tried and tested nickel-metal hydride battery pack, which is kept charged by the engine on-board only. This is at a disadvantage when it comes to the official figures, but a few days in these cars back-to- back reveals that, if you drive for long enough on the open road (only 100km or so really) then they all return remarkably similar fuel consumption figures, around 9.0 litres/100km — or 31.4mpg.

It’s true that the plug-in cars have longer electric-only ranges, but the Lexus seems to spend a lot of its time around town in EV (electric vehicle) mode too and it’s where the RX excels, in truth.

This car’s refinement eclipses the others, isolating the occupants from the outside world in a manner that you’ll find only in the world’s best luxury cars. And the RX’s interior lives up to that billing too.

Its design is highly distinctive and though we don’t get on with the mouse-like infotainment interface, everything else about it is unique, stylish and of exceedingly high quality.

One tiny example is the operation of each of the four electric windows. Press the tactile button in the door’s armrest and there’s no sound whatsoever as the window glides down and slows to a stop.

This kind of thing will appeal to those who like the finer things in life. What’s more, we’d expect every switch and control to operate in exactly the same manner after a few decades of use, as Lexus reliability is legendary.

The cabin is spacious too, with stretching room in the back for adults and a usefully voluminous boot — though the loading lip is quite high up. Shame there’s no seven-seat option, but there you go.

By our estimation, that Volvo XC90 is the only seven-seat hybrid SUV money can buy right now. And while that Swedish creation has grabbed a lot of attention for its elegance and its gorgeously designed interior over the past year, the new Lexus is even more striking in the looks department. It may divide opinion with all its angles and exterior sharpness, but it’ll certainly get you noticed.

However, in spite of the sporting appearance, the RX is the least sporting SUV from the driver’s point of view.

While its V6 petrol engine sounds way more cultured than the four-cylinder units in the other cars (not to mention most diesel alternatives), it’s not especially fast. And the suspension has clearly been developed to offer luxury car comfort over sports saloon dynamism.

New hybrids offer electrifying experience

We approve of that, as it sets the Lexus apart from most large SUVs. It wafts along, soaking up the road and isolating it from those inside, making for a hugely relaxing driving experience. If you’re more concerned with handling prowess, buy the BMW.

So does the Lexus win this little group test? It does in a way, though with some caveats. If you love driving, then go for the BMW; if you need more than five seats, buy the Volvo.

And, of course, if you do a lot of motorway mileage then you are probably still better off sticking with conventional diesel power. Nonetheless, petrol-electric cars are getting better and better, becoming more and more relevant to how most of us drive.

If you’ve decided that the technology is a good fit with your lifestyle and you’re in the market for a generously appointed, classy large SUV then you’d be well advised to give the Lexus RX 450h a lot of consideration.

AT A GLANCE

¦ Pricing from €69,650 

¦ Engine: 3.5-litre six-cylinder petrol and electric motor (313hp, 335Nm)

¦ Emissions: from 122g/km (€270 per year)

¦ Rivals: BMW X5 xDrive40e, Volvo XC90 T8

¦ Star rating: ?????


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