We tested the 2020 Lexus RX 450hL — the RX model with the longest name

The Lexus RX invented the luxury crossover. It invented the luxury hybrid. And it’s consistently America’s best-selling luxury SUV. That’s why the current-generation RX’s shortcomings have been so surprising. It debuted in 2016 with polarizing styling, limited cargo space, no available third-row seat, cumbersome controls, and missing infotainment features.

At least based on the sales numbers, buyers registered no objections. They either embraced or accepted the RX for what it is, continuing to be drawn to its quiet ride, rich leather, and promise of headache-free reliability. But Lexus has steadily improved the vehicle since that 2016 debut. It added an extended-length three-row model for the 2018 model year, known as the RX L. Now, the 2020 RX features an upgraded infotainment system and tweaks to the styling and suspension.

Background

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The RX 450h is the gas-electric hybrid version of the RX, which adds power compared to the gas-only RX 350 while also dramatically improving low-speed fuel economy. And the RX 450hL is the three-row model that has more space and arguably more graceful styling. And, in our opinion, it’s the best RX yet.

That doesn’t mean it’s perfect, even after the upgrades. It still doesn’t have as much passenger or cargo room as most midsize crossovers. Various downscale buttons, plastics, and other interior bits still mar its overall interior quality compared to the best luxury cars. Despite the improved controls, they’re still unnecessarily awkward. And the RX still doesn’t have the supremely composed handling that’s typical of luxury vehicles.

Still, the 2020 Lexus RX 450hL is hard to beat for combining no-compromises fuel economy gains — at least at lower speeds — with a generally pleasant luxury experience and decent functionality. Prices for the 2020 RX start $44,150 for the two-row gas-only RX 350, $46,750 for the two-row RX 450h hybrid, $47,300 for the three-row gas-only RX 350L, and $50,460 for the three-row RX 450hL hybrid.

2020 LEXUS RX 450HL - DESIGN AND UTILITY

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The standard-length Lexus RX is shaped almost like a hatchback on stilts. Its hunched-forward shape belies its image as a pillow on wheels, as do its sharply creased bodywork, crisply menacing headlights, and wide-mouthed grille.

Opinions tend to differ on whether the design is bold and refreshing or busy and overwrought. But either way, the effect on interior space is undeniable. The standard RX has just 18 cubic feet of cargo room behind its rear seat — less than many subcompact crossovers — and its maximum cargo capacity of 56 cubic feet is also disappointing. And, as we mentioned, it left the RX with no available third-row seating, a stark contrast to competitors like the Acura MDX, Infiniti QX60, and Volvo XC90.

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The extended-length RX L helped address those complaints when it appeared for 2018. It’s 4.5 inches longer than the standard RX, and the rear end is more upright. Lexus disguises the added bulk cleverly by keeping the small side windows, and it makes the RX L look like an original part of the lineup — not like the hasty retrofit that it is. It’s statelier, more reserved, less aggressive, in keeping with the RX’s driving manners.

To be clear, the RX L isn’t roomy, either. But it has more space than the standard RX, and the on-paper specifications don’t reflect the important benefits to the boxier roofline. By the numbers, you go from 18 to 23 cubic feet behind the second-row seat — still small, but a 25 percent improvement. But in the real world, you’ll see an even bigger advantage. Lexus has generally put forth two numbers for cargo space behind the RX L’s third row: 7 cubic feet and 16 cubic feet. The latter seems more directly comparable with the way competing crossovers are measured, and the figure is class-competitive. It reflects the useful amount of floor space behind the third row, though taller items will be pinched because of the way the seat angles closer and closer to the cargo door.

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Don’t count on the RX L as a family hauler, though. Although it’s not the smallest midsize three-row crossover from the outside, most competitors provide more generous three-row accommodations.

That’s not to say they’re generous, either — “tolerable for children” is still the class norm. The RX L can’t pull off even that, at least not unless you share the misery by redistributing each row’s legroom throughout the cabin. The second-row seats adjust fore-aft, but even they feel pinched unless they’re slid all the way back. And when they’re slid all the way back, they’re pushed right up against the third row, leaving no legroom there. The RX 350L is available with a choice of seven-passenger seating with a second-row bench seat and two-seat third row, or six-passenger seating with middle-row captain’s chairs. The RX 450hL hybrid, however, offers only six-passenger seating (and only four seats that are sized for more than small children).

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The RX L is better for its extra cargo space than its extra passenger capacity, though it’s also true that a tiny third row is still more accommodating in an emergency than no tiny third row. We recommend keeping it folded nearly all the time. In a frustration when you use it, though, the seat is power-folding; this sounds like a handy high-end convenience, but you instead must hold down the power control through the entire painfully slow operation. Other SUVs have one-touch operation and faster-moving motors. How, in the class’s best-seller, do details like this get overlooked?

2020 LEXUS RX 450HL - DASHBOARD

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The RX’s cabin is upholstered in plush leather, a high point among many Lexus vehicles. It’s supple and welcoming, while many luxury cars are either stiff and formal or, in some cases, feel more sturdy than opulent. And the dashboard is traditional without being stodgy — the asymmetrical design wraps gracefully around the controls to flow into the center console, but the sea of buttons and knobs is an older-school approach than the minimalist norm among the European luxury brands.

However, many of these buttons, along with some trim on the lower dashboard, are pieces of low-grade plastic. The RX 450hL’s second-row captain’s chairs also have rickety cupholders that deploy between them, a big step down from the nifty adjustable-height cupholders in the front console. Repeat RX customers will likely have no objection to the interior quality, since the overall vibe is still posh and cushy. But it’s a step down if you’re used to some luxury brands. We were in a Mazda3 compact hatchback during the week before our RX 450hL test, and it was the little Mazda whose cabin materials and switchgear felt more consistently upscale than the $65,000 Lexus.

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Another frequent complaint about recent Lexus models has been their infotainment systems. Rather than the more common touchscreen interface, they’ve used a mouse-style controller located between the front seats, which you slide to navigate among various settings. It’s a little cumbersome to play with when you’re parked, and too distracting to recommend attempting while you’re on the go.

The 2020 RX now gives you a touchscreen as well, while replacing the mouse with a laptop-style touchpad like on some other Lexuses.

Some settings are still buried too far into the system’s menus, and because the screen wasn’t originally designed to be touched, it’s awkwardly far to reach. And the touchpad isn’t much better than the mouse. Still, any improvement is welcome, even if it’s not a complete 180.

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The 2020 RX also finally added Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration, joining the competition that lets you use certain mobile apps such as Google Maps through the car’s screen. An 8-inch touchscreen is standard, but our test vehicle has the optional 12.3-inch screen that’s big enough to offer a split-screen view, like fuel economy data alongside a generously sized map view. The base screen sits awkwardly in the middle of a space sized for the larger unit.

2020 LEXUS RX 450HL - HOW IT DRIVES

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The RX has always filled the niche of comfort and quietness over sporty performance, but the current generation’s aggressive styling isn’t entirely out of place — this is a sportier vehicle than before.

You can’t get the F Sport model’s stiffer suspension and other performance tweaks on either the gas or hybrid RX L, but a smoother ride is better suited to the RX anyway. And even the standard model avoids feeling completely disconnected like some past RX iterations, showing decent handling composure when you take it along a winding road. This isn’t a sporty crossover, but it’s not a ponderous, soft-sprung barge either. Still, because the RX uses humble Toyota suspension architecture rather than purpose-built luxury underpinnings, any change has a compromise. And that means the current RX doesn’t have a magically smooth ride, either, especially if you choose the big 20-inch wheels on our test vehicle.

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It’s quick, though. Every 2020 RX has a powerful V6- engine, and the hybrid has the most power of all: 308 horsepower, up from 295 hp on the gas-only model, thanks to the combined output of its gasoline V-6 and its three electric motors.

Lexus quotes 0-60 times of around 8 seconds for all versions, but independent testers typically manage a second faster. And it sounds better when pushed than most competing luxury SUVs with turbocharged four-cylinders. You’re not buying an RX for the drag strip, but for a vehicle widely considered a snoozer, it’s no embarrassment in a straight line. However, the hybrid is heavier than the gas-only RX 350 as well, which takes back the acceleration gains. All this horsepower means you’re not going slower in the hybrid, but it doesn’t mean you’re going faster.

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You do save fuel, though, at least in the right conditions. Like most hybrids, the RX 450hL is more impressive in city conditions than on the highway. EPA ratings are 29 mpg in the city, 28 mpg on the highway, and 29 mpg overall with all-wheel-drive standard. That compares to 18 mpg city/25 mpg highway/22 mpg combined for the comparable all-wheel-drive RX 350L, which is already decent for a V6-powered three-row SUV. The hybrid does use premium fuel while the gas-only uses regular, though.

In our hands, the RX 450hL beat its EPA ratings in lower-speed conditions and trailed them on the open highway. That’s because at low speeds, the electric motors can help out a lot as you coast or accelerate gently. Unlike Toyota’s latest hybrids, you don’t get that assistance at higher speeds. We occasionally saw the engine switch off above 40 mph, but mostly the RX 450hL burned gas on the highway like the heavier RX 350L that it is. That means the RX hybrid makes a great option for stop-and-go congestion or running around town, but if that’s not your primary driving environment, you won’t see much benefit. Our overall average during a weeklong test was 29 mpg, in line with the EPA estimate, though that average suffered from our long stretches of highway driving. And as with other hybrids, the RX 450hL benefits from an attentive use of the throttle; you can drive it just like any other car, but you’ll see fuel economy drop faster than it would with a typical gas engine.

Lexus RX450hL specifications
Type Series/parallel system with gas engine and electric motors
Total System Power 308 hp
ENGINE
Type, Materials V6, aluminum block and heads
Displacement 3.5 liter
Bore x Stroke 3.70 in. x 3.27 in.
Compression Ratio 13.0:1
Horsepower 259 hp @ 6,000 rpm
Torque 247 lb.-ft. @ 4,600 rpm
Motor Generator 2 (MG2) 165 hp
Motor Generator Rear (MGR) 67 hp
Battery Sealed Nickel Metal Hydride (Ni-MH)

2020 LEXUS RX 450HL - WHAT IT COSTS

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It’s easy to get sticker shock with the 2020 Lexus RX 450hL. With options and the $1,025 destination charge, our test vehicle topped $65,000 — well above its base price of $50,460.

Still, you get a lot of standard features even at the starting price, including all-wheel-drive (which costs $1,400 extra on the gas-only RX). That means that compared to the all-wheel-drive RX 350, you pay only about an $1,800 premium for the hybrid powertrain — a worthwhile jump unless you do minimal stop-and-go driving. The extended-length RX costs roughly $3,500 more than the five-passenger model; we also consider that expense worth it, but by a narrower margin.

Standard features include a suite of advanced safety tech: adaptive cruise control, a forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, and a lane-departure warning with lane-keeping steering corrections. Other standard features include a hands-free power liftgate, leatherette upholstery that Lexus calls NuLuxe, a power-adjustable steering column, rain-sensing windshield wipers, and the frustratingly slow power-folding rear seats. Our test vehicle’s add-ons included heated and ventilated front seats, genuine leather upholstery, heated rear seats, blind-spot monitoring with a rear cross-traffic alert, a moonroof, a head-up display, LED headlights, a navigation system with a larger 12.3-inch infotainment screen, and a surround-view parking camera. Many of these are standalone options rather than large packages or trim levels, making it easier than on some vehicles to pick the features you want without paying for the ones you don’t.

2020 LEXUS RX 450HL KEY COMPETITORS

2020 Acura MDX Sport Hybrid

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The closest competitor to the Lexus RX 450hL is the Acura MDX Sport Hybrid, another midsize luxury crossover that’s not quite as fancy as an Audi or Mercedes. The MDX is both roomier and more fun to drive than the RX, but the Lexus has a lower base price ($50,460 vs. $53,000, though the Acura has some extra standard features) and better EPA ratings (29 mpg vs. 27 mpg). Plus, Lexus has nearly an extra decade of experience with hybrids compared to Acura, and its Toyota parent has even more.

Read our full review on the 2020 Acura MDX Sport Hybrid

2020 Volvo XC90 T8 and Lincoln Aviator Grand Touring

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2020 Lincoln Aviator
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Two other three-row luxury crossovers with great gas mileage — in certain circumstances — are the Volvo XC90 T8 and Lincoln Aviator Grand Touring. These are both plug-in hybrids, meaning you charge them up from the electric grid for a period of all-electric range before the gas engines are needed. This can result in nearly all-electric operation for buyers who rarely drive long distances at a time, since their EPA-estimated all-electric ranges are both under 20 miles. But once that range is gone, the RX 450hL gets better mileage than either of them. And they’re both more expensive, with base sticker prices near $70,000 before federal tax incentives.

Read our full review on the 2020 Volvo XC90 T8 and Lincoln Aviator Grand Touring

2020 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

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The RX has long been a luxury version of the Toyota Highlander, and both are sold as gas-electric hybrids. This year, there’s a new difference — the Highlander is freshly redesigned, and the hybrid model switches from a V6 engine to a four-cylinder. That trades some acceleration for much better fuel economy, an EPA-estimated 35 mpg in mixed driving. It’s also roomier than the RX, though while you can get it with lots of high-end features, it doesn’t feel as rich inside as the Lexus.

Read our full review on the 2020 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

2020 Acura RDX, BMW X3, and Volvo XC60

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2018 BMW X3 High Resolution Exterior
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The traditional reasons to get a midsize crossover over a compact model are the extra spaciousness and refinement associated with a larger vehicle. But given that the RX isn’t especially roomy, especially if you don’t need the tiny third-row seat in the RX 450hL, it’s worth considering a few compact models. After all, smaller models have a built-in advantage for their price and fuel economy. Of these three, the X3 and XC60 are offered as a hybrid (both the plug-in hybrid type), but even their gas engines match or exceed the RX 450hL’s 28 mpg on the highway.

Read our full review on the 2020 Acura RDX, BMW X3, and Volvo XC60

2020 LEXUS RX 450HL IN A NUTSHELL

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The Lexus RX is a widely beloved vehicle that has great room for improvement — from the basics like poor interior space efficiency to nitpicks like the frustrating seat-folding system and some downscale pieces of plastic.

If your budget permits, and you drive enough at low speeds to take advantage of the electric motors, the RX 450hL is our pick of the lineup for having the most room and the best mileage. And the 2020 updates do whittle away at objections, even if they don’t eliminate them. As long as you don’t need true three-row seating and don’t demand sporty handling, the 2020 Lexus RX 450hL provides smooth, quiet, plush efficiency.

Brady Holt
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