2021 Lexus RX 450h Review - A Victim Of Its Own Success

  • Smooth and refined ride that's super-quiet
  • Plenty of space inside for people and cargo
  • Infotainment system is tired and frustrating
  • Real-world hybrid economy doesn't hold up
  • Some design and trim showing their age

The RX, Lexus likes to remind us, helped invent the luxury crossover SUV category, but lately it's struggling to avoid being eclipsed by the rivals it inspired. The 2021 RX 450h F Sport AWD is the automaker's answer, combining its eye-catching style with what have long been the Lexus hallmarks of refined road manners and a plush cabin.

Time has dulled the shock-factor of the RX's oversized "spindle" grille, leaving it to aesthetic preference. My particular test car was the Black Line Special Edition, a limited run of the SUV with a black grille surround and side graphics, 20-inch black wheels, and blue contrast stitching in the interior. Otherwise, though, this is the familiar F Sport, which normally comes with 20-inch wheels and grey exterior trim.

Lexus doesn't offer a plug-in hybrid or full electric version of the RX yet. The RX 450h pairs a 3.5-liter gas V6 with a hybrid drive system, charging up the SUV's battery using regenerative braking or spare engine power. All-wheel drive is standard on the hybrid, Lexus using electric motors to give the rear wheels their traction, and you get a system-total of 308 horsepower, which is ample but not outlandish.

With a relatively small battery and no plug-in ability, it's clear the RX 450h doesn't prioritize electric-only use. There is an EV mode, which Lexus bills as allowing you to "drive short distances at low speeds." That's a pretty accurate description, too: graze the accelerator with anything but the lightest foot and the gas engine will kick in, and even if you show sufficient restraint you won't get far before you run out of electrons.

Better, then, to think of the hybrid system as smoothing out the RX's laissez-faire driving style, and – in theory – helping a little with economy. This may be an F Sport – complete with sport-tuning for the suspension – but really the Lexus prefers to waft. The continuously variable transmission (CVT) is good evidence of that; there are paddle shifters, but most of the time it's easiest just to let the Lexus slush through things of its own accord.

The upshot there is, despite the big wheels, ride quality is just swell. Road and other noise are held at bay nicely, as is imperfect asphalt, and you can summon the hybrid drive for a quick blast of straight-line acceleration when it comes to overtaking. The suspension tweaks don't really add up to great cornering prowess, however, and were it my money I would probably skip the F Sport package altogether and let the RX fully embrace its true roots as an SUV that pampers.

As for frugality, according to the EPA you can expect 30 mpg combined, 31 mpg in the city, or 28 mpg on the highway. Disappintingly, though, in my regular driving I struggled to hit 24 mpg. You'll need a particularly frugal driving style in order to make Lexus' figures, I fear.

In the cabin, it's a mixture of good and bad. An 8-inch touchscreen is standard; a 12.3-inch navigation system upgrade with Mark Levinson 15-speaker audio system is a $3,365 worth checking off. The driver gets a 4.2-inch cluster display, with a color head-up display (HUD) a $600 option. There's dual-zone climate control, but heated and ventilated front seats are $640 extra. So, too, is wireless phone charging ($200) and an automatic power tailgate ($150), though a regular power tailgate if you'll deign to press the button yourself is standard.

Either way, it reveals 16 cu-ft with the rear seats up, and 32.7 cu-ft with them down. Not bad, and the back bench is capacious for passengers too, with no complaints around legroom or headroom. Lexus does offer a slightly longer version, the RX 450hL, with a third-row, but its added seats are a piddly affair and you can find much better at rival dealerships.

On the safety tech side, Lexus Safety System+ 2.0 is standard. That gets you lane-keeping assistance, pre-collision with pedestrian detection, adaptive cruise control, lane departure alerts with steering assistance, and auto high-beams. There's also blind spot warnings and rear cross traffic alerts. $1,365 adds parking assistance and a 360-degree camera; I feel like the latter should be standard, frankly.

Out of the gate, the 2021 RX 450h F Sport clocks in at $51,200 (plus $1,025 destination). With extras, my review car climbed to $59,380 all-in. That puts it in the midst of some capable company.

Despite Lexus' revamps, in some places the RX is starting to show its age. The instrument cluster looks dated, with a comparatively small screen when rivals offer fully-digital gauges. The switchgear can feel plasticky in places, and the heated F Sport steering wheel – a $150 option – only has its heating elements in certain parts. Nitpicking? Perhaps, but if you're going to cosset, commit to it.

Most frustrating of all is the infotainment, though. It feels like I've been complaining about Lexus' dashboard software for years now (and I'm not alone in doing so), but the underwhelming UI and annoying trackpad system remain. At a time when rival premium SUVs are delivering high-resolution graphics that run with silky ease, the RX's Enform system looks and feels lumpen.

The good news is that there's now a touchscreen, along with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto support. Hook up your phone and you can ignore both Lexus' software and its touchpad.

The 2022 Acura MDX has a trackpad too, but it's a lot more user-friendly, and packaged up in an SUV that looks fresher than the Lexus and is more engaging to drive. What you'd pay for this particular RX is about the same as a 2021 Genesis GV80 3.5T AWD, meanwhile, which lays down the law in terms of cabin design and is far less polarizing outside. Neither, notably, come in an electrified form yet.

2021 Lexus RX 450h F Sport Verdict

The luxury SUV market is huge right now, and you're spoiled for choice if you have $50-60k to spend and a desire for a capacious interior and some badge prestige. It often pays dividends to look beyond the usual German options, too, as recent launches from Acura, Genesis, Lincoln, and others offer more imaginative riffs on the segment.

That's good news for drivers, but not so great for Lexus. The RX still does some things very well: it's a smooth and comfortable ride, with a whisper-quiet cabin, and the hybrid system is capable and competent. All the same, it demands some compromises that rivals don't, and that's a fatal flaw in a category so fiercely competitive as this one – even if you did invent it.