Drew Smith: ethnographer, strategist and host of Rising Minds

Update: An unconventional review: Lexus RX 450 h

The RX at Portishead

It was with genuine surprise that I received a Twitter dm (direct message for the uninitiated) from the ever-friendly @Valvo at Toyota PR asking if I wanted to have a Lexus RX 450 h for a week. Having never experienced a hybrid and having not experienced a Lexus on the road since a mate’s father’s LS400 back in – ooooh – 1990, I leapt at the opportunity. Here was a chance to trial the luxury brand that, to some eyes, changed everything and the drivetrain technology that some believe still will.

Having spent significant time in various SUVs over the years, from Grand Cherokees to X5s to Range Rovers, I was keen get the measure of this softest of soft-roaders and see if Lexus’ claims of class leading fuel economy really stack up. It would also be an opportunity to don my design strategist cap and gauge how Lexus is faring in the brand communication stakes in its interior design.

Historically, Lexus has been seen as the brand that stuck it to the Europeans on price, technology and engineering, teaching the old guard a thing or two in the process. This was certainly true in the early days of the LS 400 and GS 300, when Toyota’s era of “fat” engineering was at its peak and you simply couldn’t buy a better built car for the money.

In the intervening 21 years, however, lessons have been learnt, the field has leveled and so have Lexus’ prices, to the point where they’re no longer the “value” option from the East. Now priced head-to-head with the best European product, an RX 450 h like the one delivered to my door – a £52k SE-l model – actually costs more than a (roughly equivalent) BMW X5 XDrive 30d or Audi Q7 3.0 TDi. Not only is this serious money, but pits the car against some seriously stiff competition.

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Being newly (re)arrived in the UK and having never visited the bucolic pocket between Salisbury and Bristol, I loosely devised a trip that took in motorways, A and B roads and whatever sits below that, to make sure I gave the car a fair run. After a solid 9 hour day of driving and a few days stuck in south London traffic, it’s fair to say that my conclusions are decidedly mixed.

Happily, the refinement and integration of the hybrid drivetrain really is beyond reproach. The wave of piety that swept over me the first time I moved silently away from the traffic lights was something to savour and seeing energy flow back to the battery under braking (briefly) gave a sense of what it must feel like to be in a charity orgy with Bono, Sting, Trudy and Sir Bob.

Under full acceleration – which is never as strong as you expect given the claimed 7.9 second 0-62 time – there’s a pleasingly well-oiled thrum from the 3.5l V6 with only the CVT gearbox conspiring to make it all come across as a little bit whiny and appliance-like on occasion. Ride and handling… oh, who am I kidding, go and read Car if you really want to know.

To the sticky question of fuel economy, for which Lexus claims publishes a combined consumption of an incredible (for a 2-and-a-bit tonne SUV) 44.8 mpg: In the whole time I had the car, including a few hours of dedicated, 65 mph babying on the motorway, I couldn’t get it to budge over 31.8. The historical average thrown up by the onboard computer is 30.7. 44.8 mpg: incredible indeed. (I received a clarification from Michael regarding the fuel consumption figures Lexus is allowed to publish. Over to Michael: “One little thing I just want to clarify. Fuel consumption figures are not something us car makers “claim”. We are legally required to quote the official Europe testing figures, no other figure can be published or advertised. So it is not exactly Lexus “claiming” a particular mpg, we are stating the only official figure we are permitted to use.” Perhaps we need to take a good look at the test procedure…)

The RX in Cheddar Gorge

In terms of real quality – the way the thing is screwed together-, one can take comfort in the fact that there are so many old LS 400s about the place doing banger duty. Under-engineered Lexus’ are not. In the week that I had the car there was nary a squeak or grumble from the interior trim and that most German of tests, knocking on the dashboard, gave the impression that it’s upper surface was hewn from concrete.


Yet when it comes to the deeper levels of perceived quality – the design content that sets the surprise and delight synapses pumping, – the RX is, in many ways, comically lacking. Take the leatherette covering the door grip as a case in point.

It’s one of about 6 different, black leather-look surfaces within the driver’s reach (this in itself no good thing), and the one the driver will touch every single time they get in and out of the car. Why, oh sweet mercy, why then does it feel like the 88 year old skin on my gran’s hand? No offence to Jaqueline, but even she would admit that after all her years, things have got a little dry, rough and strangely squidgy. And so it is with the RXs door pull.

Knee meet console, console meet knee.

More strangeness in material selection abounds in the centre console. The place where any driver is likely to prop their knee is rock hard and I managed to smack mine on it more than once when shifting in my seat, sending visible shockwaves through the whole console structure and sending invisible ones to my pain receptors. This hard plastic also wraps up to surround the gear-shift quadrant, a primary touch zone. Perhaps selecting a plastic less prone to marking would have been a better bet. Something soft better still.

The silvery painted plastic that swoops down the console isn’t fooling anyone with it’s pretensions to being metal; it’s not even cold to the touch and is beset with chamfers and rads that, intuitively, speak of something that’s injection moulded, not pressed or cast. The last time I saw metal effect this unconvincing was in a Chrysler Crossfire. Yes, a Crossfire.

Somebody also seems to have set the labeling gun to “brand whore” and shot a whole lot of logos across the IP surface (something that most Japanese manufacturers seem to do, to be fair to Lexus). Note to Mark Levinson: your premium surround doesn’t look so premium when the label’s not on straight… To top it all off, the obscurely positioned, painted-on Lexus logo – gold on silver plastic, a wonderfully baroque touch – talks of a brand that either can’t be arsed or is ashamed of itself. Either way, the glorification of the Lexus brand this is not.

The gloss panel surrounding the HVAC controls, scratch prone, strangely chamfered and inconsistently gapped, contains a set of geometric buttons that look marvelously ill-at-ease with their swooping organic surrounds. This impression is hardly helped by the fact that, in a desperate bid to be daring, the designer has set one cluster of temperature controls at a racy diagonal, while the others sit in a vertical formation, defying all usability logic. Incidentally, the vertical set are placed next to what I later discovered was a digital clock not, as I previously assumed, the HVAC temperature display (which appears in the high-mounted screen). Any user interface designer worth their salt would scream.

But not as much as when they try to use the Lexus Remote Touch interface device. With this, my screaming reached a volume more commonly associated with blue murder.

Having worked fairly extensively with automotive HMI systems in the past, I’ve got a reasonable grip on how the various styles work and their relative merits and faults. Lexus had previously used a touch-screen system that, much to the chagrin of users anywhere but mired in a Tokyo traffic jam, switched off above 5 Km/h, rendering most functions inaccessible. To the chagrin of designers, the touch interface meant that the screen had to be both within reach of drivers and in their line of sight. An instrument panel is already a pretty tough thing to design, so these were restraints that said designers were no doubt happy to throw off.

But rather than go down the well worn path of rotary twist-nudge-press knobs and nipples that almost all other manufacturers have ventured, Toyota, in collaboration with Denso, decided to do something different and develop an interface that operates like a mouse in a cage.

Using a puck (trimmed in yet another type of faux leather stuff), one pushes left, right, up and down within a limited range to select targets on the screen. Selections are made with an enter button on the side of the unit and there are extra buttons to take you back to the home page, to the navigation map and to assist with scrolling (more on this later).

In recognition of the fact that a free-roaming mouse would offer a disastrously imprecise selection method while on the move, a series of motors provides haptic feedback, helping the user to lock the pointer to a target. In theory, this would be fine, in practice it isn’t, simply because there’s still too much freedom of movement. The GUI itself still demands a level of accuracy more in line with a mouse attached to a computer, not an interface in a vehicle where the user is subject to the vagaries of physics and fleeting concentration. You can turn up the force feedback to give a more positive lock, but then the puck starts feeling (and sounding) awfully ratchety.

Comparing the precise, engineered clicks of BMWs iDrive or Benz’s Command APS controller to the sloppy collapse one feels every time a target is selected on the Lexus system is a lesson in comparative perceived quality in and of itself. The fact that it took something like 30 clicks of the aforementioned scroll button through painfully slow-to-redraw screens to get to Erykah Badu on my iPod simply finished me off.

While to some ears it may sound like I’m being unduly critical of this car, and by turns, of the Lexus brand, I’m really not. Lexus wants to play hardball with the Europeans and have priced their cars to suit. Yet, looking at the market as it stands today, Lexus’ competitors offer far higher levels of perceived bang for buck and comparable – if not better – real-world fuel economy. The dubious benefits of the Lexus hybrid system make real sense for only a limited few living in dense cities where hybrids are congestion charge exempt.

From it’s near silence in the city, which makes one swell with green pride, to the disconnection of it’s fuel consumption figures with any kind of reality to the anaesthetised driving experience, the RX 450 h is, for me, the antithesis of what driving should be about. The visceralness that Lexus seems to have engineered out is the thing that allows me and many others I know, petrol head and punter alike, to build a relationship with a car, and therefore a brand.

Someone pointed out to me that, perhaps, this lack of distinct character, this ability for Lexus cars to fly under the radar is the very thing that makes a Lexus a Lexus and, as such, is a thing of intention. Then why produce the hairy-bollocked LF-A and bang it around the ‘ring? Or, indeed, go chasing that most obvious of cars, the BMW 3 Series, with just another rear-wheel drive, 3-box saloon in the shape of the IS?

In a fast-approaching future where owning a car once again becomes something of serious social and cultural consequence, I have a feeling that the demur average that the RX and its ilk embodies will no longer be enough to engage consumers. For Lexus to thrive it needs to be, and indeed can be a brand of remarkable vehicles; the shockwaves sent out by the first LS proved the company’s capabilities beyond doubt. Looking forward, it’s going to take much more than hybrid versions of established automotive paradigms to make the Lexus brand great.

So, rant and riff on the current and future states of Lexus behind us, you might be wondering if there was a moment, no matter how fleeting, when I fell in love with the RX. Indeed there was.

Making haste across Somerset, a patchwork of yellow and green fields peeling around the windscreen, after much clicking I managed to select The Cinematic Orchestra’s Late Night Tales compilation on my iPod.

Skipping through a few tracks to get to the meat of the album, I sighed with pleasure as Bjork’s Joga began to play, memories of it’s geomorphic and geomorphing film clip coming to mind as Britain swelled and subsided around me.

And then, just as the indescribably beautiful transition from Joga to Imogen Heap’s Cumulus reached it’s crescendo, so did I, cresting a hill to have spread before me the most extraordinarily beautiful valley I’ve ever seen.

I can say with an honest heart that at that instant I yelped with sheer delight. Here was a mind-blowing confluence of music and landscape, aided and abetted by a car who’s primary purpose in life, I’ve concluded, is to do nothing but shield it’s occupants from the realities of the world at large. And at that, the RX 450 h succeeds admirably.

Many thanks to Toyota GB PR, and especially @Valvo, for giving me the opportunity to drive the car. It was delivered by a lovely chap (with a full tank of fuel) to my front door should be back home safe some time today.

Category: Design

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3 Responses

  1. Brendan F says:

    Gold logo on silver plastic: eww. Have they no understanding of the rules of tincture? Nice write up.

  2. Sime says:

    I enjoy reading your blog. You understand that car design is multidisciplinary effort that encompasses aesthetics, ergonomics, usability, quality perception, social status of the driver etc. New social trends are coming every day changing the way people live and communicate. You seem to detect these changes quite successfully. However, this couldn’t be said for the majority of car companies that are still staying on the same path they followed for the last 20 years.

    I’m looking forward to your next blog. Keep up the good work…

    Greetings from Croatia

  3. Robin says:

    For some reason I’ve only just found this. Extremely enjoyable read, and I genuinely LOLed at this:

    The last time I saw metal effect this unconvincing was in a Chrysler Crossfire. Yes, a Crossfire.

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© Andrew Philip Artois Smith and DownsideUpDesign, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Andrew/Drew Smith and DownsideUpDesign with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.