Yet it's impossible not to be impressed by the Lexus. Hitting the engine-start button is like pushing the I/O button on the latest quad core PC. Thrums, whirrs, and blinking lights provide the sensation of a complex artificial intelligence booting up.
Light throttle touches send only electrons to the front and rear motor/generators and result in the hush of rolling rubber. Full throttle wakes the 3.5-liter V-6, but you'd never know. With the CVT droning, it's nearly impossible to pick up exactly when the engine fires up to help things along; there are no additional vibrations and only the slightest auditory cues.
That's just a taste of the Lexus's slickly integrated technology. Everywhere you look, the RX 450h is awash in electronic goodies, from the crisp, organic LED display to headlamps that automatically douse their high beams for oncoming traffic to a game-changing telematics controller called Remote Touch. Like a cross between a touch screen and trackball, it allows the user to actually feel the pointer contact icons and virtual buttons. It's spooky at first, but quick to win converts. "Remote touch does just as its name implies, imparting a rewarding sense of feel and touch as you swirl the 'mouse' over the screen. Locks neatly into the various menu buttons, and generally works intuitively," says St. Antoine. Williams is equally impressed, "If every vehicle gets something like this in 10 years I won't be surprised."
In comparison, both the BMW and Benz feel low-tech and spare. The X5's austere, all-black cabin incites the most complaints: "Somber cockpit and I still hate the iDrive interface, especially when controlling the nav, a deal-breaker in my book," says Kiino. St. Antoine gently backhands the Benz cabin, "Perhaps not as chic as the VW's, but this is a nice room, too. Some of the controls work deftly-the climate system, for instance-but others are simply horrible."
While floored by its low-cost/high-feature set, our judges were split on the Lexus's overall execution. Some found it a futuristic, techno tour de force, others a modern, yet cheap, mishmash. Williams notes, "Not hot about the exterior design-front nose looks rather unfinished-but the thought and execution of the interior is amazing. Every surface and shape appears sculpted in order to create as much space and visibility as possible. St. Antoine is not so impressed: "Interior is really missing that 'premium' feel you expect of a Lexus. The center console feels downright cheap."
Not so for the Touareg. Kiino likens its cabin to "a den in a ritzy Alaska fishing lodge," while St. Antoine gushes, "What a gorgeous environment for conducting the business of driving. The Touareg has a very serious feel, yet still manages to look stylish and inviting. See, BMW? It can be done."