Lexus RX 450h and Mazda MX-5 - maintaining an even strain
By Jim Bray
(note, Lexus RX 450h updated December 9, 2013)
They aren't new for 2013, and they aren't even changed a lot from the previous years' models, but Lexus' most popular SUV and Mazda's little bundle of joy both continue to offer their audiences fine vehicles that do exactly what they're supposed to.
And how can one complain about that?
On the one hand, you have a luxurious and reasonably efficient SUV – the Lexus RX 450h – that adds hybrid performance to the regular RX prescription. And on the other, you have a rippin' great fun roadster – the Mazda MX-5 (nee Miata) – that for more than two decades now has offered drivers about as much fun on a reasonable budget as they can wish for.
Let's start at the top of the line, with the Lexus. The RX has traditionally been Lexus' best selling model and there's good reason for this. After all, SUV/Crossovers are an incredibly popular segment of the market, mainly because they offer wagon/hatchback convenience with a high-mounted view that's a real boon when commuting because they let you see what's going on around you better.
The Lexus does all this well – unless you need a third row of seats – while enveloping you in the lap of luxury and giving you all wheel drive stability. And with this hybrid version, you might be able to save yourself some money on gas (once you've paid the hybrid premium up front) and feel better than your non-hybrid-driving neighbors who continue to ravage Parent Nature.
Of course, if you bought it to save the earth, perhaps you should be walking everywhere so as not to risk being perceived as a hypocrite.
Toyota – Lexus' corporate parent – says that hybrids account for one out of every five Lexus vehicles sold, which is a pretty significant achievement, as well as possibly being a sign that P. T. Barnum was right. The 2014 edition of the RX 450h comes with upgrades that include the new second generation of the company's Remote Touch mouse-like interface that works well and seems pretty neat in concept but which in practice I found took my eyes off the road more than a conventional touch screen or "cursor control-type thingy" does. That's because you have to watch the LCD screen while you're moving the cursor and you have to move the cursor carefully or you'll select the wrong thing. A good voice recognition system would be better, but there are few and far between - and not just with Lexus.
All 2014 RX models feature stuff like dual-zone automatic climate control, power adjustable driver and front passenger seats, electroluminescent instrumentation (including an ECO indicator!) and an OLED multi-information display. They also come with a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, wood interior trim, Smart Key System with push button start, a power hatch with jam protection (yep, don't try hauling any aspic in this baby!), three auxiliary power outlets, an anti-theft system power adjustable, heated exterior mirrors, rain-sensing wipers, headlamp washers, LED daytime running lamps and more.
They also a full complement of active and passive safety technologies, including 10 airbags, LED brake lights, and a first-aid kit.
The hybrid also comes standard with a 12 speaker Lexus Premium Audio system with 8 inch LCD display, voice activated (I wish!) HDD navigation system, 19 inch alloy wheels with locks, a heated wood steering wheel, blind spot monitor and "intuitive" parking assist. You also get driver's seat memory, wood on the shift knob, HID headlights, a power moonroof and more.
Outside, the RX (not just the hybrid) has had the Lexus "signature spindle grille" inflicted on its nose. That's a shame, though it isn't as outrageous here as it is on the new IS.
Two optional packages are available. The Technology Package adds the 15 speaker, 7.1 channel Mark Levinson surround sound audio system that sounds great but which still won't play my DVD-A of "Tommy." There's also a heads-up display, powered thigh support for the front seat, premium leather, LED headlamps and more. The Executive Package ups the ante even more, with a dual-screen rear seat DVD entertainment system with audio and DVD remote control and two sets of wireless headphones, a pre-collision system (no, it doesn't holler "LOOK OUT! WE'RE ALL GOING TO DIE!") that includes dynamic radar cruise control.
The RX450h' comes with a 3.4 liter Atkinson-cycle six cylinder engine mated to the electric stuff and it gets its power to the wheels via a whiny continuously variable transmission (with a sequential "manual" shift mode) that's about as enjoyable as most. Even Lexus' sound deadening can't completely tame the CVT's howl.
One area in which the RX excelled was in its hauling ability. We were very pleasantly surprised to find that we could fit a 70 inch LED TV into the thing (still in its box!), once we lowered the rear seats and moved the front seats forward a couple of inches. Very impressive.
The 2014 RX 450h, according to Lexus' Canadan website, starts at $62,300. Add the optional packages and that figure can rise to a whopping $71,800.
Smiles per gallon…
While the Lexus hybrid pushes miles per gallon, Mazda's MX-5 is all about the driving experience and it does a fine job of carrying out its mandate. When Mazda single handedly resuscitated the two seat roadster segment, the little roadster hearkened back to such classic sports cars as the MGB, Triumph Spitfire, Alfa Romeo Spyder and Fiat 124 Spider.
Except that Mazda upped the ante by adding to the fun factor the reliability for which Japanese carmakers had become known. The rest is history: a beloved segment was reborn.
Since then, the MX-5 Miata became simply the MX-5 and went through some evolution that has left the car larger and heavier, equipped better, but still an absolute blast to drive. And they even added an optional retractable hard top that buttons the car up as tightly as a coupe – remarkably, without truncating the trunk.
The current MX-5 is still small inside, but not quite as cramped as it was originally. And it's still a joy to drive, though you can feel the extra weight the car has put on over the years (ensuring that art mimics the human experience!).
The car, which starts at just shy of 30 grand, is powered by a two liter inline four cylinder engine that's rated at 167 horsepower @ 7000 rpm (158 horses on the automatic transmission-inflicted versions) and 140 lb.-ft. of torque at 5,000 rpm.
It's more than adequate, and is approximately the same output as the previous generation Mazdaspeed Miata's turbocharged engine put out. So now you don't get the turbo lag, but you also don't get the delicious "whoosh" of the turbo kicking in; you also don't get the wild feel that came from that kind of power in an appreciably lighter car. It makes one hope there'll be a Mazdaspeed MX-5 coming.
Alas, the way the market is going, we may be more likely to see a frugality-focused Skyactiv version instead, and that would be a shame.
In the meantime, the MX-5 soldiers on as arguably the best value you can get in a roadster, at least until the "Scionbaru" FR-S/BRZ ragtops come along (which will apparently be soon!).
MX-5's are available with either a five or six speed manual transmission (Mazda Canada's test car had the six speed) or the abovementioned six speed automatic with paddles. Driving it feels almost Porsche-like (as much as an apples-to-oranges comparison can be between a "mainstream" and a "high end" car), with handling that feels hard wired into your brain.
One area where the MX-5 falls down, however, is in the driving position. The pedals are laid out so that your right leg has to sit with your knee quite bent if you want to reach the clutch comfortably and after a couple of hours this really starts to wear on you.
The car also doesn't come with Bluetooth or automatic headlights, two safety features no car should be without in 2013. To be fair, it would probably be tough to hear the phone using Bluetooth when you have the roof down, but it should still be there.
The 2013 MX-5 only features a minor refresh, which is fine. There's a mildly redesigned front end, including a new front bumper, fog lamp cover and a mesh-type grille. The wheels get black center mini-caps, there's a smaller hood for the instrument cluster and some other minor trim tweaks.
The GX trim level gets a glossy dark grey roll bar garnish, a glossy dark grey interior decoration panel and a bright silver finish on the headlamp bezel, while the GS trim gets you stuff such as 17" Dark Gun Metallic wheels, a "brilliant black-colored" power retractable hard top and door mirrors, body colored (red, in the case of the sample) interior decoration panel with graphics and red stitching on the seats.
The top line GT trim level gets new 17" alloy wheels, and some color tweaks.
The car is a blast to drive and not a lot of upgrades are required. Two possible suggestions to Mazda would be the abovementioned turbocharged version or perhaps a small V6 (whatever happened to that little six that was in the old MX-3?). Other than that, the car is reminiscent of Mary Poppins: practically perfect in every way.
While the Mazda MX-5 starts at just shy of $30,000, the top line GT with automatic transmission will set you back closer to $42,000. That's starting to be serious money; fortunately, the MX-5 will pay you back with serious fun.
Copyright 2013 Jim Bray
Jim Bray is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada. His columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.
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