Lexus's hybrid five-seater could afford to be softer in the panels and price.

It's been a busy 12 months at the pointy end of the SUV market. Audi has launched a new Q7, Mercedes-Benz has renamed and tweaked its GLE (previously the ML) and Volvo has a new XC90.

But a new arrival stands out from the crowd. The Europeans may favour classic proportions and understated designs but the Lexus RX is anything but conservative — it also differs in having the petrol-electric 450h. Rivals favour diesels.

Design

The RX belongs to the "every panel must have a crease" school. There isn't a soft edge in sight and the front grille is about as in-your-face as it gets.

Inside, it's a completely different story. Gone are the gaudy woodgrain finishes, awkward angles and faux-metal accents of Lexuses past. In their place is a well finished, understated cabin that mixes soft-touch leather with hi-tech instrumentation.

The heated and ventilated leather seats are comfortable and supportive and the head-up display and digital instrument panel keep the vital information in your field of vision.

The 450h is in its element on the daily commute.

That's handy because navigating your way around the centre screen using the "mouse and cursor" style controller is incredibly frustrating and distracting. You need the dexterity of a surgeon to land the cursor on the right spot first time. It's a shame because the graphics and layout of the screen display are excellent, as are the rest of the cabin ergonomics.

Rear leg room is generous enough but taller occupants will feel the world closing in a little, thanks to the tapered roofline, which also compromises luggage space. The RX is smaller than rivals and feels it.

About town

The 450h is in its element on the daily commute, where its fuel efficiency advantage over diesel rivals is most noticeable. We comfortably returned about 8.5L/100km in heavy traffic averaging 25km/h. We've driven city runabouts that use more.

The stop-start is also far less intrusive than most, while noise suppression is excellent. When the car is in electric-only mode, you can hear the outside traffic more than the RX's workings.

Kick the petrol engine into life and it gets off the mark impressively, assisted by the electric motor's instant torque.

Combined power output of the hybrid setup is a healthy 230kW. Performance is dulled a little by the added weight of the electric motor and battery, which add more than 100kg over the petrol-only RX 350.

The seats are well designed for long- distance touring and the RX is quiet and refined at the speed limit.

Lexus has upped the ante on satnav turn directions, displaying virtual images of coming intersections that make it easier to take the correct lane.

Other city-friendly tech includes a big, clear rear-view camera, mirrors that fold down to help you line up the kerb when reverse parking, and cross traffic alert when reversing out of a driveway or parking spot.

On the road

Lexus has made a conscious effort to breathe a little more driving excitement into the RX range. The 450h now comes with modes that allow the driver to choose sportier settings. Lexus says its adaptive suspension is more supple over rough surfaces and stiffens up for faster, flatter cornering in Sports or Sports + mode.

There's little doubt the RX is more capable than before through the corners. It is more stable, leans less and doesn't dive as much under brakes.

That said, you can still sense the weight shift as it changes direction. The steering feel, while improved, doesn't match that of a BMW X5 or Q7.

Where it is superior to rivals is cruising on the freeway. The seats are well designed for long- distance touring and the RX is quiet and refined at the speed limit — add the punchy Mark Levinson audio and the hours pass pretty pleasantly.

There's also an impressive safety arsenal, including lane departure warning with steering input, drowsy driver detection, blind spot monitor and adaptive cruise control to keep a safe distance from the car in front.