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story.lead_photo.caption The Lexus 540hL is shown. (Photo courtesy of Lexus)

Quiet as the Mojave at twilight, dependable as a Roman aqueduct, the Lexus RX series has been the best-selling luxury SUV in America since its introduction more than two decades ago.


With a serene ride and a cabin that oozes quality at hundreds of touchpoints, the RX is neither the most expensive nor quickest in class, just the most comfortable and dependable.

Starting at $44,150, the RX matches up nicely against German competitors like the Porsche Cayenne ($68,150), Audi e-Tron ($74,800), BMW X5 ($58,900), and Mercedes-Benz GLE ($54,250).

The Germans stick to the line through fast esses like a tightrope walker with glue on his feet but do so at the expense of an occasional bump and thump. We think the Lexus, which undulates smoothly across uneven pavement and sweeps curves through like a ballroom dancer, better meets the expectations of buyers in this segment.

A bonus is the best fuel economy in the niche, 22 mpg combined for models using the base, 295-hp, 3.0-L engine with an eight-speed transmission. Hybrid models, which use the same gas engine slightly detuned coupled to drive motors front and rear for instant acceleration and optimal traction, deliver 30 mpg.

Standard on all models is a complete suite of driver-assist safety technology, as are Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Those link up nicely and allow one to sidestep most of Lexus' confounding infotainment interface. Good news: phone apps work nicely with the RX' touchscreen.


Go long

Over the years, the one knock on the RX was its lack of a third row and less cargo volume than competitors. Lexus fixed that last year the RXL, which keeps the same 109.8-inch wheelbase but adds 4.4 inches at the rear. That added 8 ft3 in interior volume.

We've driven the long and the short of it and detected no difference. From the outside, we think the vehicle looks more symmetrical.

Lexus charges a little more than $3,000 extra for L versions, but that includes power-folding rear seats and rear climate control.


Go hybrid

That's similar to the $2,700 upcharge for the hybrid system, which you should buy not for the 36 percent increase in fuel economy (and 36 percent less pollution), but because it makes the car faster, smoother, safer, less expensive to operate, and more dependable.

Did he say more dependable?

Absolutely. Electric motors have, like, 20 moving parts, compared with nearly 2,000 in an internal combustion engine. Consumer Reports last year tested a Prius with 200,000 miles on it and found it performed identically to when it was new.

Last year, I had lunch with a couple of auto engineers who tore down a Nissan Leaf motor after 500,000 miles. "Zero wear," they told me.

More importantly, hybrid systems reduce engine wear by around 30 percent. They provide power on take-off and acceleration, the times the gas engine works hardest. They keep passenger-comfort systems operating while shutting off the gas engine in stop-and-go traffic. Because devices like power steering pumps and air conditioner compressors run off electricity, they reduce parasitic power loss and the wear that causes.

Go light on the throttle up to 40 mph, and a Lexus 450h can go a few miles on electricity alone. You'd think the police would use those in patrol cars to sneak up on the bad guys. You'd be right, Texarkana, Ark., PD already has Ford hybrids in service.

Electrical components require almost no maintenance. No sparkplugs, no cooling system, no exhaust system. Regenerative braking funnels energy back through the motors, meaning less brake servicing.


Skip F Sport

The F Sport package adds about $4,000 to the price of a new RX, and we would tell you to skip it.

It adds some rather attractive appearance touches, like a unique steering wheel and shift knob, aluminum pedals, bumpers, grille, badges, front seats, aluminum ornamentation, power-folding mirrors, LED ambient interior lighting, and 20-inch wheels.

It also adds a stiffer suspension that does little to improve handling and marginally reduces ride comfort. Adaptive variable suspension tries to iron all that out, but why bother? The engineers had it right the first time.

If it's an upscale, sporty driving people-hauler you seek, we recommend taking a spin in a Mazda CX 7 before you rob a bank and head over to the German lots.


Think used

The fourth-generation RX hit the streets in 2015, and a redesign is not expected until 2023. According to J.D. Power and Consumer Reports, a more reliable auto has not been built.

That means a 2015 RX hybrid, for around the same price as a top-of-line new Corolla and with decades of sweet-driving life remaining, is one of the best deals around. Opt for the mechanically-identical Toyota Highlander and you'll pay even less.

With used-car prices falling as fast as Wall Street, that's one of the smartest plays around.


Bottom line

We fell in love with the Lexus RX when first we met in 1998. The feeling hasn't changed.

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