Eco champion

Eco champion

Lifelong Volvo driver Duncan Weir allows his head to be turned by the environmental credentials of Lexus’s new hybrid RX 450h.

ne7 main2I was in the lift at the Hilton Newcastle Gateshead, in my tux on the way down to the Entrepreneurs’ Forum Annual Dinner, when George Cheung (a Director at this magazine’s publisher, Room 501) jumped in.

Our conversation led us, unsurprisingly, to the bar, where I mentioned how much I enjoyed reading the motoring pages of BQ - and six months later here I am! I wouldn’t describe myself as a petrol head, in fact, other than the basics, I don’t really know how an engine works, but I am, and always have been, interested in cars.

There’s so much to admire - the design, the speed, the handling, engineering, performance, prestige - and the lack of any one of these qualities just makes it more fun.

I spend a fair bit of time behind the wheel, my day generally starting with a dash down the A19 with a car full of children arguing about the X Factor or practising their spellings while still eating toast.

Once they’re off to school I change from Dad to Technical Director of the family firm, Weir Insurance Brokers, and it’s my job to visit our larger commercial customers and advise them how best to arrange their insurances.

My family has been doing this for almost 40 years, and my wife and I are now taking the company forward with a talented and experienced team and a bright future ahead.

So what would you expect an insurance broker with a keen interest in cars to drive? Well, I’m a Volvo Man and have a long history of them.

In fact, my first car at 17 was a Volvo 245 GLE(estate).

This was back in the late 80s when young lads my age all had MK2 Escorts, remember? Now, at the age of 38, I’m on my 10th Volvo, which is a practical XC90, though I have had three V70 T5s ,which are flying machines and great fun - until you meet a corner, but I won’t go into that now, save to say thank God for air bags! So what does Volvo Man think of the Lexus RX 450h? Well, I had always thought Lexus were, shall we say, driven by men of a certain age, but with its new styling it has masses more road presence, which will certainly be more appealing to a younger generation. This looks like a quality SUV on the outside, and the quality feel continues inside.

I sink into the very comfortable leather seats and shut the door with the reassuring thud you would expect. The dashboard is well thought out and has a contemporary feel. The controls are intuitively placed and the gear lever sticks out of the dash - a feature I like.

I have driven automatic cars for many years now, which has resulted in a lazy driving posture, so I also appreciate the arm rests for both arms. Once comfortable and ready to go, I’m ready to “fire her up”, only this is a hybrid, so you don’t actually start the engine - you switch it on. Pop the key in your pocket and press the ‘on’ button and the dash comes to life - but there’s no engine noise - nothing.

Pop the gear selector in to D (or S if you’re feeling naughty) and you float off. The sensation is a completely different experience, which I like, and the hybrid system is supported by a 3.5 litre V6, so after driving silently through town for a while I decide it’s time to see how it performs on the open road. Now, I’m not sure how I expected the marriage of electric power and the combustion engine to perform, but Lexus have made it work completely seamlessly.

High speed doesn’t really interest me, but the sensation of powerful acceleration and superior performance make driving great fun (in the right circumstances, of course) and the Lexus offers this in abundance. I head for a country lane known as the Beehive for its many twists, turns and quick changes in attitude, and although an SUV, the Lexus laps it up with almost no pitch or roll.

It handles more like a luxury saloon, but with the added benefit of ground clearance and a 4WD system. I’m not so sure it would perform too well off-road, but I have no doubt it could get you out of a sticky situation. Heading back into town, I get snarled up in traffic, which gives me the opportunity to play with the toys. There’s an LED display in the centre of the dash controlled by a soft-touch mouse. It’s incredibly intuitive, and even I master it after about five minutes. It effortlessly allows you or your passenger to operate the advanced features such as the entertainment, climate and navigation systems. Squeezing these SUVs into a tight parking spot can be challenging, but pop the car into reverse and the screen really proves its worth.

Cameras cunningly hidden somewhere in the rear turn the LED screen into a Parking Assist Monitor. The system displays a colour image from the rear and overlays the image with suggested adjustments to guide you to perform the perfect reverse park. I can easily think of a few friends, family and - dare I say it - customers who would benefit from this feature! All in all, this is a very impressive vehicle and a real alternative to the BMW X5 or the Range Rover Sport, especially for those looking for something slightly different. After reluctantly handing it back, I collect the children from school and head for home.

Having experienced the hybrid system, I find I can’t help noticing the clouds of black smoke pouring out of the back of all those Turbo Diesel engines as they accelerate. You have to admire the time, effort and risk that Lexus have put into developing this vehicle.

It’s almost impossible to believe that, after all the technological advances of the last 50 years, we still rely so heavily on the internal combustion engine, knowing how finite our fuel supply is. Maybe it’s time for me to look at some of the environmentally friendly alternatives, but would my next car be the Lexus RX 450h? Time will tell!

Lexus RX 450h, priced from £45,830 at Lexus Newcastle, Benton Rd, Newcastle, NE7 7EG, tel 0870 413 7390. To find out more, see www.lexusnewcastle.co.uk