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Hybrid gas-electric cars started out as miserly compacts designed to get a gazillion miles to the gallon. That picture is changing. Witness the new 2006 Lexus RX 400h.
The RX 400h boasts all the advantages of a hybrid gas-electric vehicle: Emissions are extremely low, reducing your impact on the environment to something in the neighborhood of nil. And it burns about as much gas as a compact car, reducing America's dependence on foreign oil.
But it's also fast and powerful. Stomp on the gas and the RX 400h jumps off the line significantly quicker than the regular RX 330. It can drag race head-to-head with a V8-powered Mercedes ML500. And it's a luxury SUV, loaded with power-hungry features: dual-zone climate control, GPS navigation, power seats, power windows, a power liftgate, rear-seat DVD, a megawatt audio system by Mark Levinson. You can run all that stuff at the same time without any fears of draining the battery.
And no, you do not plug it in to recharge it. There is no electrical cord dangling from the grille, no need to look for recharging stations. Living with it is quite similar to living with a regular car. Like other gas-electric hybrids, the RX 400h recharges its battery packs as you drive. The gas engine helps propel the car and recharges the battery.
The RX 400h combines a regular 3.3-liter V6 gasoline engine with a pair of high-torque electric drive motor-generators, one driving the front wheels and another driving the rear wheels. It uses a third electric motor to run all those power accessories, start the engine and recharge the batteries. If this sounds complicated, it is. And that's without delving into the elaborate stability control setup and the electronic brake system, which also charges the batteries. The more you study RX 400h the more you realize its complexity.
It's easy to drive, however. Driving it isn't all that different from driving a regular RX 330 with one major exception: The RX 400h is considered a full hybrid. Most of the time it uses a combination of the V6 and electric motors, but in certain conditions it will run strictly off the V6 engine, and in other situations it will run strictly off the electric motors. Gliding around silently in parking lots and heavy traffic with electric-only propulsion is a different sensation and one that's quite enjoyable.
And you don't have to give up your boat. The RX 400h offers the same 3,500-pound towing capacity as the RX 330, attesting to its capability. The electric motors should work well in the Rockies because high elevations don't drag batteries down the way they do gas engines, but RX 400h drivers should stick to the pavement. Batteries are no match for boulders.
This vehicle is an amazing piece of technology and an interesting vehicle. It's also complex. To quell concerns about reliability Lexus warrantees the hybrid drivetrain for 8 years or 100,000 miles. The RX 400h should hold its value well if the Prius is any indication; 2003 Prius models have held their value even better than Camry and Corolla.
The RX 400h and the RX 330 look more alike than different, but there are some subtle styling differences. Among them: a new front bumper for increased cooling, a new grille, new fog lamps, new tail lamps with LEDs instead of traditional incandescent bulbs.
The RX 400h also gets specific 18-inch wheels. The wheels are 7 inches wide and the tires are designed to provide grip in corners rather than offer low levels of rolling resistance. This says a lot about the intent of the RX 400h. Lexus could have improved fuel efficiency further with hard, low-grip tires, but chose to enhance handling instead.
The RX 400h uses the fourth generation of Toyota's hybrid system, which it calls Hybrid Synergy Drive, and each generation has been faster and less expensive than the previous. Three electric motors draw on 30 modules of nickel metal-hydride (Ni-MH) batteries. Clever engineering has resulted in efficient packaging of the batteries, which are split into three groups housed largely under the rear seats.
The hybrid powertrain adds just 300 pounds to the curb weight. That's not an insignificant amount of weight, but it's an impressive engineering achievement, and most of the weight is mounted low in the vehicle. Lexus increased the rigidity of the chassis to manage the additional mass. The Lexus RX and Toyota Highlander models are built on the same platform (with modifications) as the Toyota Camry and Lexus ES 330 sedans.
The RX 400h offers the same high levels of comfort found in the RX 330 plus a few notable additions. Brushed-aluminum accents lend a contemporary look. Also, the instruments have evolved: In place of a traditional tachometer, there's an illuminated meter on the left that displays the level of power generated by the hybrid powertrain. The driver can also monitor the gas-electric power distribution on the multi-information display or on the optional navigation system's seven-inch touch panel display.
The cabin is luxurious and inviting. The leather is soft and slightly bunched. Getting in is easy, with no need to either climb up or duck down. The front seats are positioned off the floor at a comfortable chair height and are snug and supportive. Foldable armrests on both front seats provide additional comfort on longer trips. The center console slides forward and back, allowing room for a purse between the front seats.
The instrument panel has three large round gauges. The center dash area is framed in metallic-looking plastic topped with a pair of air vents. The center stack is dominated by the seven-inch display. This screen is used for climate control and trip computer functions, as well as displaying the outside temperature and clock (with alarm). It's also used by the optional navigation system and rear-view camera. The camera is automatically activated when the transmission is shifted into reverse. You can't drive backward by watching the screen, but it's very useful for checking for obstacles that are difficult to see from the driver's seat. The system includes Bluetooth and voice activation. The downside to all this integration is that you have to press two buttons to change the fan speed rather than one. Also, the trip odometer is hard to read. Lexus dealers can program the default settings of many of the functions, so be sure you have them tailor automatic door locking and other features to your preferences.
Audio controls are at the bottom of the center stack. The radio has big knobs for volume and tuning, that are easy to use. The Lexus premium audio is a 132-watt, eight-speaker system with AM/FM/cassette with six-disc in-dash CD changer. The optional Mark Levinson audio system features 11 speakers and 210 watts.
The shifter for the CVT automatic is located on the center dash and follows a mechanical zigzag pattern to make sure you only move it one position at a time. We found it made shifting between reverse, drive, and the lower gears ponderous when we were in a hurry.
The rear seat is contoured for two, though it has belts for three. There's a folding center armrest with cup holders and storage. The rear seats fold forward 40-20-40, the center section providing a long, narrow space for skis, shovels, and fly rods, while still allowing four people to ride in comfort. There is no third-row seat for the RX.
Folding the rear seats down reveals 83.9 cubic feet of cargo space, more than a BMW X5, Mercedes ML350, or Infiniti FX, and just slightly less than an RX 330. The rear seats don't fold perfectly flat, however. The battery packs are housed under the rear seats.
Driving the Lexus RX 400h is quite similar to driving the RX 330. It's smooth and sophisticated, powerful and responsive. Starting out is a bit different, however.
Twist the key and everything on the dash lights up, but there's no sound of an engine starting, only silence. Slide the transmission lever to drive and you can pull silently away on electric power. This is not at all intuitive at first because we're all accustomed to hearing and feeling an engine running before shifting into drive. Shifting into drive when there's no sound, no vibration is a new experience.
At low speeds, the RX 400h is perfectly content to operate in electric-only mode. It's quiet, and you begin to hear things that are normally drowned out by an engine. We found this interesting and enjoyable. It will run in this silent mode in stop-and-go commuter traffic, eliminating the noise and pollution that the cars around you are putting out. The RX 400h maneuvers silently through crowded parking lots as well, where pedestrians often will not hear you coming and therefore won't always get out of the way. Toyota's hybrid system is an electric motor assisted by a gas engine, while Honda's system is a gas engine assisted by an electric motor.
The gas engine starts whenever it's needed to supplement the electric motor. Step hard on the gas pedal and the V6 kicks in quickly and seamlessly. You can barely hear or feel when this happens. It works exceptionally well. All the components work in concert most of the time.
The 3.3-liter V6 is basically the same engine as the one used in the RX 330, but it's modified and tuned to work with the electric motor. It's set up for the on-demand instant restarting used by the hybrid system. Unlike the RX 330's engine, the engine in the hybrid does not use the variable-valve setup because it's not needed and takes up space. There's no starter, no alternator, and no serpentine belt to run all that stuff.
The RX 400h enjoys a 67-percent edge in fuel efficiency over the RX 330 in the EPA's City cycle, earning 30/26 mpg City/Highway. Its 28 mpg EPA Combined rating is comparable to that of the average compact sedan (27.6 mpg); average for SUVs in this class is 15.1 mpg. Lexus says fuel economy is seldom an important consideration for SUV shoppers but that many buyers later become unhappy with the thirstiness of their SUVs after owning them.
More impressive is the absence of environmentally harmful emissions. The RX 400h is rated as a Super Ultra Low Emission Vehicle in California or Tier 2, Bin 3 in other states, confusing designations that describe some of the most stringent emissions ratings in the industry.
But what surprised and delighted us was the acceleration performance of the RX 400h. Stand on the gas and it takes off quickly, whether from a standstill or when cruising. Lexus says the RX 400h can accelerate from 0-60 mph in 7.3 seconds. That's a half-second quicker than an RX 330 and comparable to the Mercedes ML500, which uses a thirsty V8. Lexus says the RX 400h powertrain can generate 3,500 pound-feet of torque at launch.
The RX 400h cruises happily at speed out on the highway and there's plenty of reserve power on tap. When we caught a slower car on a two-lane road, we checked to see it was clear, pressed the accelerator to the floor, and were able to make a quick and easy pass. Safe, quick passing performance was important on Hawaii's Big Island where passing opportunities were limited. Lexus says it takes the RX 400h just 3.4 seconds to accelerate from 30 to 50 mph, at least a solid second quicker than the competition. We were sometimes able to catch the system off guard, however. While coasting down a hill we suddenly nailed the throttle, not a move the car seemed to expect, and there was a momentary lag before the power kicked in. For the most part, though, the RX 400h drives like a powerful and sophisticated SUV.
The Lexus RX 400h offers more power, more features and better fuel economy than the regular RX 330. That may be enough justification for the $4,000-$5,000 premium over a loaded RX 330. A better justification may be knowing that you are driving one of the most environmentally friendly vehicles on the planet, cleaner than electric cars when the big picture is considered. Another justification is a little less tangible: The RX 400h is a technological marvel and would be an interesting vehicle to own.
New Car Test Drive editor Mitch McCullough filed this report from the Kohala Coast, Hawaii.
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