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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 list of standard features is long: Regency leather interior trim, automatic dual-zone climate control, premium audio, cruise control, automatic headlamps, 10-way power driver's seat, eight-way power front passenger's, leather trim for the steering wheel and shift knob, AM/FM/cassette/6CD stereo, and a power rear liftgate.
Options include DVD navigation with back-up camera, Bluetooth and voice activation, Mark Levinson premium audio with 11 speakers, adjustable front seat heaters, dynamic laser cruise control, DVD rear-seat entertainment.
Safety features include side curtain airbags designed to provide head protection for front and rear outboard passengers. Other supplemental restraint systems include advanced front airbags for the driver and passenger, a knee airbag for the driver, and side-impact airbags mounted in the front seats that are designed to protect the torso, abdomen and pelvis, all of which are important for things like walking. The hybrid system is designed to shut down whenever sensors detect a rollover to reduce concerns from emergency crews about high-voltage power. Also, the fuel tank is much thicker and encased in metal to protect it from damage. All-wheel drive and the sophisticated electronic stability control system (VDIM) are standard, which integrates anti-lock brakes, Brake Assist, traction control and other dynamic safety features. The adaptive front lighting system aims the High-intensity discharge headlamps to illuminate corners as the driver steers into them.
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.