2007 Lexus RX 400h

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2006 Lexus RX 400h

This 2006 review is representative of model years 2006 to 2008.
By Dan Jedlicka of MSN Autos
Rating: 8

Bottom Line:

Gasoline-electric hybrid version of the Lexus RX promises to make this sport-utility vehicle even more popular.
Pros:
  • Good fuel economy
  • Fast
  • Posh and roomy
Cons:
  • Costly
  • Complex drive system
  • Don't expect price reductions

The Lexus RX 400h arrived this spring as an early 2006 model and is the first gasoline-electric hybrid luxury vehicle. Leave it to Toyota's upscale Lexus brand to show that hybrid gas-electric vehicles can be posh, fast and fuel stingy—and drive more smoothly and no differently than the regular Lexus RX 330 gasoline sport utility.

The RX 400h is fast—even faster than the standard 2005 RX 330, which is virtually unchanged from 2004. That's because the hybrid has 268 horsepower and more torque than the 230-horsepower RX 330. The 400h, which comes only with all-wheel drive, is based on the RX 330, which comes with front or all-wheel drive.

Hot Rod Angle
Automakers are beginning to market hybrids as well-equipped upscale hot rods because that lets them be sold as top-line models with high-profit accessories. That gives them higher prices than modestly equipped entry models. And that allows their manufacturers to recover the high costs of hybrid equipment more quickly.

Lexus sells more than 100,000 gasoline RX models annually and expects to sell 28,000 400h models each year, although long waiting lists for the RX 400h indicate that may be a conservative estimate.

The $48,410 RX 400h costs considerably more than the $37,425 all-wheel-drive 2005 RX 330. But Lexus says that the 400h has "about $6,000 worth of extra equipment" that is not in the base RX 330 and lets buyers get a government tax break.

Well Equipped
In fact, the 400h has so much comfort, convenience and safety equipment, only a few accessories such as $540 heated seats and a $1,200 DVD entertainment system are offered.

Only about half a dozen gasoline-electric hybrids currently are sold, but some analysts say the hybrid fleet is projected to climb to 50 models and register more than a million unit annual sales by 2010, with even Porsche selling a hybrid.

Higher Fuel Economy
High gasoline prices are partly motivating the move to gas-electric hybrids. The RX 400h delivers an EPA-estimated 31 mpg in the city and 27 on highways, compared to an estimated 18 and 24 for the all-wheel-drive RX 330. (A front-wheel-drive RX 330 gets 19 and 25.)

Based on gas prices and typical driving distances, it can take a long time to recoup the extra money paid for a hybrid, but hybrids require fewer stops at gas pumps than comparably sized regular cars or trucks—and are a lot more trendier.

When they hear the word "electric," some people assume a hybrid must be plugged in to charge batteries, but no plug-in is required.

How It Works
The RX 400h powertrain, for example, combines two electric motors with a 3.3-liter V6 found in the RX 330 to provide better acceleration, besides improved fuel economy and lower emissions. There also is a third electric motor that starts the SUV and serves as a generator.

When the RX 400h is braking or coasting, the two electric motors that drive the wheels also function as a generator to provide electricity to recharge the vehicle's batteries.

The hybrid system can work in separate gas or electric modes, as well as a mode that combines power from both. The computer-controlled powertrain seamlessly blends power from the V6 and electric drive motors and generator.

The electric motors can do most of the work during city driving. The RX 400h can use only electric power up to about 40 mph, which is why its city fuel economy number is higher than the highway figure. (It's the opposite with regular gasoline vehicles.) The hybrid's gas engine kicks in at higher speeds.

Seamless Operation
A driver doesn't feel the RX 400h changing operation modes, although there is a faint whine from the electric motor-generator units when slowing down at lower speeds, as if from an electric golf cart.

The system works with a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT), which has no specific gear changes and thus makes the RX 400h accelerate more smoothly.

So far, so good. But the drive system is complicated and it's doubtful that anyone but a Lexus technician will touch it. Owners of the 400h thus best not get stranded far from a Lexus dealership.

Lively Acceleration
The RX 400h doesn't have the lazy highway acceleration of the first gas-electric hybrid autos. It was still accelerating hard at 80 mph, when driving circumstances forced me to slow down, and it accelerated with seemingly little effort. It does 0-60 mph in about 7 seconds, which is slightly faster than the RX 330 despite the hybrid's extra weight.

The soft ride of the RX 400h is one indication that this is not a sports-oriented SUV. However, its decent suspension and rather large 18-inch tires help provide good handling.

The quick steering is rather heavy, but not objectionably so, and stopping distances are short. A new-generation vehicle stability control system helps prevent skids or slides.

Upscale Interior
Four tall adults easily fit in the quiet, upscale interior. There are supportive front bucket seats and fore-aft adjustment of the rear seat for added leg or cargo room. The back-lit gauges can be quickly read, but audio and climate controls are somewhat complicated. Rear vision is impeded by thick roof pillars.

Two nicely placed cupholders are in the front console, which also has a deep bin with a cover that flips opens in two sections. Rear power windows lower all the way, but it's difficult to stop the front ones after they're in up or down modes.

The cargo area is spacious, although its wide opening is rather high. Rear seatbacks flip forward and fold flat to increase cargo capacity.

The RX 400h gives Lexus a jump on rivals. It looks as if they'll be forced to offer a hybrid to match it—at the least for prestige purposes.

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BB02 - 7/30/2014 2:18:20 PM