If you're new to the gasoline/electric hybrid topic, there are a few things to know up front. None of the current hybrids needs to be plugged into a source of power. They all charge their high-voltage batteries using either the engine or the momentum of the moving vehicle in a process called regenerative braking. What this means is the motor or motors that help propel the car serve as generators when it's coasting or braking, capturing the energy of motion and storing it in the battery. That same power is then used to help accelerate again.
The RX 400h and its sister, the Toyota Highlander Hybrid, accomplish all-wheel drive by means of an additional motor/generator for the rear wheels. There's no driveshaft from the gas engine; it's 100-percent electric, and it aids regeneration, too. While the Highlander Hybrid and RX 330 come in front- or all-wheel drive, the RX 400h is all-wheel drive only.
Where the first hybrids were poky cars designed to maximize efficiency, the recent models balance efficiency with performance. All but one of the hybridized versions of conventional models are quicker than their gas-only counterparts — even when the latter are equipped with the more powerful of two engines offered. It's true of the RX 400h and Highlander Hybrid. The industry hasn't figured out how to express hybrid horsepower accurately, so it's best to scrutinize the driving experience itself.
The RX 400h rockets off the line and hits 60 mph in about 7 seconds. The RX 330 with all-wheel drive takes 1 second longer. Electric motors have gobs of torque from 0 rpm on up, so in quick launches from a standing start, all four tires begin to slip — struggling against the four-wheel traction control. The vehicle also has Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management, a new generation of Lexus' electronic stability system that is less intrusive.
Aside from the added gusto, the acceleration has a character that some drivers will notice as special: It doesn't have the rev-and-shift, rev-and-shift feel of a regular automatic transmission. The hybrid driveline has the properties of a continuously variable transmission, so it never feels like it shifts at all.
Otherwise, there's little to reveal that the vehicle is a hybrid. Exterior and interior differences are mostly cosmetic and subtle. The battery pack resides under the backseat — its cooling vents clearly visible — but it makes no difference in headroom or legroom. The standard in-dash LCD video monitor can display a fascinating energy-flow diagram, one of the only reminders that one's driving a hybrid.
The similarities extend to include the RX 330's shortfalls as well: As in many SUVs in this class, the RX 400h's interior space isn't much better than that of a midsize car — 6 cubic feet more than a Lexus ES 300's in this case. Also, significant tire noise intrudes when driving on a grooved highway surface.
If fuel economy or environmental concerns are your only criteria, the 400h's price premium might not be justifiable unless gas prices go astronomical. It depends on how and where you drive. Consider the EPA ratings for the hybrid and non-hybrid versions of the RX. Characteristic of the Toyota hybrids, the fuel economy rating is better in city driving where regeneration is most at play. At highway speeds, the advantage isn't as great. In a Chicago-Detroit round trip, we observed 24 mpg, highway. This is not surprising, as EPA fuel-economy estimates notoriously overestimate hybrid efficiency. Also, the speed limit in Michigan is 70 mph, and higher speeds result in lower fuel economy.
|Hybrid vs. Gasoline-Only Lexus RX|
|How They Differ|
|Base List Price||$48,535||$37,425|
|EPA-Estimated Fuel Economy (city/highway, mpg)||30/26||18/24|
|Standard Steering Wheel||power,|
|Drivetrain Instruments||kW gauge; power-flow display||tachometer|
|Interior Trim||metallic-look||genuine wood|
|Features||many standard||many optional|
|Final Assembly Location||Japan||Japan or Canada|
A hybrid RX is easier to justify for city driving, but don't get the impression that the technology will pay for itself. The cost of entry for a front-drive RX 330 is $12,510 less than that of an RX 400h.
The gap is smaller when comparing the all-wheel-drive version, especially after factoring in the features included in the hybrid that are optional on the RX 330: leather seats; moonroof; wider tires; roof rack; driver's seat, steering wheel and side mirror memory; GPS-based navigation system with rearview camera; adaptive xenon high-intensity-discharge headlights; and Bluetooth wireless mobile phone compatibility.
By building a window sticker in our Buy section, I added as many of these options as possible to the RX 330 with all-wheel drive and arrived at a price roughly $5,000 below that of the RX 400h. Then there's the markup issue: Limited supply will keep transaction prices at or above the sticker price for the RX 400h indefinitely. Still, it seems that many Americans prefer to pay more up front for better efficiency than to be insulted every time they fill up their tank thereafter. (I believe the same phenomenon is a factor in the overall success of Hondas and Toyotas — vehicles that cost more up front but require less frequent repair later on.)
A mitigating factor, these brands retain their value better than most. If the Toyota Prius is any indication, the RX 400h will, too, barring any recalls or major problems. The same supply/demand curve that causes high transaction prices for new hybrids currently translates to high resale for used ones as well. Some buyers choose a used Prius rather than take their place on a new-model waiting list. The wait for an RX 400h is currently about four months, though it varies with region.
Luxury is partly about prestige and exclusivity, and hybrid status will increase both. The efficiency won't make up the price premium, but it's enough to draw people of conscience who heretofore have spurned SUVs. A quick, luxurious, no-compromise SUV that emits less greenhouse gasses and pollutants? Where's the downside?
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