Whenever I write a column about a certain green automotive technology -- hybrids, electrics, diesels, city cars -- I can count on a certain percentage of e-mails to the effect of: "Kiss my butt, latte boy. Just for that I'm gonna leave mah truck running in the yard at night with a brick on the gas pedal. Eat carbon, you little rainbow."
What I call the "NASCAR effect" is a consequence of what is known in social psychology as the Focus Theory of Normative Conduct. The theory holds that whenever people encounter a message about what they ought to do (e.g., save gas, buy a hybrid), and see few people actually doing it, they tend to rebel and do the opposite. If in a dirty, littered landscape there are big signs that say, "Please don't litter," people will take their cue from the environment and litter.
People can be such jerks, can't they?
When I look at the 2010 Lexus RX450h -- the hybrid version of Lexus' luxury crossover model, now in its third generation since 1998 -- I see evidence of the steady migration of a social norm toward more fuel-efficient vehicles.
Honda and Toyota together have sold more than 1.3 million hybrids, and this once-alien technology has been applied to vehicles including hulking SUVs (Chevy Tahoe Hybrid) and nondescript sedans (Ford Fusion Hybrid). What was once subversive is increasingly orthodox. All the cajoling and nagging in the world isn't as persuasive as the collective presence of all those little "Hybrid" badges flying about.
The RX, now arriving in dealerships, will make for an interesting experiment. The gas-powered RX350 is priced at $37,625 in front-wheel-drive configuration, and $39,925 for all-wheel-drive. Bigger, more powerful and more prepossessing, and besotted with high-tech features and options, the 2010 RX350 is actually priced $900 less than the '09 model. The RX gets reasonable fuel economy: 21 miles per gallon for the FWD version, 20 mpg for the AWD.
The hybrid RX450h, arriving in showrooms in a few months, is likely to be priced about $7,000 more. This is the second generation of Lexus hybrid luxo-ute, replacing the RX400h. There are a few value-added niceties in the RX450h, but it's basically the same car with the same performance as the RX350 (0-60 mph in 7.4 seconds), except that the hybrid model gets 28 mpg with FWD and 27 mpg in AWD.
In itself, the fuel economy doesn't justify the additional cost, unless gasoline starts selling for $10 a gallon. Question: Given the increasing social acceptance of hybrids as a good thing, will more people step up to the hybrid model, even though it's not in their economic best interest?
Not that the RX450h doesn't have other compensations: In those moments when it's gliding silently on electric power in midtown, with the out-of-control world safely shut out by the acoustic-laminated glass, the RX450h is a deliciously tranquil place, a waking dream in the nightmare of commuting traffic.
Lexus has poured an astonishing amount of design and technology into the cabin, and both come together in the car's unique asymmetric console, a flourishing loop of brightwork in the center of the dash that integrates the LCD display and climate and audio controls. This is part of what Lexus calls its L-Finesse design language -- stronger visual gestures with more organic detailing. The RX450h looks pretty good inside and out, but I'm loath to praise any styling vocabulary with such a ridiculous name.
The RX also debuts Lexus' Remote Touch, a multifunction controller, kind of like a computer mouse that is hand-stitched by Prada. Situated in a small, leather-bound lump in the central console, the Remote Touch directs a point-and-click arrow through the LCD's various display menus, such as navigation and audio functions. With the display's top-tab graphic format, getting around the menus is effortless.
The RX450h is fairly well equipped in standard trim, including loads of leather, wood and chrome; LED brake and taillights; six-disc CD changer with satellite radio and iPod connectivity; Bluetooth; and a slew of safety features such as air bags, active headrests, and braking and stability assists.
Among the model's signature options, the RX offers adaptive front lighting (high-beams dim when they sense oncoming traffic), side-view monitor, electrochromic (self-dimming) outside mirrors, voice-recognition navigation, sport suspension and 19-inch wheels. The press materials go on like that for several pages.
The first thing you notice when you enter the vehicle is the substantial leg up. The RX450h is much bigger than the previous model and it feels it. Indeed, our AWD tester (4,650 pounds) seemed to be made of some weird transuranic element.
The sense of ponderousness was only underscored when I activated the vehicle's Eco mode, which maximizes fuel economy by increasing regenerative braking, dulling throttle response and generally dialing out any kind of liveliness. In Eco mode it's possible to get in excess of 30 mpg, which is a reason to celebrate, if you can stay awake for it. Happily, if you should need immediate power and stomp the pedal, the system will revert to full-power mode, so you won't be a sitting duck on the onramp.
Complaints? I had a few. The big hybrid's continuously variable transmission does moan a bit at interstate-highway speeds, and if you're climbing a significant grade the moan becomes a lament.
I also notice that there is a fairly unprogressive plateau in the braking. Ordinarily, the car uses only regenerative braking -- not hydraulics -- to slow down. Electric brakes, in other words. But if you hit the brake pedal a little harder than usual, the full force of the hydraulics come online and everything in the car winds up on the windshield.
As for handling, even with the Sport suspension package, the RX450h rolls like a tugboat off Cape Hatteras. This is a tall, heavy vehicle, with the suspension dial set on "Xanax." No corner carving here.
Is the RX450h the right thing to do? Well, you could always get a Toyota Prius and get 50 mpg, so it's more accurate to say the big hybrid ute is less wrong than right. Search your conscience and your wallet. And please don't litter.