In my neck of the woods, Lexus cars and SUVs are everywhere, but none are quite as ubiquitous as the RX series. Seriously, there are three of them just on my block. So I was excited when I got my chance to test one out. I didn’t get just any RX; I got the RX 400h, the newest addition to the RX lineup and a notable one because it’s a hybrid.
The ’08 RX 400h is a luxury SUV that’s easy to drive and easy on the eyes. It’s comfortable, powerful and useful; I mean, what else do you want? There are lots of high-end features and a high-end price tag to go with them. Oh, you were waiting for the catch, were you?
Sadly, this pricey little SUV seems a bit dated. It’s like the SUV that time forgot. The RX series hasn’t changed much since it was introduced for the 1999 model year. That doesn’t mean it’s no good, it’s just not exactly cutting-edge. What’s missing are some of the cool new features, like a proximity key, that can be found in other Lexus models. The big draw here is the hybrid drivetrain, but even that isn’t amazing; the RX 400h still sports a V-6 under the hood and only gets about 5 mpg (combined city/highway) more than the RX 350, the non-hybrid version (I averaged 22.4 mpg during my test week). Still, I enjoyed my time in the RX, mainly because of its exceptionally smooth ride and powerful engine, two things that can cancel out most annoyances in any car.
IT’S THE LITTLE THINGS THAT COUNT Storage compartments (Puny, Fair, Ample, Galore): Ample Cargo/trunk space (Puny, Fair, Ample, Galore): Galore
SENSE AND STYLE Family friendly (Not Really, Fair, Great, Excellent): Excellent Fun factor (None, Some, Good times, Groove on): Good times
The RX hasn’t changed its looks much; it still floats somewhere between cute and elegant. The RX isn’t flashy or trendy, it’s simple and pretty. Its 17-inch wheels and rooftop luggage rack give it a touch of ruggedness. Front-wheel drive is standard on the RX 400h, but four-wheel drive is available. The RX isn’t particularly tall, so getting in and out of it is easy. For me, in fact, the seat seemed to be neither up nor down – I just slid in. Even the kids had no difficulty climbing in and out of the RX 400h, although the doors could be hard for my little guy to reach when they were open all the way. The rear liftgate opens and closes with the push of a button. Power liftgates never get old for me; I still think they’re magical.
My test RX came in a beautiful deep, dark red color. Lexus calls it Matador Red Mica, but there’s nothing spicy or dangerous about it. It’s not bright or obnoxious; it’s a lovely color and a terrific change from the hordes of silver, black and white SUVs running around out there.
What sets the RX 400h apart from the RX 350, other than the drivetrain, is a series of logos and badges all over the SUV’s body proclaiming it to be a hybrid. The “L” and “400h” have blue highlights that are almost incandescent. At first, I thought the blue was just a trick of the light, but no, it’s there on purpose. I’m not sure what blue is supposed to convey, but those badges seemed kind of ’80s-cheesy to me. I could do without them, but at least they’re more subtle than some other manufacturers’ “HYBRID” plaques.
The inside of the RX 400h is just pretty. Eight-way power controls easily adjust the buttery-soft heated leather seats. A rich wood grain trim creates visual warmth, and a dual climate-control system makes sure everyone in the RX is warm enough. But the entertainment system left me cold. The sound system is adequate but not amazing, and it lacks satellite radio. Also (this is almost unforgivable), there’s no auxiliary jack to hook an iPod or other MP3 player into the stereo system. A color touch-screen provides navigation, audio controls and myriad other settings, but it isn’t the easiest system to figure out. I had to break out the manual, something I rarely have to do, to work the defroster. On the positive side, the Bluetooth link is easy to set up and worked really well for me. Thanks to the hybrid engine, the interior is completely silent at low speeds. In fact, I never got used to the electric engine’s silence. When the V-6 engine cuts in, however, it’s on the loud side, so I guess it averages out.
The backseat of the RX is roomy and comfy for people big and small alike. Three (smallish) booster seats can fit side-by-side, and the seat belts were easy for my little guys to connect. What was less fabulous was how easily my guys bumped their heads on the rear-entertainment system’s screen, which is anchored in the ceiling. That happened more times than it should have. The entertainment system is completely housed in the rear, which means that I can’t load a DVD while I’m driving, and the kids can stick anything into the DVD player without me knowing. That’s scary, right? I did, however, like the rear armrest that not only provides two cupholders, but also a nifty storage area for toys or other small items. There are two small seatback pockets for books, but they’re on the dinky side, so not much else will fit in them. The rear seats also fold easily in a 40/20/40 split, but I couldn’t get them to lie completely flat.
The RX 400h has lots of safety features, as you would expect from a luxury SUV. There are nine airbags, including rear side curtain airbags, and the seat belts are height-adjustable in the front seat. The braking system is highly computerized and goes way beyond your simple antilock brakes with its electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist. Automatic headlights keep the road ahead illuminated, and a rear camera gives a clear view while backing up; this is a must with kids around.
Be aware, however, that some of the really cool safety features are optional in the RX 400h. The high-intensity headlights that swivel to help you see around turns aren’t standard. I also really liked the available sensors on the RX’s exterior that warn you about out-of-view obstacles. The cool adaptive cruise control system uses radar to not only help maintain a safe distance between cars while driving on the highway, but it also activates a bunch of the RX’s safety features milliseconds before an impending collision. I don’t have any intention of using that stuff, but isn’t it nice to know it’s there?