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Lexus RX 400h

New Lexus RX Blends Power, Luxury, and Economy

By Jim Bray

Coming on May 6, 2005, to a Lexus dealer near you, the world’s first luxury hybrid SUV.

It’s the 2006 RX 400h, the highest-tech and newest version of the popular RX 330 (nee RX 300) that has been selling oodles of copies since its introduction.

Lexus says the new hybrid version of the SUV gives V8 performance with the fuel economy of a compact car. Those are pretty impressive claims – almost like proclaiming you’ve built a perpetual motion machine – and if Lexus can’t back them up there are sure to be some people looking to make hay from the fact that the company fell short in its relentless pursuit of perfection.

I don’t think Lexus needs to worry about that, however, if my brief test drive of the RX 400h at an introduction of the vehicle to the media is any indication. It truly does perform, pulling smoothly (ultra smoothly, in fact) away from stop lights or slower traffic (Lexus claims a 0-60mph time of under 8 seconds) and during my hour and a half behind the wheel (of mostly urban driving) the gas gauge never left full.

Lexus RX 400h

The heart of the RX 400h is its Hybrid Synergy Drive (HSD) powertrain. A “true hybrid” (which means it’s capable of operating as either a gas or electric vehicle, or both), it blends a slightly modified version of the RX’ normal 3.3 litre V6 gasoline engine with the higher tech hybrid stuff. The result is a claimed power/torque rating equivalent to 268 horsepower @ 5600 rpm and 212 lb. ft of torque @ 4400. That’s fine for a gas engine; in fact the gas-powered RX 330 claims 230 horsepower.

And its emissions, or lack of, qualify it as a Super Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle, cleaner than a Boy Scout convention.

Fuel efficiency is claimed at 8.5 litres per 100 km, which is in the same general neighbourhood as the Toyota Corolla XRS. Not bad at all! Naturally, your mileage may vary. I have a lead foot and never approach the claimed figures, but everything is relative.

On the other hand, while Lexus buyers may not have fuel economy uppermost in their minds, it’s there if you want it. And with gas prices what they are these days, over the life of ownership of the RX 400h, the gas you save may go a long way toward paying the $6000 or so premium for the hybrid version compared with the regular RX.

Speaking of the life of the vehicle, Lexus warrants the nickel-metal hydride battery pack, which mounts under the folding and reclining rear seats, for eight years. They weren’t saying how much it would cost to replace the pack after eight years, but that only makes sense since the technology is still new and will undoubtedly be better and cheaper by the time replacement is necessary (if it ever is).

The RX 400h comes with on-demand electronic all wheel drive that includes a 50-kilowatt electric motor with a newly designed reduction gear to work the rear wheels. Up front, there’s a 123-kilowatt permanent magnet motor. As with other hybrids, the Lexus uses regenerative braking to recharge the battery pack when the vehicle decelerates or brakes, turning the motor into a generator. It ain't a perpetual motion machine, but it's still almost like free energy.

Lexus RX 400h

There are displays (such as the one to the right ---->) that show how the vehicle is varying its power between electric, gas, and the combination of both, as you drive along. It’s cool seeing how the operation changes depending on the circumstances, but of course if you pay too much attention to it you’re liable to run someone over!

The RX 400h’s transmission is of the continuously variable type that is starting to become popular, and justifiably so. This eschews traditional gears and offers incredible smoothness and efficiency. It also takes a bit of getting used to; I always find myself waiting for the transmission to shift, which it never does, and sometimes when you coast or brake the engine revs seem to be humming along in the opposite direction from what you’d think. But don’t worry, it’s operating just fine.

The more I drive CVT-equipped vehicles the more I like the transmission, even though I’m a confirmed “stickaholic.”

The hybrid Lexus also comes with a Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (VDIM) system, which the company says anticipates and corrects stability problems using a combination of brake and throttle control. I never noticed it in my short test, so it either works seamlessly behind the scenes or the RX never felt the need to get involved.

Other efficiencies in the Lexus come from adapting systems that are traditionally powered from the engine and changing them over to electrical operation, including the air conditioning and power steering systems.

Since this is a Lexus, one also expects to be stroked (as opposed to bored) and the hybrid RX is a Lexus through and through. It’s being offered in two trim levels, Premium and Ultra Premium, with the higher end version carrying an ultra premium of about $7500 Canadian over the “base” model. The extra cash upgrades the audio to the famous Mark Levinson system and adds such niceties as a navigation system, rear view camera and some other nifty creature comforts.

Lexus also builds in nice little touches such as a centre console that slides forward or backward for convenience, windows and sunroof that open and close with one touch of the control button (with the appropriate safety system built in so no one gets garroted) and a power operated tailgate you can activate remotely so if your arms are loaded with grocery bags the RX will open up and wait for you. It won’t take the bags from you and store them nicely, but that’s probably coming!

There’s leather everywhere, of course, and power this and that, dual zone climate control and enough air bags and other safety equipment to choke a horse.

It’s a beautifully designed and executed vehicle and I look forward to putting it through its paces in a longer test drive soon.

Lexus appears confident that it is going to have another hit on its hands. A Lexus spokesman told me they’ve already increased production, apparently in response to a raft of pre-orders for the RX 400h, so the future for the luxury hybrid SUV appears bright.

The best thing about this hybrid is that it doesn’t appear to be making a statement about how “caring” or “green” its owners are. Other than the very attractive alloy wheels, some subtle styling clues and of course badging, you’d never know this was a politically correct vehicle. Instead, it looks and, even better, feels like an honest to goodness Lexus, smooth and powerful and ultra comfortable. It’s just quietly and powerfully efficient as well.

And in my never humble opinion, that’s exactly how it should be.

Take that, Earth Liberation Front and you anti SUV types!


Jim Bray is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada. His columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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