By Jim Bray
Coming on May 6, 2005, to a Lexus dealer near you, the worlds first
luxury hybrid SUV.
Its 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 youve built a perpetual motion machine and if
Lexus cant 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
I dont 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.
The heart of the RX 400h is its Hybrid Synergy Drive (HSD) powertrain. A true
hybrid (which means its 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. Thats 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, its 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 werent 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, theres 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
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. Its cool seeing how the operation changes depending
on the circumstances, but of course if you pay too much attention to it youre
liable to run someone over!
The RX 400hs 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 youd think.
But dont worry, its operating just fine.
The more I drive CVT-equipped vehicles the more I like the transmission, even
though Im 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. Its 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
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 wont take the bags from you and store them nicely, but
thats probably coming!
Theres leather everywhere, of course, and power this and that, dual
zone climate control and enough air bags and other safety equipment to choke
Its 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 theyve 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 doesnt 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, youd 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. Its just quietly and powerfully
efficient as well.
And in my never humble opinion, thats exactly how it should be.
Take that, Earth Liberation Front and you anti SUV types!