Lexus RX 400h AWD

By Jonathan Spira on 1 May 2007
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While celebrities in Hollywood may drive themselves to glamorous openings in 50 mpg hybrid Priuses, the business traveler can show up in style at meetings with a clean, green conscience driving.2007 Lexus RX 400h

Lexus bills the RX 400h as the “world’s first luxury hybrid utility vehicle” and it’s clearly at the beginning of a trend for luxury alternative-fuel vehicles. Ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel is making a comeback in diesel-powered passenger cars (expect more from Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen, just to name a couple) and BMW is building a limited number of hydrogen-powered 7 Series (we’ll be driving one this summer and will report at that time.)

Hybrid vehicles are relatively new, first introduced in the United States in 2000.  Their popularity is growing; registrations for hybrids increased 240% from 2004 to 2005.  Many states and municipalities offer incentives for the purchase of hybrid vehicles, including tax breaks and, in New York, the privilege to drive in the HOV lane without the requisite number of passengers.  The downside is that the sticker price can be a minimum of $3,000 more than the non-hybrid equivalent.

The Toyota Prius is perhaps the best known hybrid but it isn’t alone.  Lexus, Toyota’s luxury division, markets the RX 400h and the GS 450h. There’s a hybrid Honda Civic and a hybrid Toyota Camry, as well as SUVs from Ford, Saturn, Mercury, and Toyota.

But I digress.

Once I got used to the RX 400h’s height (an SUV is not my daily driver), driving was a pleasure in the spacious, well-appointed cabin.

The test vehicle came very well equipped, with comfortable leather seats (heated, of course) and leather interior trim, automatic dual-zone climate control, a premium sound system, cruise control, high-impact discharge headlamps with auto level with Adaptive Front Lighting (as you turn, the headlights pivot as well to light the way), and 10-way power seats for the driver and 8-way power passenger seating.

The electronically-controlled Continuously Variable Transmission works without gear changes and blends gear ratios as it distributes an optimized combination of gas and electric power based on driving conditions.

The RX 400h can go from zero to sixty in a respectable 6.9 seconds according to the manufacturer.  And while I wasn’t tempted to take a detour to Lime Rock Park, I never felt outgunned in the week that I had the car.

I was pleased to see the fuel usage gauge pegged to 60 MPG during much of my driving, although I realized that this was somewhat illusory.  According to the EPA, the car gets 31 mpg (city), 27 mpg (highway).  The Lexus can actually function solely on electric power at low speeds, which means that, in city driving, it uses much less gasoline resulting in a higher mpg figure.  When only using electric power, the car is very, very quiet.

The RX 400h starts at $42,580, while the conventional RX starts at 37,000. By comparison, the gasoline-only RX 350 gets 17 mpg (city), 22 mpg (highway), with zero to sixty at 7.4 seconds.

Powered by a 3.3-liter V6 gasoline engine with one high-torque electric-drive motor driving the front wheels and another one driving the rear wheels, the RX 400h produces 268 hp and meets the requirements to be classified as a Super Ultra-Low Emission Vehicle (SULEV), California’s stringent standards for hydrocarbon and nitrous oxide emissions.  For the technically minded, it uses a planetary gear set and generator to help route power to the motor (and recharge the batteries for that matter).   A Lexus innovation, the planetary gear set manages the physical interaction between the gasoline engine, electric-drive motor, and generator, thereby seamlessly distributing power between the engine and motor.

Technology wise, the car was not business-traveler friendly.  Centered on the dashboard is a large touchscreen monitor that supports the DVD-based navigation, radio, and phone (which uses Bluetooth technology).

I found the voice response system infuriating; each time you press the command button, instead of a simple beep, the car recites “After the beep please say command” (the delay, I suspect, is necessary to allow the system to time to get ready to accept the command; some cars simply “beep” without announcing their intention to do so).  In addition, almost all functionality for telematics and driver assistance systems is locked out for safety when the car is in motion.

Lexus should take a cue from the more advanced German in-car system interfaces, such as BMW’s iDrive, which forego the touchscreen (and the problem of messy fingerprints after a few minutes of use) for a controller-based system with a monitor that is in the driver’s field of vision (such systems generally permit full functionality while in motion).    The Lexus’ Bluetooth technology could be more advanced; the system didn’t transfer my phonebook (I tried four different mobile phones) and dialing a number was infuriating: the speech-to-text system didn’t understand what I was saying nine times out of ten (not a problem in other cars); I also couldn’t use the touchscreen keypad to dial unless the car was standing still.

Still, nothing took away the pleasant feeling I had when parking and other drivers asked with a certain amount of respect and awe, “is that the hybrid?”

2007 Lexus RX 400h AWD
Base price/price-as-tested $42,580/$XX,XXX
Drivetrain Front engine, all-wheel drive
Engine 3.3-liter/268 hp/24-valve V-6
Transmission Electronically-controlled Continuously Variable Transmission
Curb weight 4365 lbs /
Wheelbase 108.7 in
Ground clearance 7.1 in.
Length x width x height 187.2  x 72.6 x 68.5
0-60 mph 6.9 seconds
EPA city/highway fuel economy (mpg) 31/27

–Jonathan B. Spira is the Editor of Executive Road Warrior and Chief Analyst at Basex, a knowledge economy research firm.

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