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2007 Lexus RX 400h

Hybrid technology pumps up an ordinary SUV

About.com Rating 4 Star Rating

By

2007 Lexus RX 400h

There are few external clues on the RX 400h that you're driving a hybrid.

Photo © Jason Fogelson
You're a luxury car maker, and your top selling vehicle is a very good Crossover SUV. Sales threaten to stagnate, and you've got to move ahead with the times. How do you make a good SUV into an excellent SUV? Add a hybrid gas/electric drive system. That's just what the good folks at Lexus did with their 2007 Lexus RX 400h. The 2007 Lexus RX 400h carries a base price of $41,180 ($49,110 as tested), a 4 year/50,000 mile basic warranty, a 5 year/70,000 mile powertrain warranty and an EPA estimate of 32 mpg city/27 mpg highway. So, how well does the luxury hybrid SUV work on a day-to-day basis?

First Glance

In case you haven't visited it yet, you should take a look at About.com's Alternative Fuels site. Christine and Scott Gable, the Guides there, do a great job of explaining the ins and outs of hybrids, and other alternatives like ethanol, bio-diesel and hydrogen fuel cells. As your Guide to SUVs, I have to be concerned about rising fuel prices and alternative fuels. They gravely affect the future of the SUV, and indeed, the future of private transportation in general. But the focus of the reviews on this site isn't on the future, it's on the present -- how do the SUVs that we drive today look, feel and perform?

There are few external clues on the RX 400h that you're driving a hybrid. There's the lowercase "h" on the nameplate, of course, and a couple of inch-high "hybrid" descriptors along the body side molding. Other than that, the 400h looks just like any other RX -- that is, teardrop-shaped, inoffensive and kind of conservative. You get the same 17" alloy wheels, the same restrained use of chrome trim, the same big headlights and taillights. Fit and finish are great, as they are on all Lexus models that I've encountered to date. Deep rich paint, even seams and gaps, incredible attention to detail from stem to stern.

If you're looking to impress the neighbors with your green status, a Prius is much better advertising.

Continued below . . .

In the Driver's Seat

The RX 400h's instrument panel and controls betray the fact that something new and different is going on behind the curtain.

Photo © Jason Fogelson
Inside the RX 400h are the same comfortable, slightly overstuffed seats and the same basic layout as the RX 350, but things look a little more modern, and a little more plain. RX 350 wears a small amount of real wood trim on the center console and on the door panels; RX 400h is wood trim-free. I didn't miss it at all -- though Lexus uses quality wood in its vehicles, I'd rather see great plastics and select metalwork in my cabin. Wood is a difficult material that countermands engineering precision -- it's a throwback to the old days of coachmaking, a quaint anachronistic touch that's too often just shorthand for luxury in new vehicles.

The RX 400h's instrument panel and controls betray the fact that something new and different is going on behind the curtain. Where you would expect to find a tachometer, RX 400h has a power meter -- an analog needle display that shows how much battery power is available and how it's being used at any given moment. You can use this information to drive in a fashion that will recharge your batteries, which will increase your performance. Or you can ignore the gauge, and drive your hybrid just like a gas-only SUV.

RX 400h's center stack is crowned by an LCD screen that can display settings for ventilation, audio, outside temperature, clock and trip computer. The trip computer is fascinating, with real-time displays of battery power, regenerative braking, fuel economy, distance and time traveled. When you order the optional Lexus Navigation System ($2,650), the screen also handles maps, rear view camera and Bluetooth connection.

On the Road

I'm not going to go too deeply into the technical aspects of how a hybrid works in this review -- you can read more about that over at Alternative Fuels. I'm more of a "push down pedal, car goes fast" kind of guy anyway. RX 400h's powertrain consists of a 3.3 liter 24 valve double-overhead cam V6 gas engine that teams up with an electric motor to deliver 268 hp. The gas engine produces 212 lb-ft of torque; the electric motor adds 247 lb-ft of torque to the front wheels from 0 - 1500 rpm. Coupled with a Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT), there's no jolting as gears shift -- there are no gears in the automatic transmission, just a set of pulleys that keep the engine in the powerband. The net effect in the real world is a jolt of acceleration that feels like a turbo kick. RX 400h feels like a hot rod compared to RX 350.

It takes a while to get used to the feeling of regenerative braking. There's kind of a hitch in the brakes -- for a little while, touching the brake pedal slows the car gently and predictably. Brake a little harder, and there's a moment where the RX 400h seems to surge forward, prompting the natural reaction to brake even harder, which causes the brakes to really bite, slowing the SUV rather abruptly. It's hard to brake smoothly with that kind of brake performance, but I did learn to modulate the pedal after a while. Stop-and-go traffic was a herky-jerky experience until I developed a rapport with the brakes.

Journey's End

There are other hybrid vehicles to consider, though RX 400h is the only current luxury hybrid SUV.

Photo © Jason Fogelson
There are other hybrid vehicles to consider, though RX 400h is the only current luxury hybrid SUV. Toyota's Highlander Hybrid uses the same technology as the RX 400h, and starts at about $5,000 less. Ford's Escape Hybrid and Mercury's Mariner Hybrid license the Toyota system. Saturn's Vue Green Line is the least expensive hybrid SUV on the market.

Hybrid vehicles are mainstream enough that you're probably measuring the 400h against gas-only SUVs in addition to the hybrids -- that's smart. Compare RX 400h with Acura's RDX, Infiniti's FX 45, Cadillac's SRX, BMW's X3, Audi's Q7, VW's Touareg and Porsche's Cayenne. You'll have lots of fun.

You can't get something for nothing, and that's especially true with the RX 400h. All that technology comes with a price. The difference between a front-wheel drive RX 350 and a similarly-equipped RX 400h is $3,780; an all-wheel drive 400h is an additional $1,400. It's hard to estimate how much you'll save on fuel with the hybrid -- it depends a lot on how and where you drive. According to the Gas Mileage Impact Calculator at HybridCars.com, the average driver might save about $5,000 in fuel costs by driving the hybrid version over the next 10 years -- but who really knows what will happen with gas prices between now and 2017? The best bet is that they will continue to rise. RX 400h puts out significantly less greenhouse gases -- that's a good thing. The fact that RX 400h is more fun to drive in the first place makes it an easy decision for me -- I'd choose the hybrid over the gas-only RX.

Disclosure: Review samples were provided by the manufacturer. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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