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.
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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. 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
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.
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.