The Good: Mileage, eco-friendliness, quickness
The Bad: Price premium over nonhybrid alternatives
The Bottom Line: A performance SUV without the guilt
You've gotta figure Steven Spielberg can afford to buy any kind of car he pleases. So, it says something that he and many other Hollywood luminaries have rushed out to buy the new Lexus RX 400h, the hybrid version of the best-selling crossover sport-utility vehicle.
Now that I've test-driven one, I can see why. The RX 400h takes a lot of the guilt out of owning an SUV because it drives like the quick, sweet-handling luxury vehicle it is while also getting good gas mileage. You don't feel like you're despoiling the environment every time you run out to the supermarket, as some of us do in a gas-guzzler. Best of all, you can get a $2,000 federal tax credit for buying a Lexus hybrid right now, the company figures.
To give you an idea of its speediness, the RX 400 can go 0 to 60 in around seven seconds, which is faster than the RX 330, the hot-selling conventionally powered luxury SUV that the 400h is based on. That's because the RX 400h not only has a sizeable 3.3-liter, V6 gasoline engine, but uses its two supplemental electric motors to enhance performance, as well as improve fuel efficiency.
The RX 400h's combined powerplant generates 268 horsepower, 20% more than the 223 horsepower generated by the RX 330's conventional V6 engine. In its publicity material, Toyota boasts that the RX 400h has "the acceleration power of a 4.0-liter V8" -- and that's just about how it felt.
Powerful as it is, the all-wheel drive RX 400h I tested is rated to get a respectable 31 miles per gallon in the city and 27 on the highway. You can even use regular fuel, though the owner's manual says premium is recommended "for improved vehicle performance." In a stretch of 390 miles of mixed, mainly highway driving I got 27 miles per gallon in my test car. And on Interstate 80 heading into New York City I was getting 28 mpg, vs. well over 30 in the Ford Escape Hybrid on the same stretch of road.
By comparison, an all-wheel drive RX 330 is only rated to get 18 mpg in the city and 24 on the highway.
Late last year, Lexus introduced a new, front-wheel drive version of the RX 400h for Sunbelt buyers that's rated to get 28 mpg on the highway and 33 in the city. Both versions of the RX 400h are also certified by the Environmental Protection Agency as "Super Low Emission Vehicles," meaning they're among the most eco-friendly wheels you can drive.
The AWD version of the 400h starts at $46,755, vs. $45,355 for the front-wheel-drive version. It comes with an impressive amount of fancy standard gear, including leather upholstery; an outside rearview mirror defogger; windshield wiper de-icer; power windows, doors, seats, and moon roof; a power-tilting and telescoping steering wheel, adaptive headlights that swivel as you turn the steering wheel; headlight cleaners; and adjustable seat heaters. One reason gas mileage is so good: a high-tech and very efficient continuously variable transmission also comes standard.
Standard safety features include seatbelt pretensioners and front-side airbags. Front and rear-side curtain airbags are also standard, as are antilock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution and braking assist if you slam down on the pedal (you'll want that if you've ever had a deer suddenly spring into your path).
If safety is a high priority, though, be aware that a hybrid has the same rollover risk as other SUVs. A note in the owner's manual of the RX 400h frankly warns that the vehicle's high ground clearance and center of gravity "causes this vehicle to be more likely to roll over" than a car.
There aren't many options on the RX 400h. The main ones are a navigation system and rear backup camera that used to be standard but is being turned into a $2,350 option, a rear-seat entertainment system ($1,840), an upgraded sound system ($980), wood interior trim ($380), and heated front seats with rain-sensing wipers ($665).
One aside to hybrid-phobic readers: Lexus says it's untrue that replacing the battery in a hybrid vehicle will cost owners a small fortune.
The nickel-metal hydride battery in the RX400h is under warranty for eight years or 100,000 miles, for one thing. And the carmaker says that as hybrid batteries age, it's more common for cells to need replacing than for the entire battery to die. Lexus expects an after-market battery-service industry to spring up to repair and refurbish the batteries.
Even if you wore out the battery by driving more than 100,000 miles, replacing it would cost $2,500, including installation, according to Lexus, hardly a huge expense for a luxury vehicle. And battery prices are likely to go down as the market for hybrids grows.
SILENCE IS GOLDEN.
The RX 400h is a crossover vehicle, not a true off-roader, but it performs pretty well in winter driving. I took my test vehicle out in three inches of newly fallen snow and did my usual number, slamming on the brakes at highway speed and going downhill, swerving, accelerating into slick curves, and up a steep hill. The Lexus handled it all with aplomb.
The grille is a little different, but otherwise the RX 400h looks very similar to the RX 330. The interior doesn't have standard wood trim, but it's still very attractive. The interior of my test car was in beautiful, understated light gray leather with black leather accents. It had lots of brushed aluminum on the center stack and dash. The center console slides forward and back so it can be conveniently positioned for both front and rear passengers. Like any other midsize SUV, the RX 400h is roomy, and there's lots of cargo space, especially with rear seats folded down.
Driving a hybrid is pretty similar to driving any other vehicle. But the main thing that strikes you is the silence when you start it up. When you turn the key, the functions come on -- like, say, the radio -- but there's no sound of a starter motor. The vehicle is off one moment. Then a ready light comes on, there's a beep, and it's on. One minor inconvenience: According to the owner's manual, if you don't regularly drive it you're supposed to start the RX 400h and run it for at least a half-hour every two weeks to keep the batteries charged.
Like other hybrids, the RX 400h has elaborate displays that use little bars and other graphics to show you exactly how much energy you're using, including constantly updated indications of how much energy the regenerative brakes have shipped back to the battery, how much fuel you've consumed in the past 30 minutes, average fuel consumption during your trip, and current fuel consumption. In the RX 400h, a graphic display also shows at any given moment whether the power is coming from the gasoline or electric engines, whether the brakes are shipping energy, etc.
It would probably significantly reduce the nation's gasoline consumption if auto makers put similar displays in every vehicle because they make saving gas a fascinating game for the driver. You find yourself coasting up to stoplights and accelerating less violently than usual because you see exactly how it affects fuel consumption. Indeed, many hybrid owners report that their average mileage goes up after they've owned the vehicle for awhile because they learn how to drive more efficiently.
Still, whether the RX 400h is worth its premium price is a judgment call. A gas-powered, all-wheel drive Lexus RX 330 starts at $38,465. Even taking into account the tax credit for buying a hybrid, that's more than six grand under the price of a comparable RX 400h. So, what's your forecast for gasoline prices? And how important is it to you that we clean up the environment and cut dependence on foreign oil? The answers to those questions may make your buying decision for you.