Lexus RX 400h

Finally, here's a hybrid for high rollers -- those who like to be socially responsible but aren't willing to give up the creature comforts of a luxury ride. It's the 2006 Lexus RX 400h, the first hybrid from a premium brand.

( below)

Editor's Review

Four Stars
Star Rating

The Good Peppy V-6 masquerading as a V-8

The Bad Toyota loaded this car to drive up the price

The Bottom Line A luxury hybrid for when price -- gas or otherwise -- isn't an issue

At first glance it looks identical to the RX 330, the best-selling entry-level luxury SUV from Lexus. A closer look, though, reveals a different grille, round fog lights, and a new bumper design that draws in more air to cool the hybrid system better. Taillights use LEDs instead of bulbs. The only indication on the exterior that this is a hybrid vehicle is the "h" in the name.

And check out the sticker: This car starts at nearly 50 grand -- more than $11,000 above the base RX 330 with all-wheel drive. More than half of that is for equipment you would pay extra for on the RX 330, such as leather upholstery, moon roof, roof rack, and high-intensity headlights that swivel as you turn, along with a GPS navigation system.

Get inside, and it feels like the usual opulent Lexus -- with one key difference. Designers chose to go with brushed metal instead of wood trim, probably to reflect the high-tech nature of the car. Big mistake.

In the instrument cluster there's a little schematic under the speedometer to show the distribution of power between the gas and electric engines, and the tachometer has been replaced by a gauge that shows power in kilowatts.

Because this is an all-wheel-drive car, the front and rear wheels have separate electric motors. They're mated to the same V-6 engine that's in the RX 330, and you can really feel the difference when all systems are go. Lexus says 0-to-60 times are a half-second faster than the 330s, but auto magazines have clocked them as low as 6.9 seconds. That's almost as speedy as the Mercedes-Benz (DCX ) ML500 SUV, which has a big, greedy V-8.

Luxury-car buyers are accustomed to the supreme quiet of a cabin that's well insulated from wind and road noise. But hybrids often make strange sounds, so when you test-drive the Lexus, be sure you don't hear any noises you can't live with. I was vaguely uncomfortable with a dull whine when the car was decelerating to a stop. What's acceptable in a $20,000 Toyota Prius may not be in a $50,000 Lexus.

By Larry Armstrong

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.