Lexus’ luxury hybrid takes a bold step into the future |

Lexus’ luxury hybrid takes a bold step into the future

Special to the DailyLexus' entry into the hybrid arena, the new RX 400h, is the gas-electric hybrid version of the 15-year-old Toyota luxury brand's top-selling RX 330 SUV.

Rancho Mirage, Calif. – We’ve recently gone on at length about a couple of hybrid vehicles (the Ford Escape and the Chevy Silverado) which have attempted, with varying success, to bridge the gap between science fiction prototypes and daily-use, fuel-saving reality.Lexus’ entry into the hybrid arena, the new RX 400h – the gas-electric hybrid version of the 15-year-old Toyota luxury brand’s top-selling RX 330 SUV – will certainly help change the driving public’s opinion of what a hybrid can be and how it can operate as powerfully and, well, normally, as a regular gas-fueled automobile.Compared to both of our other recent hybrid test vehicles, the RX 400h’s ride, operation and overall feel is so much more evolved that it feels like a whole different class of car. Starts are whisper smooth (unlike the Escape, the RX can stay in full electric mode until nearly 40 mph) and with 268 horsepower of combined gas and electric power, the RX has the presence and poise to make it a comfortable freeway cruiser.The RX’s continuously variable transmission is a much more evolved bit of tech work, and acted entirely like a normal automatic transmission, with no wild bursts of acceleration-less acceleration, as we found on the Ford’s curious CVT. Best of all, Lexus’ reputation for luxurious finishing and interior detail lives on in this new all-wheel drive hybrid. It’s a classy vehicle outfitted with a full navigation system and a remarkable sound system (audiophiles can also invest in a 210-watt, 11-speaker Mark Levinson sound system that will literally blow you away); at an estimated base price of about $41,000 ($4,000 to $5,000 more than the standard gas-powered RX 330), Lexus is hoping that those already drawn to the brand will be interested in testing the hybrid waters.

Fuel savings are significant for an SUV: 30 mpg in town, 26 on the highway, approximately 33 percent better mileage than the regular gas-run RX. And while the RX 400h won’t go on sale until April 14, Lexus has already pre-sold 12,000 of the vehicles and hopes to sell as many as 60,000 a year.It’s an ambitious effort for the company, incorporating a body of technology pioneered on the Toyota Prius but upgraded and expanded to suit the needs of a 4,300 pound SUV. Under the hood, the RX’s Hybrid Synergy Drive combines a 3.3 liter V6 engine with an electric drive motor-generator and a second motor-generator to provide power to the rear wheels, allowing a full all-wheel drive system. Floor it and you’ll get 0-60 times of 7.3 seconds, even faster than the traditional RX 330; the system provides enough power to tow a 3,500 pound trailer.The engine chassis may leave traditionalists a little confused: there’s no starter, no alternator and no serpentine belt, and even the air conditioning system is fully electric.In-town operation is a little more subtle than the Ford or Chevrolet hybrid counterparts. Settle into the RX 400h’s sumptuous leather interior and turn the key and … voila, you’ll hear nothing, although a “ready” light will come on in the electric boost gauge (this century’s replacement for a tachometer, apparently).Put the RX in gear and you’ll roll away just as silently, with the engine only kicking in under heavy off-the-line acceleration or once you hit about 40 mph.

The transition to gas-electric power is absolutely smooth and even at highway cruising speeds, the Lexus offers a soft, stable ride with no excessive engine noise.Tech-heads will get a kick out of Lexus’ animated power flow monitor (located in the navigation screen), offering instantaneous data on electric boost and power recovered from the RX’s four regenerative brakes. Eventually, you’ll probably just learn to drive the car and enjoy the substantial fuel savings. Estimates suggest RX 400h drivers will use 200 gallons of fuel less each year than those driving the traditional dino-fuel model.Lexus advertises the vehicle as an all-wheel-drive not necessarily suited for ultra-rugged off-road work, but promises to be cut out for Colorado winters and mountain passes.True to form, the RX 400h comes loaded to the hilt with creature comforts, including a rear DVD entertainment system, a power-assisted rear door and loads of leather throughout. If this is what the future of automotive technology promises – and it’ll save you many trips to the gas station – people might take a more open-minded look at our potentially hybrid future.

BOX: 2006 Lexus 400hBest featuresHybrid engine smooth and powerful as gas modelTypical Lexus luxury packageElectric mode carries you through 40 mphWorst features

Pricey premium for fuel savingsLight-duty all-wheel-drive setupPrice as tested: $41,000 (est)Includes: 3.3 liter V6 engine and electric drive motor-generator, continuously variable transmission, Vehicle Dynamic Integrated Management, regenerative brakes, touch-screen navigation system with Bluetooth, rear DVD, leather seating, adaptive headlights, dual zone air conditioningEstimated mileage: 30 mpg city, 26 highway

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