Hybrid gas-electric cars started out as miserly compacts designed to get a gazillion miles to the gallon. That picture is changing. Witness the new 2006 Lexus RX 400h.
The RX 400h boasts all the advantages of a hybrid gas-electric vehicle: Emissions are extremely low, reducing your impact on the environment to something in the neighborhood of nil. And it burns about as much gas as a compact car, reducing America's dependence on foreign oil.
But it's also fast and powerful. Stomp on the gas and the RX 400h jumps off the line significantly quicker than the regular RX 330. It can drag race head-to-head with a V8-powered Mercedes ML500. And it's a luxury SUV, loaded with power-hungry features: dual-zone climate control, GPS navigation, power seats, power windows, a power liftgate, rear-seat DVD, a megawatt audio system by Mark Levinson. You can run all that stuff at the same time without any fears of draining the battery.
And no, you do not plug it in to recharge it. There is no electrical cord dangling from the grille, no need to look for recharging stations. Living with it is quite similar to living with a regular car. Like other gas-electric hybrids, the RX 400h recharges its battery packs as you drive. The gas engine helps propel the car and recharges the battery.
The RX 400h combines a regular 3.3-liter V6 gasoline engine with a pair of high-torque electric drive motor-generators, one driving the front wheels and another driving the rear wheels. It uses a third electric motor to run all those power accessories, start the engine and recharge the batteries. If this sounds complicated, it is. And that's without delving into the elaborate stability control setup and the electronic brake system, which also charges the batteries. The more you study RX 400h the more you realize its complexity.
It's easy to drive, however. Driving it isn't all that different from driving a regular RX 330 with one major exception: The RX 400h is considered a full hybrid. Most of the time it uses a combination of the V6 and electric motors, but in certain conditions it will run strictly off the V6 engine, and in other situations it will run strictly off the electric motors. Gliding around silently in parking lots and heavy traffic with electric-only propulsion is a different sensation and one that's quite enjoyable.
And you don't have to give up your boat. The RX 400h offers the same 3,500-pound towing capacity as the RX 330, attesting to its capability. The electric motors should work well in the Rockies because high elevations don't drag batteries down the way they do gas engines, but RX 400h drivers should stick to the pavement. Batteries are no match for boulders.
This vehicle is an amazing piece of technology and an interesting vehicle. It's also complex. To quell concerns about reliability Lexus warrantees the hybrid drivetrain for 8 years or 100,000 miles. The RX 400h should hold its value well if the Prius is any indication; 2003 Prius models have held their value even better than Camry and Corolla.
The 2006 Lexus RX 400h comes as one well-equipped model. It is the premium model in the RX series, adding numerous standard features that are offered as options on the RX 330. The RX 400h comes standard with electric all-wheel drive and all the powertrain features mentioned in this article.
The list of standard features is long: Regency leather interior trim, automatic dual-zone climate control, premium audio, cruise control, automatic headlamps, 10-way power driver's seat, eight-way power front passenger's, leather trim for the steering wheel and shift knob, AM/FM/cassette/6CD stereo, and a power rear liftgate.
Options include DVD navigation with back-up camera, Bluetooth and voice activation, Mark Levinson premium audio with 11 speakers, adjustable front seat heaters, dynamic laser cruise control, DVD rear-seat entertainment.
Safety features include side curtain airbags designed to provide head protection for front and rear outboard passengers. Other supplemental restraint systems include advanced front airbags for the driver and passenger, a knee airbag for the driver, and side-impact airbags mounted in the front seats that are designed to protect the torso, abdomen and pelvis, all of which are important for things like walking. The hybrid system is designed to shut down whenever sensors detect a rollover to reduce concerns from emergency crews about high-voltage power. Also, the fuel tank is much thicker and encased in metal to protect it from damage. All-wheel drive and the sophisticated electronic stability control system (VDIM) are standard, which integrates anti-lock brakes, Brake Assist, traction control and other dynamic safety features. The adaptive front lighting system aims the High-intensity discharge headlamps to illuminate corners as the driver steers into them.