The New Green Machine
This hybrid SUV can get an eco-friendly 27 miles per gallon but costs thousands extra. Is it worth it?
(MONEY Magazine) – Start with the nation's best-selling luxury SUV. Then tempt the save-the-planet crowd by adding the world's most sophisticated hybrid drive system. Finally, make it faster and plusher than ever, to lure drivers whose primary goal is to whip the Joneses. What do you get? The Lexus RX400h, the closest thing yet to a guilt-free SUV.
The promise of class-beating fuel economy with no sacrifice in space, speed or luxury spurred 12,000 orders prior to the RX400h's April 15 sale date. Similar anticipation is building for the Lexus' less expensive sibling, the Toyota Highlander hybrid that goes on sale in mid-June. But whether you care to follow the early adopters--in fact, whether you're ready for any of the latest hybrid SUVs and sedans--depends on your priorities. The 400h has curb appeal and high-mileage/low-emission allure, but the technology costs extra. The company says the hybrid will sell for $3,000 to $5,000 more than the nonhybrid version, the RX330, but that generous estimate assumes you're buying a 330 with every imaginable option. The 400h will be offered only with costly features many drivers could likely do without, including a navigation system and a rear backup camera. An all-wheel-drive 330 without those extras starts under $38,000, and a well-equipped version of the 330 we tested came in nearly $9,000 below the hybrid's estimated $50,000 base price.
If you already own an SUV, fuel economy may not be your top priority anyway. And even if you've been avoiding buying an SUV because of poor mileage, the price premium might be too steep to win you over. Still, the new Lexus is luxurious and powerful and saves gas, so it's time to answer the big questions about the hybrid SUV. Then you'll be able to answer one for yourself: These vehicles may not be for everyone, but are they for you?
HOW GREEN IS GREEN?
Using less fuel by driving a 400h will demonstrate your good will but not necessarily your thriftiness. We estimate you'll save only about $350 a year in gas by choosing the hybrid RX over the gas-only version. But compared with its thirstier competitors, including the Cadillac SRX and the VW Touareg, the annual savings could be more like $600 to $1,000. That's not only a lot less money but also a lot fewer trips to the pump--which you'll appreciate in freezing weather or on unfamiliar roads. Even with a tank that's smaller by a full two gallons, you can travel at least 450 miles on a single fill-up, far outdistancing the gas-only model.
Here's how the mileage looked on my test drives: Overall I got 27 mpg, compared with 20 mpg for the 330. Even on a Manhattan morning slog, the 400h got 26 mpg, easily double the city mileage I've seen from many luxury SUVs. The gain is less dramatic on the highway, where a battery-powered boost helped it reach 28 mpg. That barely tops the 330, but it's still the highest I've seen in this class. (The Environmental Protection Agency, incidentally, rates the 400h at 30 mpg city/26 highway, compared with 18/24 for the 330.) Treat the gas pedal as if it was dipped in radioactive waste, and the 400h can indeed touch 30 mpg, especially on no-hurry suburban streets.
WILL IT LAST?
Toyota says that the battery packs in its hybrids are designed to last the normal life of the car, and the warranty is for eight years or 100,000 miles. The company says it hasn't documented a single case of battery failure due to age or wear, even among hybrids that are in hard-driven government fleets and have endured 200,000-plus miles.
HOW DOES IT PERFORM?
The 400h drives more like a regular car than any Toyota hybrid so far, thanks largely to its relatively powerful 3.3-liter, 208-horsepower V-6, with a trio of electric motors boosting that to a peak 268 hp. (The 330 gets 230 hp from its own V-6.) As Lexus promised, the 400h is indeed faster than the gas-only version. The one I tested zipped from 0 to 60 mph in seven seconds flat, about a half-second swifter than the 330. And there's ample passing power at any speed.
Like the Highlander, the 400h employs the latest version of Toyota's hybrid synergy drive (the power-split device that blends power between the gas engine and electric motors). With each generation, this remarkable technology becomes more seamless in the way its gas engine and its electric power plant make the switch from running the vehicle to recharging the batteries.
The 400h can accelerate on battery power alone from a standing start, and its engine shuts off at red lights and other stops to maximize economy (which explains why it gets better mileage around town than on the highway). Two electric motor-generators help power the front wheels or recharge the batteries during coasting or braking. And to create all-wheel drive, a powerful third motor delivers a peak 68 horsepower to the rear wheels when you need maximum acceleration or when the computer senses the front wheels are losing traction.
The system isn't cut out for aggressive, Hummer-style off-road missions, but it works quite well: I repeatedly steered the Lexus into knee-deep snowdrifts in upstate New York over the winter, and it easily powered through.
But while the hybrid is plenty fast and brilliantly engineered, it doesn't perform better than the 330 overall. Curb weight grows by 300 pounds to roughly 4,400, hindering handling that wasn't BMW-lively to begin with. The 400h's electric-assisted power steering offers even less feel and feedback than the 330's hydraulic system. The regenerative brakes, which capture energy to recharge the batteries, deliver average stopping power but feel spongy. My test model also produced a high-pitched hum under braking, mild but noticeable, which Toyota attributes to the electronics.
And though the heart of the hybrid synergy drive is impressive, to maintain a consistent speed you have to make busy throttle adjustments while you're driving, especially on hilly terrain. You get used to it, but driving the nonhybrid 330 definitely feels more natural.
For both current and first-time SUV buyers drawn to the hybrid by its gas-saving prowess, those drawbacks won't be deal breakers. If you do a lot of city and suburban driving, remember that the 400h can double the mileage of many rivals, giving it an incredible edge. Plus, there's the intangible advantage that for many people will offset the lofty price: The RX400h is a conspicuously luxurious SUV that finally lets you lecture neighbors on their gas-guzzling, globe-warming cars.
IN FUEL ECONOMY, Lexus' hybrid SUV, the RX400h, topped its gas-only sibling by 7 mpg overall. It's faster too, and it offers double the city mileage of rival SUVs. But its performance comes at a steep price.