Pros: Quiet, fast, luxurious with excellent mileage for a large crossover SUV
Cons: Extra expense can't be recovered in gas savings only
I've driven a Lexus RX 300 for 2 years and an RX 330 for about 2 years, and suffice it to say that I've been pleased on almost all aspects. The cars fundamentally are extremely quiet, handle well considering their size and weight and give reasonable gas mileage in the 17-21 mpg range.
In fact, moving from the RX300 to the RX330 showed to me that Lexus is a company that listens to their customers. As they addressed virtually every major issue associated with the RX300 in the new and improved RX330 and they did it gracefully. They improved the handling, e.g., made it more nimble and little less floaty, and they dramatically reduced the turning circle to enough to make a u-turn on most two lane roads without making a 3-point u-turn. While doing all of these improvements, the car got slightly longer and gained weight, but the gas mileage stayed about the same. To improve the gas mileage, it was obvious that something dramatic was going to have to be done.
But lets start off with the RX330 before I delve into the RX400h. This is becuase everything between these cars is almost identical, and you have to appreciate the RX330 to appreciate the RX400h. The RX330 is the ultimate in luxury and for the price, the best that there is out there. In addition to a new attractive design, there is more space on the interior, a tri-split fold down rear seat, all leather seats and several airbags all on top of what I consider a great multi-speaker stereo that includes a built in 6 disc CD changer that loads from the from and has steering wheel radio controls. Starting in 2005, there is a built-in bluetooth integrated with the radio which means that when I get into the car and start it up, the radio automatically detects the bluetooth connection on my cell phone and when I get a phone call, the radio turns itself down and I can answer the call using the buttons on the steering wheel. This is an option many manufacturers (Mercedes and BMW) charge $1000-$1500 for, and is an awesome tool especially for the road warrier. This supplements the available navigation system, which is something I think every new car I own should have form here on forward. The navigation is a touch screen based and pretty easy to use. My only complaint is the ability to program the navigation when the car is moving, so not even a passenger can program it while the car is moving. There are some hacks available to bypass this on the lexusownersclub.com site. A quick disclaimer is that NO NAVIGATION SYSTEM IS PERFECT, if you know where you are going follow your sense of direction and let the navigation lead you only if you are lost. If you are in a strange place, it is an absolute life saver. The cabin is very quiet, the leather seats are very comfortable and supportive even after many hours on the road. They are not bucket seats, but they hold you in place quite well. The wood trim in the interior is attractive, well built and feels great on the steering wheel. The all-wheel drive, ABS and vehicle stability system are all very useful and are only noticeable when you manage to avoid accidents that others nearby cannot.
So, all of the above features are all transported into the 2005/2006 RX400h. In fact, I have not seen an RX400h without navigation, but there may be a few out there for 2006. In the RX400h, lexus is delivering everything about the RX330, and addressing the one thing they could not improve without the hybrid drivetrain...the gas mileage. There is a bonus in that there is an improvement in power and acceleration as well, which I will get to later. Lexus basically heard their customers and introduced the RX400h hybrid in the RX330 premium plus package with a hybrid powertrain. But the real question is if it is worth the expense. So, let me run through the analysis and you can decide for yourself.
So, what is the RX400h? This is the lexus crossover vehicle based almost entirely on the sister product the RX 330. In fact, the exterior is virtually identical to the RX 330, that one would have to look extra close at the very front to notice a slightly different grille, round fog lamps (vs the rx330 slightly rectangular) and a slight tint on the silver finish wheels, vs. the RX 330. On the inside, however, there are some other subtle differences. This includes the standard equipment which includes navigation, an automatic transmission with only two forward and one reverse gear and a graphical display in the speedometer and in the navigation that shows how the hybrid is shifting energy around. In addition, there is no tachometer, instead there is a power gauge showing how much power is being consumed up to 200 KW or if it being regenerated as the case may be when you are braking or just coasting. If one was to look under the back seat, where the floor board is slightly raised, I believe there are some battery packs underneath there that do not appear to take any additional interior space. Lexus warrants these for 8 years and 100,000 miles, and claims that so far they have not had any issue since the introduction of the first hybrid.
In the engine compartment, one will notice that it has a large plastic cover on the right that says Hybrid Synergy Drive. This is a toyota patented gasoline electric engine combination that is being used by the prius, the highlander as well as licensed to ford, GM and even some german manufacturers. On the left hand side of the engine compartment is the same engine as the gasoline counterpart but this engine has been tuned to optimize power and economy for the hybrid drive. Total power of the hybrid drive is greater than the non-hybrid, most notably cause the torque delivered by the electric motors combines the engine and the batteries. In addition the power is instant and at speeds under 15 mph dramatically quieter than the gasoline.
Driving the hybrid is a surreal experience. Once you get in and turn the key to start,nothing happens. But if you look carefull, you'll notice on the dash board, the Power Meter display has a READY light that has now lit up. In addition, if the A/C is ON, you will notice that the air just got colder. This is because the A/C runs on the battery, not a belt like most gasoline engines. This is unlike the honda hydrid system which requires the gas engine to run when the A/C is running. If you place the car into drive or reverse, the car just starts moving silently. This is very cool and dangerous at the same time. People cannot hear you coming and I have unknowingly snuck up on people in my parking garage many times. The car silently creeps around when it is on battery. If you push on the gas too hard, however, the engine quietly fires up and both the battery and engine are working in harmony to run the car. The engine functions to keep the battery charged and provide extra power when necessary. The car also features other enhancements that improve fuel economy such as charging the battery when coasting and braking. This car is dramatically quieter than the non-hybrid at low speeds and moderate acceleration. However, the car is also much faster, and a lot louder under heavy acceleration, because under heavy acceleration the three engines are running. The front electric motor, the rear electric motor and the gasoline engine. But for most daily driving, the drive is smoother, faster and quieter, which all make for an excellent drive while being extremely green.
But how much does all of this cost? Based upon the going rate for the RX330 comparably equipped, the RX-400h is about $6000 more, but since it is typically not discounted much that gap widens to closer to $10,000, with the $2200 tax credit from the federal government, the gap is still about $8000. So, in essence you are paying $8000 more for a faster, quieter and more environmentally friendly car. A little much for some folks, but we'll discuss the economics next.
On average, the RX-330 gets anywhere form 17-21 MPG I won't look at the EPA numbers cause they are higher, instead I am using my own averages based upon a mix of about 40% city driving. At 12000 miles per year and $3.00/gallon, that equates to $1850/yr in gas costs. The RX-400h, but comparison gets about 24 - 28 mpg, about 33% better than the gasoline. At 12000 miles per year and $3.00 per gallon, that equates to $1390/yr. The cost savings is $460 per year. Even at $5.00/gallon, it is a 10 year payback. While the improvement in gas mileage is phenomenal, (where else can a 4500 lb gas or diesel vehicle get this kind of mileage), you cannot justify the extra cost for Hybrid based upon gas mileage alone. The case to be made is whether or not you want to drive a quieter, faster car that has fewer stops at the gas station. If you are expecting to get 30+ mpg, I would recommend a Corolla or VW Jetta TDI. But if you want Toyota Camry like mileage, with SUV space and ultimate luxury, this is the only vehicle capable of doing it.
We have to remember, that this car represents the third generation of gas-electric hybrid technology for cars. A monumental leap above everyone else in the industry. The technology in this car offers the best of all worlds. It will get better and continue to dramatically improve the experience of driving while reducing our thirst for oil. A couple of important notes for me:
1) I never, ever smelled gas or exhaust around this car, even in a closed parking garage.
2) I get gas about every two or so weeks
3) I love the silence of this car at a stop light or moving at 60 mph.
4) I feel good on the inside when driving it.
In conclusion, it is quite apparent that Lexus and Toyota have done their homework. They have created a great luxury car that has every available option and in many cases sets the standard for luxury car and luxury SUV. It is also apparent they have spent many years and taken the bugs out of a system that has been around since 1997 (in Japan). From a company that now combines reliability, luxury, value and economy into a single package, this ( I believe) is one of the best values on the market. If you are worried about the maintenance, the dealer, the warranty service and resale value, let me assure you that you don't have to. Lexus offers a bumper to bumper warranty, gives you a new lexus to drive while your car is in the shop and maintains its value better than any other luxury car on the road. If you want a great handling sports car, buy a german car, if you want great gas mileage buy a japanese econobox or a diesel, if you want to ride around in the lap of luxury while knowing your are getting a great value and not polluting the market, buy a 400h.