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2006 Lexus RX 400h Photo
Reviewed by John Pearley Huffman
Editor, The Car Connection
BASE
INVOICE
$39,746
BASE
MSRP
$44,660
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Virtually everyone who lives inLos AngelesCounty north of the 10, south of the 101 and west of the 110 freeways knows Lexus is on the verge of introducing a hybrid version of its RX330 crossover SUV. It’s not that the residents of West L.A., Hollywood, Santa Monica, Pacific Palisades and Malibu actually care about the latest news in the auto industry and keep up with every product development, but these prosperous, media-savvy people are profoundly self-aware of both their passion to project an environmentally aware image and their unwillingness to sacrifice personal comfort toward that end.

So word of the RX400h spread fast. A hybrid Lexus? That’s just so them – a luxury machine that sends off DiCaprio-spec eco-vibes. It’s the chic Sierra Club-correctness of the Prius mashed together with adequate luxury car cred for the ICM parking garage.

But what Lexus will deliver to them is actually more than they expected. The 2006 RX400h isn’t just a RX330 that announces to the world that you’re concerned, but clearly a better everyday vehicle than the RX330 itself.

But better isn’t cheaper… and the hybrid RX isn’t that much better than the regular one.

Almost too much technology

2006 Lexus RX400h

2006 Lexus RX400h

Enlarge Photo
While the RX400h’s hybrid system carries the same “
Hybrid Synergy Drive
” name as that in Toyota’s Prius, it’s not just the Prius’ motors and battery pack wedged into the RX. In fact the RX400h’s system is in some ways more advanced than its hybrid cousin.

As a “full hybrid” the RX400h is capable of running solely on its electric motors, solely on its 3.3-liter V-6, or with the electric and internal combustion systems working in tandem. The DOHC, 24-valve V-6 is the same basic 3MZ-FE engine installed in the RX330 (and the ES330, Toyota Sienna, Solara, Highlander and some Camrys) without an alternator and with the power steering pump, water pump, and A/C compressor removed to be driven electrically. Despite that reduction in parasitic drag, revised calibration of the VVT-i variable valve timing and electronic throttle limit engine output to 208 horsepower at 5600 rpm and 212 pound-feet of peak torque at 4400 rpm compared to the RX330’s 230 hp at 5600 rpm and 242 lb-ft at 3600 rpm. The lower output, claims Lexus, is “to promote smooth integration with hybrid system” which includes a unique electronically controlled continuously variable transmission (CVT) instead of the five-speed automatic transaxle to which the 3.3-liter is leashed in all its other U.S. applications.

The electrical portion of the hybrid system consists of three 650-volt “Motor Generators” and a sealed nickel metal hydride (Ni-MH) battery pack stowed under the rear seat. The first of the motor generators is front-mounted and acts as the engine starter and as an engine-driven generator. The second is also mounted up front and drives the front wheels through the CVT along with acting as a generator during regenerative braking. Finally the third motor is rear mounted where it powers the rear wheels and generates current during braking. In fact that electric motor is the only power the rear wheels get, giving the RX400h an unusual all-wheel-drive system and saving again on parasitic drivetrain losses. A computer determines just how much torque should be pumping through which wheels and which time.

Put all the engines together and Lexus says there’s a total of 268 hp aboard – fully 38 more than what motivates the RX330. However at 4365 lb, the RX400h weighs in 300 lb heavier than the RX330, so that’s a mitigating factor on performance.

Still despite the extra heft Lexus claims the RX400h will flit to 60 mph in 7.3 seconds compared to the 7.8 it says it takes an all-wheel-drive RX330 to do the deed. That’s a performance swing significantly larger than would be expected by a 38-hp power bump fighting a 300-lb weight gain – and Car and Driver has the RX400h running to 60 in a scalding 6.9 seconds. But the hybrid’s electric motors add gobs of torque throughout the drivetrain’s operating range and that means better initial acceleration and consistent urge toward terminal velocity. It’s also tremendously smooth and quiet – maybe even a bit smoother and quieter than the very smooth and very quiet RX330 – at virtually all times.

But it doesn’t feel like a conventional drivetrain. At low speeds the RX400h will creep along silently tugged along by its front electric motor and when the throttle is mashed the engine spins to its torque peak and just stays there as the CVT does its infinitely variable work.

A familiar prescription

2006 Lexus RX400h

2006 Lexus RX400h

Enlarge Photo
Except for its unique drivetrain, most of the Japanese-made RX400h carries over intact from the Canadian-built RX330 including all the body panels and most of the interior. The seats are the same, the door panels are the same and most of the technology from the four-wheel ABS brakes to the on-board DVD system work identically between the two brothers.

There are, though, some subtle signifiers of the RX400h’s specialness. Outside the grille is new, the front fascia has been revised to scoop in more air and stretches an inch longer, the fog lamps are round, the wheels are good-looking five-spoke 18-inchers, the tail lamps are LEDs and, most importantly, there’s that “h” at the end of the vehicle’s nameplate that will announce to everyone in the parking structure at L.A.’s Westside Pavilion that this is a Lexus that gets great fuel mileage (30 in the city and 26 on the highway according to the EPA) and qualifies as a Super Ultra Low Emission Vehicle (SULEV). That should at least keep Ed Begley Jr. from keying the thing when he sees it.

Inside the instrumentation has been revised with a “Power Meter” replacing the tachometer and a power usage display appearing on the same screen as the excellent navigation system. Of course the big thing on the power usage display is to either try and maximize one’s fuel mileage or try and fool the computer into draining the battery pack somehow. Our exposure to the RX400h was limited, so we haven’t been able to put it to the test of climbing a mountain (a test the Honda Civic Hybrid didn’t handle well). But at least if the battery is sucked dry there’s still an adequate 208 hp around to lug the thing skyward.

We also didn’t have the opportunity to encounter any situation where the all-wheel drive system could be tested. So we’re going on faith here that the Lexus meant it when it said the rear wheels are powered under some conditions.

The RX400h comes carrying most of the equipment that’s optional on the RX330 as standard equipment. But it’s still very much an RX.

Even accounting for all optional stuff that’s standard, the RX400h will likely carry a $4000 to $5000 premium over the RX330. Frankly, though the RX400h drives better than the RX330, the RX330 drives so well that it’s hard to see four- or five-grand’s worth of better here – except for drivetrain behavior they’re pretty much identical. And while the fuel economy improvement is appreciated, it’s hard to make the math work out so that the fuel savings pay for the difference. There are also rumors already flitting about that the RX330 will become the RX350 when it gets the 280-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 from the 2005 Toyota Avalon sometime within the next year and that machine should offer even better performance than the RX400h (of course the hybrid may get the more powerful V-6 too… but we’re in a speculation spiral now). Plus some time that battery pack will need replacing and that won’t be free.

So to buy an RX400h a buyer must conclude that there’s something beyond mere economics at work in the decision; that this machine’s good intentions and excellent execution are worth telling all the neighbors about. And on the west side of L.A. a lot of neighbors are going to be hearing a lot about the RX400h.

2006 Lexus RX400h
Base price: $44,000 (est.)
Engine: 3.3-liter V-6, two electric motors
Drivetrain: Continuously variable automatic transmission, electronic all-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 187.2 x 72.6 x 66.3 in
Wheelbase: 106.9 in
Curb weight: 4365 lb
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, side airbags, side curtain airbags, four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes
Major standard equipment: Power windows/locks/mirrors, A/C, cruise control, CD player, keyless entry
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles comprehensive; Six years/70,000 miles drivetrain

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