2006 Lexus RX 400h review:

2006 Lexus RX 400h

Pricing Unavailable
  • Trim levels Base
  • Available Engine Gas, Hybrid with CVT
  • Body style SUV

Roadshow Editors' Rating

7.6 Overall
May 2005

The Good Fast acceleration; unencumbered LCD and separate audio display; versatile rear-seat entertainment system.

The Bad Grainy LCD map display; no factory option for surround sound or satellite radio; notched feeling in electric power steering.

The Bottom Line As the first luxury SUV hybrid, the Lexus RX 400h makes a good first impression with its power, its fuel efficiency, and its technology.

2006 Lexus RX 400h

The 2006 Lexus RX 400h SUV hybrid crams a lot of attributes into one sleek package: powerful acceleration, luxury appointments, all-wheel drive, a fuel-sipping hybrid power train, and most of the tech gadgets any savvy buyer would ask for today. Of course, this all costs a pretty penny. With a base price of $49,185 (our gussied-up model went for more than $52,000), it won't speak to every segment of the car-buying public, and it's a far cry from the more moderately priced Ford Escape Hybrid. Still, the RX 400h proves that a 4,300-pound luxury car can scoot to 60mph in a bit more than 7 seconds and still deliver an EPA-rated 31mpg around town, changing the perception that you'll find granola and Birkenstocks in every hybrid.

The driving force behind the Lexus RX 400h is Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive technology, which lets the car run on either gas, electric, or both power sources. Power surges from a 208-horsepower 3.3-liter V-6 gasoline engine, and since this is an all-wheel-drive vehicle, the engine gets help from not one but two electric motors (front and rear). Together, both power trains pump out an exhilarating 268 horsepower.

Like other hybrids on the road today, the RX 400h uses the electric motors to get moving and at low speeds, but once you feel the need for speed, the car taps into the gas engine for a boost. The Lexus engineers show their pride in the electrical half of the power train by including three ways to watch all the action. A large gauge on the left side of the instrument panel shows how hard the electric motors are either working or charging. For a more detailed view, you can switch to the main LCD in the center console, which displays how gas and electric power are distributed in your vehicle. Or view a smaller version of this screen embedded in the speedometer display, which you can call up with a few taps of the Display button on the steering wheel.

As with other hybrids, nothing happens when you twist the ignition key. The car wakes up electronically, ready to move under electric power alone until you pass the 25mph mark, at which point the gas engine kicks in. There is an amusing yet serious sidebar to this arrangement; parking valets, friends, and car wash attendants who get in your RX 400h may sit there madly twisting the key, wondering why it won't start. Less entertaining is the way you may startle pedestrians by creeping up behind them, running silently on electric power, especially in noisy parking garages. It demands the driver be aware of the unique sound print of this vehicle.

Once underway, you'll quickly appreciate this vehicle's main selling point: it's fast. When the electric motors kick in, power delivery comes on as if from a turbocharger, roundly but forcefully. The numbers tell it all. The RX 400h goes from 0 to 60mph in 7.3 seconds, a hair slower than the Honda Accord Hybrid but faster than the Ford Escape Hybrid.

The power steering on the RX 400h sometimes feels a bit rough, an issue we've noticed on other hybrids. Conventional cars obtain constant hydraulic pressure for the power steering system by running a pump off the crankshaft pulley. Because the gas engine on the RX 400h isn't always on, its power steering runs off a 42-volt electric motor that is always operational, preventing interruptions in power assist. The downside we noticed was a decidedly notched feel to the steering at times, almost as if the initiation of assist could use a little more damping. It's not a big issue, but in a vehicle of this caliber, we notice it more than we would in, say, the Toyota Prius.

If you like Lexus RX styling historically, you'll appreciate the RX 400h. It carries over most of the design cues that have always identified the RX series, with the notable deletion of the separate rear-quarter windows of first-generation vehicles. Those windows have now been absorbed ahead of the C-pillars as glass sail panels, giving the side view of the RX a sportier look more reminiscent of a fastback. Cabin room is good, which isn't hard to do in an SUV. We felt visibility was a little sketchy around the rear-quarter blind spots, thanks to those new, more massive C-pillars.

As we would expect in a luxury vehicle, the Lexus RX 400h came with a nice set of digital comforts as part of the standard package: a voice-activated DVD navigation system, a backup camera, and Bluetooth technology for hands-free cell phone use. The seven-inch, touch-screen LCD mounted high in the dash caught our eye, thanks to the lack of distractions around it. We liked that Lexus opted not to go with the multifunction control knob that's becoming increasingly common in cars of this class; in fact, most controls in this cabin looked instantly familiar. The only ones that take some familiarization are the black push buttons along the bottom edge of the LCD for operating the display's functions.

The main reason for the screen, of course, is the Lexus voice-activated DVD navigation system. Like the navigation system found on the Lexus GS 430, we found its map display to be disconcertingly grainy. While taking nothing away from its functionality, it imparts a feeling of crudeness that isn't satisfying--or easy to overlook--in a $52,000 car. That aside, the navigation system performed well, providing us with voice-guided directions and quickly recalculating our route as we intentionally made wrong turns. With the touch-screen interface and the onscreen keyboard, entering a destination is fairly painless, although the car must be at a stop. The system recognizes some voice commands, but you can't enter destinations via this method.

When you put the RX 400h in reverse, its backup-view camera (located above the rear license plate) automatically takes over the dashboard LCD and offers a fixed wide-angle view of what's behind the vehicle. This is no idle toy; children, shopping carts, and even small cars can easily disappear from the driver's view behind the RX 400h's ample rump.

The Bluetooth hands-free system in this car had a small glitch when we paired it with our Cingular Treo 650, a problem we also encountered in the Lexus GS 430. Luckily, we found a solid work-around posted online by Lexus/Treo owners. We also tested the RX 400h's hands-free system with a new Nextel Motorola i605 and had no problem. If you're considering any car for its Bluetooth hands-free capability, check with the dealer's service department for a list of compatible mobiles.

A more enjoyable source of sound is the optional Mark Levinson audio system, boasting a seven-channel, 11-speaker configuration driven by a 210-watt amp with all kinds of proprietary digital signal processing tuned to each Lexus model. Sources include AM, FM, cassette tape, in-dash six-disc CD changer, and audio from the rear-seat entertainment system, but there's no option for satellite radio or DVD-audio surround sound. A major ergonomic win on the RX 400h is the use of a simple, separate display for the audio system. Some carmakers cram this information onto the main LCD, which we find creates needless competition for a display that is best left to navigation duty. The dedicated audio display is nestled among the audio controls and never requires you to switch the main screen to see things such as what station or CD is playing.

Our test RX 400h was also equipped with the optional drop-down rear-seat entertainment system mounted on the ceiling. Its screen is a wide aspect ratio, so modern DVD movies can take advantage of every inch of the screen real estate available. It can also be switched to show the dashboard navigation screen, and conversely, when the car is parked, you can see the rear-seat video signal on the dashboard LCD. When the rear screen is deployed, obstruction of the driver's rearview mirror is only moderate, thanks to the large rear glass on the RX 400h, which was not the case with the Infiniti M45.

Regarding the optional rear-seat entertainment system, we liked the set of auxiliary A/V input jacks, but we weren't thrilled that they were mounted back in the cargo bay. It's hard to imagine what ergonomic benefit the Lexus engineers had in mind when they wedged these jacks into a nook behind the rear seat. A pair of 120-volt/100-watt power outlets mounted in the rear cargo area and under the dash allows operation of AC devices you normally plug into a wall outlet, such as a laptop.

Finally, Lexus boasts a recent notification from the Internal Revenue Service that the new RX 400h is certified for a special tax deduction, thanks to its clean burn rating. Bottom line, if you buy one during calendar year 2005, you should be able to take a deduction of $2,000 on your taxes. Consult your accountant to confirm that you qualify.

Safety features on the Lexus RX 400h include driver- and front-side air bags that use sensors to determine the severity of the crash, the driver's seat-track position, and an occupant's weight for deployment. Warranty coverage on the RX 400h is four years/50,000 miles bumper to bumper, six years/70,000 miles on the power train, and eight years/100,000 miles for the hybrid-specific parts of the power train. This coverage plan is more generous than those found on competing vehicles from BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Acura.

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