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Although the Toyota Prius popularized hybrids, the Lexus RX 400h was the first luxury hybrid on the market. Packaged as an SUV, it brings qualities you wouldn't expect from this type of car, such as good mileage, a finely appointed cabin, and a comfortable ride. It does have all wheel drive, but the hybrid system drives the rear wheels with electric power, while the front wheels get driven by a combination of gas engine and electric motor.
Lexus has offered the RX 400h since 2005, and it is due for a major update in 2009. Our 2008 Lexus RX 400h review model is one of the last of its generation, soon to be replaced by the RX 450h. As such, the cabin tech is fairly limited. It has all the basic features, such as navigation and cell phone integration, but none of that really stands out compared with what's on the market today. Lexus has made some improvements, including the new laser-based cruise control; and the Mark Levinson audio system still sounds excellent with the right kind of music.
Test the tech: Los Angeles road trip
The 2008 Lexus RX 400h arrived in our garage just in time for the 2008 Los Angeles Auto Show, so we avoided airport hassles and drove to the show from San Francisco. Not only would the RX 400h offer a comfortable ride and room for two editors, a photographer, and luggage, its hybrid power train would save gas in Los Angeles traffic.
Our bags are packed and we're ready to drive. The weekend luggage for three people doesn't come close to filling the RX 400h's cargo area.
We loaded up and set out for the Interstate. While traveling along at freeway speeds, we gave the navigation system a try, using voice command to give it the address of our hotel. After hitting the voice command button, we said "Destination", and it asked for the state, then city, street name, and number. At each step, we replied with the correct information, and it understood, repeating the name back to us in its computer-generated voice. Going through each step was a little tedious, but it was safer than entering information on the car's touch screen, and with six hours of driving ahead of us, we certainly had the time.
Anticipating this long trip, we looked at our entertainment options. All three of us offered our MP3 players, but the car had no iPod connector, and even lacked an auxiliary input. The lack of the latter proved how far the RX 400h is down its production cycle. Satellite radio is an option on the RX 400h, but we didn't have that either. The RX 400h also had a cassette tape player, a true anachronism that would have actually been helpful if we had an auxiliary input adapter for it. So we were stuck with one MP3 and one regular CD, and all the FM radio we could stomach.
NOS energy drink doesn't seem to improve the car's performance, merely making us stop for an extra bathroom break.
The long, straight Interstate didn't offer the best chance to test out the hybrid performance, as the RX 400h achieves its best mileage in the city. But the 3.3-liter V-6 gas engine, helped along by electric motors driving the front and rear wheels, returned an average economy between 25 and 26 mpg, pretty good for a car rated at 26 mpg city and 24 mpg highway being driven at speeds around 80 mph. One odd sensation in the car was a seat-of-the-pants feeling of power fluctuations traveling from front to rear. We debated whether this feeling was due to the car's continuously variable transmission or the hybrid system activating the electric motors periodically, but as it didn't affect the actual speed, we figured it a harmless quirk of the car.
Even with the straight Interstate, we noticed that the RX 400h's steering felt a little squirrelly, leading to overall wobbly handling. As a luxury car, the steering is overpowered on the RX 400h, making it possible to turn the wheel with a single finger while stopped or at low speeds. That steering doesn't stiffen up much at high speeds, limiting road feedback to the driver. Luxury also extended to the suspension, something we could appreciate more, as it gave us a comfortable ride, even over asphalt torn up by trucks.
When we got into downtown Los Angeles, the RX 400h showed its true worth as we sat in 6 miles of 15 mph traffic on the freeway. For this 6 miles, the RX 400h used barely any gas at all, creeping along under electric power. The complete lack of emissions or fossil fuel burning was a satisfying distraction from the frustrating traffic.
In the cabin
Lexus had fairly advanced cabin tech in 2005, but the lack of updates in the RX 400h meant that our 2008 model was short on advanced features. The basics were present: navigation system, Bluetooth cell phone integration, and a good quality stereo, but that was about it, except for the adaptive cruise control, which is a more recent addition to the RX 400h's tech roster. And, as we would expect in a Lexus, the fit and interior materials are all of good quality.
All of the cabin tech features are controlled on the touch screen, which has a row of buttons along the bottom for climate control, destination entry, map, and audio, amongst others. Strangely, there is no button for the cell phone integration, but if you push the phone button on the steering wheel you get a nice-looking keypad on the touch screen. You can also control many of the car systems with voice command, and, as we found out on our road trip, the voice recognition is very good.
The navigation system just does the basics, although we like the map resolution.
The maps in the navigation system are colorful and clear, and the route guidance is easy to follow. But this system lacks advanced features, such as traffic reporting or text-to-speech. Similarly, the phone system handles the basics, but won't download your entire phonebook to the car. Instead, you have to manually enter phone numbers to the car's own phonebook. Both the navigation and phone systems handle their basic tasks well, but don't offer the advanced features we've seen in a few other cars.
Audio sources are fewer than on more recent tech-laden cars, with the RX 400h only offering a six-disc CD/DVD player, AM/FM/Satellite radio, and a cassette tape player. Fortunately, that six-disc changer can also read MP3 CDs, but there is no facility for external devices, such as an iPod. Making up for this lack of audio sources is the Mark Levinson audio system. This system uses 11 speakers, including a centerfill, but no subwoofer, and a 210-watt seven-channel amp. The result is very clear sound that lacks punch, making it good for acoustic and symphonic pieces.
The laser-based cruise control shows speed and follow distance on the speedometer display
Although Lexus hasn't touched the RX 400h's navigation, phone, and entertainment systems in four years, the laser-based adaptive cruise control has been added. As with other adaptive cruise-control systems, you set the car's speed and its following distance, and the car will match speeds with slower traffic in the lane ahead. While other cars are using radar-based systems, Lexus adopted a laser system, similar to the laser guns police use to catch speeders. In our experience with the Lexus system, it worked very well. On more than one occasion it registered a slower car cutting into our lane and hit the brakes quickly enough to avoid a collision and match speeds.
But this system wasn't particularly friendly with the car's hybrid power train. It didn't seem to drive as economically as a human driver would, reacting strongly on the brakes and accelerator in normal traffic where a human might anticipate braking earlier, and get the best advantage out of the car's regenerative brakes.
Under the hood
Similar to other full hybrid cars, the 2008 Lexus RX 400h shuts off its engine at stops and at slow speeds. With light pressure on the accelerator, the car operates as an electric vehicle for short distances, kicking in the gas engine to recharge batteries and supply more drive power when it is called for. In heavy traffic and on city streets with low speed limits, the car makes frugal use of gas. The hybrid system uses the same basic architecture as other Toyota/Lexus hybrids, but in the case of the RX 400h, the gas engine is a 3.3-liter V-6 and there are three electric motors in the drivetrain that, along with the regenerative brakes, can also generate electricity to charge up the battery.
The hybrid drive manages power distribution between the gas engine and two electric drive motors.
The gas engine produces 208 horsepower on its own, while the front and rear drive motors put out 167 horsepower and 68 horsepower, respectively. But these numbers aren't additive, so total drivetrain horsepower is 268, enough to push the RX 400h to 60mph in 7.3 seconds, according to Lexus. In our subjective experience, the RX 400h shows plenty of get-up-and-go. It doesn't hesitate off the line, delivering smooth and prompt acceleration. Better yet, the transition when the engine kicks in is nearly seamless. In the Mercury Mariner Hybrid, you definitely feel when the gas engine kicks in, but in the RX 400h that extra power flows in more smoothly. The car had no problem maintaining freeway speeds over hundreds of miles.
And to reiterate some of our points made above, the electric-power steering is particularly light, which is fine in a parking lot but leads to a squirrelly feeling on the open road. The suspension befits a luxury vehicle, nicely damping out road imperfections. The 17-inch standard wheels can be optioned up to 18 inchers.
We also mentioned the mileage above. Our average while we had the car came out to 25.8 mpg, with many miles of freeway driving thrown in. On our Los Angeles trip, we made it more than 350 miles before we felt it was time to stop for a fill up. The RX 400h is rated as a SULEV, an excellent rating for an SUV, by the California Air Resources Board.
The 2008 Lexus RX 400h lists for $42,580, not a bad price for a luxury SUV. The options on our vehicle included the $600 adaptive cruise control, the $4,130 navigation and Mark Levinson audio package, and the $2,060 Premium package, bringing in features such as high intensity adaptive headlights, leather trim, and the sunroof. Real wood trim added another $380, bringing our total, with a $765 destination charge, to $50,515. The Mercury Mariner Hybrid, with substantially better cabin tech but a less luxurious feel, runs about $15,000 less, making it a better value. For a few thousand more than the RX 400h, you can get the more powerful GMC Yukon Hybrid, which has a decent interior and good cabin tech.
Because of its age, the RX 400h doesn't score well in our ratings for cabin tech. It meets basic requirements in most areas, shines a bit for the audio system, but suffers from the lack of MP3 player compatibility. Its hybrid system gives it a boost for performance tech--we are impressed by the mileage and the emissions rating, and the nice ride doesn't hurt. Similarly, we like the design of both the cabin tech interface, which is intuitive, and the overall look of the car.