For some folks, spas are a necessity. Regular visits to these purveyors of posh pampering keep the upper crust relaxed and ready to resume their moving and shaking lifestyles. Here, people de-stress by way of warm stone massages, serene surroundings and new-age music. For those looking for an equally soothing and environmentally responsible luxury crossover SUV, there is the 2008 Lexus RX 400h. A hybrid SUV that provides strong performance along with conscience- (and wallet-) easing fuel economy, the RX 400h also treats its driver and passengers to as quiet and unruffled a way of getting around as possible.
The Lexus RX 400h debuted for 2006, and though it hasn't changed much, we felt it was a good time to revisit this old friend given the fact that gas prices are nearly double what they were back then and it remains the only hybrid choice among midsize luxury SUVs (although there's now a Cadillac Escalade hybrid for those wanting something a bit bigger).
Happily, the current RX 400h is handling midlife in fine fashion (Toyota and Lexus models are typically redesigned every five or six years). The styling still looks contemporary, the cabin remains handsome and impeccably finished, and with a sprinting ability that can challenge sporty cars, this hybrid is still firing on all cylinders (and batteries) when it comes to pleasing its target market's desire for gusto without guilt. Whether it's navigating the asphalt jungle or running effortlessly through scenic countryside to that out-of-the-way haven, the 2008 Lexus RX 400h is comfortably competent.
Of course, all this luxury and leading-edge fuel-efficiency costs a pretty penny — about $50 grand in the case of our loaded test car. But if you go easy on the options and realize that you're getting the luxury of a touring sedan, the functionality of an SUV and the fuel economy of an economy car, maybe that's not too dear for such a well-rounded vehicle.
With its powerful electric motors, the 2008 Lexus RX 400h, under light throttle, has the ability to travel up to 30 mph without employing the gas engine. It's a strange but eerily enjoyable experience to see how "efficiently" you can drive by going easy on the "gas" pedal. Not to mention how that optimizes your fuel economy. Step into it and the 3.3-liter gas engine jumps in seamlessly, with the tandem power plants and continuously variable transmission (CVT) providing a strong, linear rush of power.
Able to run from zero to 60 mph in 7.2 seconds, the RX 400h has no problem dispatching laggards. However, if you do boot it and call up its full reserves, the normally quiet gas engine growls rather loudly — music to the ears of car buffs but probably just noise to most Lexus customers. That vocal outburst is probably due more to the CVT, as these transmissions keep engine revs up under heavy throttle applications and constantly vary "gear" ratios to provide seamless thrust. At a steady freeway cruise, the RX 400h resumes its quiet demeanor, muting the impression of speed such that a watchful eye on the speedo is advised.
Against EPA ratings of 26 mpg city/24 highway and 25 combined, our RX 400h averaged 24.6 mpg in its time under our collective lead feet. That compares favorably to the 15-19 mpg you'd typically get with a midsize SUV packing a powerful V6.
Though the RX 400h's brakes are acceptably up to task (bringing the 4,519-pound SUV to a halt from 60 mph in 133 feet at our test track), a few staffers griped that the pedal feel was too soft and had a dead spot in the pedal's initial travel. On the upside, the binders exhibited none of the sometimes grabby nature that hybrids' regenerative braking systems tend to have and proved resistant to fade under the duress of back-to-back panic stops.
For a softly suspended SUV, the RX 400h handles itself well on a twisty road. Though you can feel the body roll when you push it harder in the corners, it never feels nervous and there is plenty of grip to be had. Furthermore, the stability control system will step in to keep things in check if need be. The well-weighted steering is precise, if devoid of road feel.
Plush yet supportive, the seats in the 2008 Lexus RX 400h suited most editors. In keeping with this Lexus' luxury-, not sport-minded intentions, the side bolsters aren't as pronounced as you'll see with some other midsize luxury SUVs. As opposed to gripping you, they gently wrap around and allow for easier ingress and egress. On a couple hours' drive, we had no complaints as far as our backs, and backsides, were concerned.
The backseat sits up high enough to provide thigh support for all but the tallest passengers and it also slides and reclines to optimize comfort. There is no third-row seat option.
With power tilt-and-telescoping functions, the steering wheel could be fine-tuned to provide an ideal driving position for all our staffers, who range from 5-foot-5 to 6-foot-3. However, a greater range of seat travel would be appreciated — a common Toyota/Lexus complaint.
Although the 2008 Lexus RX 400h is a loaded-up luxury vehicle, its Toyota roots are apparent in its clean, user-friendly cabin design. There are a lot of features to control here, but most interfaces are straightforward. The audio controls have the tried-and-true (and large) volume and tuning knobs on either side of the faceplate. There is sadly no auxiliary audio jack available, although the standard tape deck allowed us to get reacquainted with the Best of Van Halen.
Although the climate controls are split between hard buttons on the center stack and some on the touchscreen, they're easy to, umm, acclimate to. That multipurpose screen also displays the propulsion source being used at any given moment, the status of the battery pack and fuel economy information. The available heated seats offer a wide range of adjustment via twist knobs, as opposed to the two or three settings of most rivals.
Being an SUV, the RX had no problem with our child seat and luggage capacity tests. A child seat can be easily secured facing either way in the second row. It's also a cinch to stow a couple of large suitcases or golf bags in the cargo area thanks to the power liftgate and relatively low lift-over. Should you need more than that 38-cubic-foot hold, flipping the split rear seats down yields about 85 cubes.
Design/Fit and Finish
As we said before, the RX 400h's styling still looks fresh. We're still not fans of the taillights that look like they're embedded in tin foil, but we still appreciate the sporty, chiseled form. There's a price to pay for the rakish roof line, however, as visibility to the rear quarters is compromised by the cheeky, canted D-pillars. We recommend springing for the optional back-up camera, which takes the anxiety out of parallel parking.
Inside our tester, the well-crafted cabin features optional dark wood accents on the gear selector, center console and door panels, which adds to the rich ambience. The center console provides generous cupholders and a large compartment that opens and closes easily with the push of a (mechanical) button.
Inside and out, our Lexus RX 400h exhibits the tight build quality and fine fit and finish we've come to expect from the "pursuit of perfection" brand, although the materials aren't quite as nice as those found in newer models.
Who should consider this vehicle
One might argue that nearly all the attributes of the 2008 Lexus RX 400h can be had in the less expensive RX 350 — meaning pampering isolation from the harsh outside world, peppy performance, SUV versatility, fine build quality and rock-solid reliability. But if you also want 25 mpg (and a hybrid badge) with all that luxury and performance, then what you really want is the RX 400h.
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