The best way to get to know any car is to take a long road trip in it. Every little problem sticks out like a sore thumb. And every nice feature brings repeated sighs of satisfaction.
After 10 days in our 2006 Lexus RX 400h we were breathing more satisfied sighs than cursing sore thumbs. On a 3,200-mile trip up the West Coast to British Columbia we bonded with what we decided was an amazingly advanced automobile.
First things first: We got 26.5 miles per gallon cruising at about 70 mph much of the time. At first, we were a little disappointed in the gas mileage since, after all, this is a hybrid. When the "H" word is invoked we tend to think of 40-plus mpg ratings. But then we reminded ourselves that this is a midsize luxury SUV with all-wheel drive, and part of a new breed of hybrids known for performance and reasonably good fuel-efficiency. Considering the EPA highway estimate is 27 mpg, it did fine on our trip.
Another way of looking at it is this: The non-hybrid Lexus RX 330 would have probably gotten about 18 mpg. Over the entire trip it would have consumed 178 gallons of gas costing about $534 at $3 per gallon. The 400h consumed 121 gallons costing about $363 and delivering a savings of $171.
While the numbers aren't all that impressive, we can report that carrying four people this distance, in great comfort, on this amount of gas seemed impressive. And there were other benefits. The route took us through Crater Lake National Park in Oregon where we found ourselves in a long line of SUVs waiting to enter the park. Naturally, the other SUVs were idling during the 15-minute wait. The 400h was in stealth mode, creeping forward under electric power. In fact, when it was our turn, the park ranger stuck her head out the booth window because she couldn't hear us coming.
So, yes, we wish the 400h was designed with more attention to economy than performance. But still, it is a cut above its counterpart and many other SUVs in its class. It's too bad this vehicle stickers for $52,703, which puts it near the top of the class in expense.
Given the hefty price tag, does the 400h deliver in other categories? The answer is a solid yes. At the top of our list of favorite features is the incredibly quiet powertrain. Sure, it starts in electric mode, but even with all six cylinders turning it's very quiet at highway speeds. This means a family of four can enjoy front-to-backseat conversation without raising their voices. Under hard acceleration, with the electric motors turning and the CVT transmission leveling off the rpm curve, the powertrain provides more of a groan than a roar. This isn't as viscerally pleasing as a throaty all-gas engine. Still, this was a minor concession given that the power is nothing short of astonishing.
One of our few complaints involved the brakes, which seemed to grab unexpectedly at times probably because of the regenerative system that converts normally wasted power to stored electricity. The brakes also seemed a bit noisy, but it didn't bother us since we knew we were getting the benefit of increased fuel mileage.
The ride was very comfortable and the suspension provided excellent handling. With four people and four suitcases, the RX 400h felt heavily loaded but still responded well and held its composure in tight corners. After returning from this long trip, we drove the car alone on the freeways in light Sunday afternoon traffic. It was easy to drive somewhat spiritedly since the Lexus made you feel like you could do anything — accelerate into any opening, brake for any situation, handle any corner. It was amazing.
The interior of this luxury SUV is indeed a work of art. The seats are the most comfortable this editor has driven in. The backseats are also very comfortable and the recline feature is great for napping. The rear legroom is quite generous. However, the vents that cool the hybrid system's batteries are located below the rear seats and the owner's manual warns not to block them. So the area usually littered with backpacks, books and other family-vacation paraphernalia needs to remain clutter-free. With a little planning, we easily relocated our stuff to other areas.
And there's plenty of tech beyond the 400h drivetrain: Its DVD player is easier to use than in other cars we've tested. It is also useful because you can program destinations on the navigation system by using the remote control unit and inputting the information on the drop-down screen. Additionally, destinations can also be set while moving by putting in a place marker and navigating toward it. The Lexus also has a rear backup camera. Unfortunately, the camera isn't as useful as you would think. It is difficult to gauge the distance you are looking at. But still, if there was a child there, you could clearly see the danger.
The rear cargo area is a little bigger than it appears. We were able to get four suitcases and four backpacks in along with a cooler and food bag. And there is a little additional space in a closed compartment under the back floor. Throughout the vehicle there is a generous amount of trays, cubbies and storage areas.
This is a remarkably versatile SUV with refinement, brawn and commendable fuel economy. Now if it was also affordable, it would be our first choice for any long road trip.
Current Odometer: 8,975
Best Fuel Economy: 27.9 mpg
Worst Fuel Economy: 22.6 mpg
Average Fuel Economy (over the life of the vehicle): 25.4 mpg
Body Repair Costs: none
Maintenance Costs: none