New hybrids continue to roll into showrooms this year, as many car buyers have decided that gas-electric hybrid vehicles – with their fuel economy advantages and “green” credentials – are the way to go. Last week I wrote about the new Honda Insight, which is now the lowest-priced hybrid on the market. Now, let’s head up to the other end of the price scale.
In 2005, Toyota’s Lexus division released a hybrid version of its very popular RX-series crossover sport utility vehicle. Using technological knowledge gained from their Prius, they created a hybrid with a different mission. Instead of being a vehicle built for fuel economy above all else, the Lexus RX400h was a fully-capable, very luxurious car-truck that behaved very much like the standard RX 350. The icing on the cake was that it got better fuel economy at the same time.
The RX 400h was a pretty big hit for Lexus, as people with disposable income who wanted a vehicle of useful size and configuration could also proudly show off a “hybrid” badge to convince their friends and associates that they were in touch with their environmental side. Until Lexus later came out with hybrid versions of the GS and LS sedans, the RX hybrid was the be-all end-all of environmental luxury driving.
For 2010, Lexus has completely re-done the RX 350 non-hybrid from the ground up. It still looks very much like the RX that preceded it (and the original one before that), but offers improvements in pretty much every way. And of course, there’s also an equally-new hybrid model, now called the RX 450h. While the conventional version is just now in showrooms, the hybrid will be following along shortly.
Thanks to improvements in hybrid batteries and other technologies, the RX 450h can claim the best of both worlds. Power is up from the predecessor, and fuel mileage is improved as well. Rated horsepower (it’s a little tricky with a hybrid because you have to add the power of the engine and calculate that of the electric motor) is now 295 horsepower, 27 more than the outgoing RX 400h. Combined fuel economy is 30 mpg overall.
New systems abound in the RX 450h, including some technology that can help maximize fuel economy for those who really want to do the best they can on each tank. Selecting a mode called “eco” on the instrument panel does a mild re-mapping of the electronic control system which helps smooth out the power flow to the wheels, while sacrificing a bit of acceleration.
And if you really want to save fuel in short bursts, you can also select “EV mode.” This keeps the engine off completely, for up to a mile and at speeds under about 25 miles per hour. If you try to drive too fast, you get a message on the dash and the engine kicks back in. The RX will only go into EV mode if the battery has sufficient charge. A couple of times I tried it right after starting up, and the display told me “EV mode unavailable.”
If you don’t choose either of these special driving modes, the default mapping means that you get quite a powerful vehicle. One of the advantages of a gasoline-electric hybrid system is that under full throttle, both power systems combine, providing maximum acceleration. With some smaller hybrids, the gasoline engine is not very big, in order to achieve maximum fuel economy. But in the case of this Lexus, power is plentiful. The V6 engine gets quite a kick from the electric motor (or motors with all wheel drive).
Essentially, this combination yields the power and torque of a V8 engine, but as Lexus points out, with the fuel economy of many four cylinder sedans. And that’s been the selling point for many of the higher-end hybrids. No sacrifice in drivability or comfort, but the satisfaction of knowing that you’re using as little fuel as possible.
With the right option packages, you can also equip the RX 450h to be quite a commuting companion. The navigation screen will show you how traffic conditions are on your favorite freeways, and there’s even an option of weather reports, with a mode that will alert you if any “severe” weather is likely to be in your path of travel.
Lexus hasn’t announced pricing for the RX 450h, as it doesn’t go on sale until later this year. But the conventional 2010 RX 350’s base price is $36,800 for two wheel drive, and $38,200 for all wheel drive. Based on the typical hybrid premium (and the price of the outgoing RX 400h), the new hybrid RX should be priced somewhere in the mid-40s to start, and will easily top $50,000 with options.
Next week, I’ll continue my series on new hybrid vehicles, with a look at a completely revamped version of the hybrid of all hybrids. The one that people either love or hate, but that everyone knows as soon as they see it that it’s the symbol of environmental motoring.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7. He’s also a car enthusiast and owns several classics. Dave can be reached at TVCarz@pacbell.net.