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.
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.
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.