2006 LEXUS RX 400h
ON SALE: April 15
BASE PRICE: $41,000 (est.)
POWERTRAIN: 268 hp from 3.3-liter V6/combined motor generators; awd, CVT
CURB WEIGHT: 4365 lbs
0 to 60 mph: 7.3 seconds (mfr.)
Toyota created a gasoline-electric-hybrid consumer monster, and now it’s struggling to feed it.
Since Lexus announced at last year’s Detroit show that a hybrid version of its best-selling RX sport/utility vehicle would be for sale, nearly 10,000 people have plunked down deposits. More than 46,000 others say they’re also interested in the RX 400h.
In the car world, that’s a home run—out of the park.
While the line gets longer to own an RX 400h, building them is taking more time than first thought.
Why: Toyota was taken aback by the popularity of its Prius hybrid and increased production to meet demand. More than a year after launch, supplies are still short for the economy car. Toyota makes most of the hybrid drivetrain parts in-house, so it can’t simply say to a supplier, “Give us more.” To help meet demand, Toyota recently announced it is looking to build hybrids at a U.S. plant to supplement supply from Japan.
“We fully expect the RX 400h to be 25 percent of [U.S.] RX sales,” says Denny Clements, Lexus group vice president and general manager. Lexus sold 106,531 RX 330s in 2004, making it the best-selling Lexus model. Annual production from the RX 400h plant in Japan is about 38,000 vehicles, and as the hybrid sport/ute will be sold worldwide, Clements has been told the United States will get 24,000 vehicles annually. “We know that’s probably not enough to meet demand,” he says.
Originally slated as a 2005 model, the RX 400h’s launch was pushed from fall 2004 to mid-April in an effort to get a sufficient production stockpile, so it will appear as a 2006 model.
“With almost 10,000 already sold, those first few months of vehicles are already spoken for,” Clements says. Lexus started a system where buyers who put money down got vehicle numbers, and they can now track their vehicles through production. Lexus’ financial unit is also allowing buyers to extend current Lexus leases as they await their hybrid RXs.
It will be worth the wait.
You will be able to tell an RX 400h from all other RX models that came before. Its grille, front fascia, headlights, taillights and wheels are new; the hybrid is one inch longer and 0.3 inch taller than the RX 330. What remains the same is its 106.9-inch wheelbase, maximum 3500-pound towing capacity and aerodynamic drag coefficient of 0.35. The hybrid weighs 300 pounds more than the RX 330, thanks to batteries and electric motors.
Differences inside include brushed aluminum trim that replaces wood, and a power meter in place of a tachometer. That’s about it.
Where Toyota chose purpose-built, low-rolling-resistance tires for Prius to improve fuel mileage, the 235/55VR-18 M+S Michelins on the RX 400h are the same as those on the RX 330.
“No question that a low-rolling-resistance tire would have increased fuel mileage,” said Dave Hermance, executive engineer for environmental engineering at Toyota’s technical center. “But we did not want to compromise the ride and handling, so we went with a standard tire.”
Fuel mileage is still a selling point, especially for a sport/ute: The RX 400h gets roughly 33 percent better mileage than the RX 330. The city fuel mileage rating gets a 67 percent boost over the gas-only counterpart.
As for ride quality, we could not tell the difference between the hybrid and non-hybrid variants during our test drives on relatively smooth pavement, though the hybrid does seem quiet*er. Lexus vehicles are known for their bank-vault silence, and when you have the gasoline engine shutting off at stops and at low speeds, it almost whispers. It’s so quiet you can hear the fans cooling the sealed nickel metal-hydride battery pack that sits beneath the rear seat. The resulting noise is no more than that of cooling fans on a computer.
The 3.3-liter V6 makes a little noise of its own, producing 208 hp at 5600 rpm and 212 lb-ft of torque at 4400 rpm. This is the same engine as in the RX 330, but detuned about 10 percent from the 230 hp and 242 lb-ft it makes in that vehicle. But helping out the RX 400h are three motor generators with their own drive*line functions: two drive motors and generators, and a motor with the generator driven by the gas engine charging either the battery pack or powering the other two electric motors, depending upon what is needed. Regenera-tive braking turns the electric motors into generators, replenishing the batteries. Managing the entire system is a fourth-generation electronic control unit.
Power from the gas engine and the front electric-drive motor is sent to the wheels via a planetary gear-type CVT. One electric motor, known as MG1, acts as the gas-engine starter and controls the transaxle speed through a planetary gear set using no clutches or viscous couplings. The system ensures a smooth transition in the drive*line. To further reduce drag on the gas engine, the RX 400h uses an electric air conditioning compressor as well as an electric power steering unit. No serpentine belts are underhood.
Electric motors also play a part in the vehicle’s all-wheel-drive system. A 50-kW electric motor makes 68 hp and 96 lb-ft in the rear to provide extra power and torque on demand. The system varies torque distribution between the front and rear axles, depending on road conditions.
During low-speed and some stop-and-go conditions, it runs solely on electric power for longer times than we have experienced in other hybrids. Step on the accelerator, and a 167-hp electric-drive motor kicks in first, delivering its 247 lb-ft of peak torque from 0 to 1500 rpm. The high-torque electric motors make the hybrid a half-second quicker off the line, Lexus says, with 0 to 60 mph coming in 7.3 seconds compared to 7.8 seconds for the RX 330. Fuel consumption is EPA-rated at 30 mpg city/26 highway for the hybrid; the RX 330 is rated at 18 mpg city/24 highway.
Don’t be surprised to see Toyota market the RX 400h for its greenness and for its performance. Even for a midsize sport/ute, being quick and efficient are good bragging rights.