Some people have clearly missed the point.
Citing last year’s EnergyWise rally results they point out hybrids aren’t that fuel-frugal. After all, a Smart Fortwo used a tad less fuel, at 4.53 litres/100km, than the best hybrid, Honda’s Civic which drank 4.72 litres/100km over the distance. Honda’s Jazz used only 5.04, and the small diesels used less – the best, the Fiat Grand Punto, drinking just 4.34 litres of diesel for every 100km travelled.
But the Smart has only two seats and the four-seat Civic offers more space, and better open-road manners, than the Jazz – while using a tad less fuel. Hybrid petrol-electric cars aren’t necessarily the most frugal on the block. Nor are they the ultimate answer to global warming and reducing fuel use.
But at present they offer a compelling argument by delivering more power and more metal for a given thirst for petrol. They let you have your cake and eat it, too.
Nowhere is this more obvious than at the larger end of the market. Buy an SUV and you need a diesel or, if you want V8 power, you pay for it at the pump. But hybrid petrol-electric can offer the urge of a V8 petrol SUV without drinking more fuel than a V6. Power without the penalty – it’s a no-brainer.
Hence the Lexus RX400h. I drove it 18 months ago in the US, when the equivalent was the RX330. That 330 was not only considerably thirstier than the hybrid, but was also half a second slower from zero to
100km/h. So much for boring tree-huggers.
How does the 400h translate on New Zealand roads? Very well indeed if my Auckland to Rotorua return trip is any guide.
Of course there’s the luxurious comfort and faultless build quality you expect from a Lexus. There’s the battery of nine airbags, the power rear door, the 18-inch alloy wheels; and the new generation vehicle stability control which measures speed, yaw and steering angle to give help when needed.
There are a few other changes – the electric power steering, water pump and air-conditioning compressor, of course, since the petrol engine isn’t always operating. And the good news for SUV buyers – this is the first hybrid with a tow rating, at 1500kg.
There’s also a capacious boot, due to the battery’s new position under the rear seat.
Disconcertingly, though, there’s no physical connection between the front and rear driveshafts despite the four-wheel drive.
The 3.3-litre petrol engine shared with the now defunct RX330 – with 155kW at 5600rpm and 288Nm at 4400rpm – drives the front wheels, augmented by the electric motor’s 123kW at 4500rpm and 333Nm from zero. That’s right, zero rpm to 1500. And there’s that rear-axle electric unit driving the rear wheels, with 50kW from 4610 to 5120rpm and 130Nm of torque from zero to 610rpm.
The equation’s a tough one, but the total offers an equivalent of 200kW and 550Nm.But electric motors are strongest at the bottom end, so it’s that shove off the line that you really feel, and it’s astonishing. This is an SUV with a claimed 0-100km/h time of 7.9 seconds.
Meanwhile the two electric motors double the regenerative capacity from slowing down, ensuring more potential battery juice for those hard-charging starts.
Indeed, on easy going you can drive at 50km/h on electric power only – just watch out for pedestrians, they won’t hear you coming.
It’s the fact this car is so effective at what it does – it’s not just the seamless relationship between petrol and electric, burning and regenerating power, but the fact it’s rather good to drive that will sell it.
It’s hard to worry about what will happen if the vehicle fleet triples by 2050 when Lexus buyers will be long gone by then. Why make the difficult choice to cut back on emissions when you won’t pay the penalty?
With this Lexus, the answer has to be, why not? It may not be the ultimate answer – Field anticipates hybrid hydrogen-electric cars using an as-yet undetermined carbon-free source of hydrogen. But for now this 400h is, as Field says, “a car for our time.”
It offers the same power as its conventional RX350 sibling, while using 28 percent less fuel. Sure, at $99,050 it also costs nearly 10 grand more. It’d take a while to make that up, even using 8.7litres/100km as it did for me after a couple of weeks of real world driving.
But I suspect most buyers won’t care. The boasting rights at the golf club will more than outweigh the difference.