Lexus RX 330 or Hybrid:

Which is the best

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We think the Lexus RX is the “Queen of the SUVs” based on its command of the road, ability to care for its citizens, and the price you have to pay for its attentions. Priced at over $50,000 (US) this Lexus is the first luxury SUV hybrid on the market and it is going to be difficult to compete against. It is that good. As for the gas only version of the Lexus, labeled the 330 and about $10,000 less, it is still the gold standard of luxury SUVs and easily the most refined of its ilk. However, it doesn’t provide the gusto of some competitors and is not so inclined to venture up inclines or tolerate hard cornering so if you insist on using your SUV as a sports car leave Lexus land for the world of BMW and Acura.

We tested both Lexus RX models in all types of situations and they never became uncivil despite heavy traffic, rain, Hummer drivers who have not yet realized they are not on the battlefield, and the tight roads of Vancouver. It was a lady at all times, but what made it more remarkable was the little things that sold us such as the best interior night lighting ever. The Lexus has illuminated sill plates, door handles. foot wells, the ignition ring, glove box, center console box, and front cup holders not to mention the map and cargo area maps.

Added to this mix are an easy to activate power hatch, rear seat backs that are adjustable for rake, and a flawless reputation for quality and thus high resale. The turning radius is much better than previous models and you can easily park it. Unfortunately, the rear vision is impaired and so we highly tout the video camera that places a live image of what is happening in back of the RX on the center display monitor. Very trick and very useful. In fact the only real option is the rear entertainment center and, perhaps, GPS.

Both models come with power rear hatch openers, programmable garage door openers, electric steering, heated outside mirrors that automatically dim, and so many other features it can overwhelm your objectivity. We can’t image what fixing some of the complex electrical components is going to cost after the warranty expires in four years or 60,000 miles.

The problem we were trying to solve is whether the expensive hybrid version was worth the extra thousands of dollars even given the high price of fuel. Since the hybrid only comes well loaded it can cost nearly $10,000 more than the base RX.  However, if you equip your base RX with similar options such as leather and all wheel drive the price differential is about $5,000 additional for the hybrid. And since the gas hybrid consistently gets 22 mpg and the hybrid only about 20 percent better in real world driving does it pay to buy the expensive 400 h even when some government agencies offer a tax credit for hybrid owners?

To cover ourselves we’ll just say, depends. If you drive on open highways at speed stick with the RX 330. It is a faithful companion, although not one that caters to tracking down BMWs. If you do over half of your driving in town the 400 h is your best bet. In bumper-to-bumper traffic you can drive up to 30 mph just on battery power and you could easily cover 500 miles on a tank of gas. The electric motors combined with the gas engine provide 268 horsepower instantly without much ado from the continuously variable transmission. Even the 400’s handling is better than that of the 330 RX model. Getting 24 or 25 miles to the gallon is not difficult in mixed driving, but even at that unless you drive well over 25,000 miles a year and gas is priced at $3 a gallon it would take you years to justify paying extra for the hybrid.

Resale is going to be stout regardless of which model you select. Dealers have cleared most of the back orders, except for a few colors such as white and bamboo, and so there is less of a wait for the RX 400 h. The best way to know for sure is to check at www.nada.com for resale.  Adding to this value is the fact that none of the competition offers a luxury hybrid so there is no competition. On the other hand it is far more expensive than SUV hybrids from Toyota and Ford.

We are sure though, that the hybrid is clearly going to command top dollar for many a year for three reasons. It is responsive, responsible, and realistic. It does not feign to be something it isn’t. Yes it can go off road and do well, but why spend that much money to rough up a vehicle? Secondly, safety first is embedded everywhere from airbags to braking to preventive tipping measures. Finally, it can realistically hold five adults. It does not pretend to hold seven as some SUVS do, two of whom may have to crawl over seats, people, and luggage to find their perches just inches away from the rear hatch and potential danger should there be an accident.

Mom’s view: This is what it must be like to have twins; so alike and yet so different. The 330 RX is blissful to drive, a little overly protective in the way it deals with road imperfections, and has just enough acceleration so you have to keep a vigil on the speedometer.  The 400h is another matter. The larger tires and rims, aggressive suspension, hefty weight, and the instant torque provided by the electric motors turn this into more of a fighter. Both would be delightful children, but I think most mothers wouldn’t mind boasting of the 400h’s ability to excel even though it may require a more trips to the school.

Whether you are driving the hybrid or the RX 330 the seats are both supportive and comfortable. This is a rare combination and worthy of exaltation. Getting into the hybrid requires added leg lift because it rides a tad higher, but once inside you have excellent vision to the sides and front. Unlike the unique Toyota Prius hybrid, there is very little different about these two Lexi outside of some minor trim pieces. Even the interior is akin except for the information center and a readout that shows which energy source you are using.  That is not to say it does not have appeal as its abundance of storage space, good cupholders, and even a place for a purse make it very accommodating. The leather, switchgear, and plastics are well done and, if you choose carefully, nicely color coordinated.  Add to this the solid basic structure and you have a SUV that gets responsible fuel mileage in either hybrid or gas only versions, and you have the reasons that this is the best selling Lexus ever.

Dad’s view: As the Ford Escape hybrid, the Lexus is stealth like and nearly impossible to identify from a distance over its more traditional powered clone. This quickly changes once you check out the drivetrain. The hybrid 400h carries 300 pounds of extra weight, but this is offset when the two electric motors and the gas engine work together to provide 268 horsepower compared to 230 for the gas version. One electric motor helps to drive the front wheels and one the back. A continuous variable transmission on the hybrid does its work efficiently, but there is sharp tug when you are slowly backing out of a parking space and the gas engine decides it is needed. Keep your foot on the brake or it jumps a bit. The hybrid also has been trained to shut down at long stops. It starts instantly once you remove your foot from the brake and touch the gas pedal. In case you are wondering the stereo, air conditioning, and lights all continue to operate even with the engine paused.

You can easily feel the extra power the hybrid brings to the wheels when you demand full acceleration. This hybrid can move out in a hurry and we think it could easily reach 60 mph in around seven seconds, or about a half second faster than the 330. One thing that does not move faster is the fuel gauge. We traveled around in heavy city traffic, went to the suburbs to do research on a hydrogen-powered bicycle being produced by Palcan Power Systems Inc. and returned in traffic and rain. The hybrid Lexus was nonplussed, and seemed to relish the challenge.

The EPA rates the RX 400h at 31/27, but you can count on around 26 to 28 mpg. This isn’t as great as the Prius and Honda Civic, but the Lexus weights twice as much. The RX 330 returns 22 to 23 miles per gallon. Both cars can go well over 400 miles on a tank of unleaded. You should note that hybrids have additional maintenance costs and that the battery packs, which have a lengthy warranty, can cost several thousand dollars to replace.

Lexus claims the RX 330 can get to 60 mph in 7.7 seconds from the 230 horsepower, 242 foot pounds of torque, 3.3 liter V6. Whatever, it is still a fairly fast vehicle for its class while still getting over 22 mpg during highway cruising.

Basically, I am not a huge fan of SUVs because of their handling, gas hoggish nature, and limited side and back visibility. I am proud to say that the RX 330 has none of these traits. In fact, it rides as well as some luxury sedans over highways. Be warned, though, that this is not a nimble vehicle and the steering can feel slow to react when the road requires frequent corrections. Visibility to the side is excellent with the best mirrors in the SUV business. It is clear that the Lexus engineers designed this for more cruising than bruising, even though the 7.1 inch ride height is adequate and the all wheel drive system with the electric motors very peppy on inclines.

Braking is quite impressive with very little front dip, but we would strongly recommend you don’t overestimate the stopping distance because this is a two-ton vehicle when loaded. On the RX 400h the braking process helps regenerate the battery pack and thus the brakes made a squeaky sound.

There really is no logical reason to buy a Lexus 400h. Yes, it may be a better value than the RX 330 in the long run, but the Ford Escape hybrid is much less expensive, gets similar fuel mileage, and can stay right with the Lexus in town driving. Despite this we doubt anyone would cross-shop the two, and so if you have a tender spot for the environment and have the wherewithal, you couldn’t find a better place to spend your travel time. The attention to detail, ability to park in tight places, power, and notable quality and features are unmatched.

Young working woman’s view: What can you say to a queen who has everything? There is little to add here. I didn’t like the way the fuel light went on with so little fanfare, I thought that the alloy rims were unworthy and needed to be rethought as they are just not right, and I would have preferred if the power tailgate would open with less fanfare as it sounds like a truck is backing up. Starting the hybrid is eerie to say the least. You turn on the ignition; wait for the light in the gauge cluster to read “Ready,” and you just touch the accelerator. No fuss, no muss, and if you are careful you can even drive several miles without using the gas engine at all. However, we did not test the hybrid in the winter and so we cannot verify what it would be like in Winnipeg.

Both RX models have significant safety features that include front side airbags, head-protecting curtain side airbags and a driver knee airbag. A control system that uses the Electronically Controlled Brake system with Anti-Lock Brakes and Electronic Brake force Distribution creates a Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management system to help prevent the vehicle from becoming unstable. In other words, this queen has built a sturdy safety castle around her charges. Although the RX is based on a Camry platform, it is definitely off-roadable. However, who would want to take one of these into the boondocks and scratch that deep paint ironically on the same vegetation that these hybrids were born to protect.

The cabin is full of wonderful things to touch. The leather and wood steering wheel is easy to hold, the cruise control, light, and windshield stalks don’t require you to lift your hand and the dashboard lighting is the best. There are a lot of look alike buttons in the center of the dash that must be learned because reading them is difficult in bright sunlight. We did manage to stall the GPS on the RX 330, but after restarting it gave us another chance.

Of all the lovely things in this RX, perhaps the most appealing was the small touches that made you feel special. At night, the Lexus name on the doorstep plate lights up and the door panel storage areas have covers that pull out making it easy to get the smallest of items.

Unemployed young male’s view: The back seats were very comfortable with handy cupholders, ample headroom, and foot space. Make sure you adjust the rear backrests before you get into the RX because they are really hard to adjust when you are sitting in them. You can fold the rear seats down in three sections, but they don’t fold real flat. You also have extra storage space in the rear cargo area on both sides and under the cover. And, there is a standard 115-volt 2-prong outlet behind rear seat. There is also a full size spare with alloy rim under the cargo cover.

Being unemployed, check out my website to buy my latest CD so I can make my parents proud, I wonder why not just by a Toyota Highland or hybrid Highlander instead. They are less expensive and have the same powertrain. Of course, with a Lexus you do get the pride of ownership, a higher percentage of resale value, and Lexus dealerships that we have found were quite attentive.

The bottom line for me is that the hybrid only makes sense if you spend a considerable time in town. Otherwise, get the base RX equipped as you want and accept the fact that you’ve been one-upped.

Family conference: Call it a tall station wagon, try to humiliate it by claiming its an overpriced Toyota, make fun of its turtle shell appearance, or just point out you can get an SUV the same size and power for $10,000 less and you still are not going to convince buyers that this isn’t the cat’s meow of luxury SUVs. While the Acura MDX handles a bit better, the BMW is faster, and Mercedes more off roadable, and the Infiniti sportier, the Lexus is all alone when it comes to providing buyers with what the majority want, and that is a luxury vehicle that is both practical an elegant and the 400 h is the queen. Long live the queen. For the websites of all vehicle and motorcycle manufacturers go to http://www.reacheverychild.com/business/auto/index.html

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