A reader named Bruce wrote The Daily Green to say he'd just received an unsolicited brochure for the Ford Flex. "Now this was an expensive brochure," he wrote. "But the mileage was listed in very small print and only 24 miles per gallon. The brochure concentrated on the sunroofs, interior trim, navigation, sound and lighting, but that's not why I pick a car. I'm into mileage, performance, ergonomics, space, stopping distances and service cost."
The 2010 Lexus 450 explores the Georgia byways. (Jim Motavalli photo)
Automakers can't just sell the sizzle anymore. These days, consumers want something more from their SUVs, and great mileage is part of the equation. So here's a new model that's big, and even bigger after it was redesigned for 2010. It weighs a really daunting 4,000 pounds. It's an SUV. And it's actually...kind of green?
No, I haven't been taking illicit substances, the new Lexus RX 450h does have some real environmental credentials. Despite having 20 more horsepower than its non-hybrid RX 350 cousin, the 450h gets 30 miles per gallon in the city and 27 on the highway. It's also a Super Ultra Low Emission Vehicle, one of the cleanest of the California designations.
Last year, Lexus sold 80,000 RX vehicles in the U.S., 15,000 of them hybrids. Paul Santulli, area training manager for Lexus, said at a Georgia press conference last week that the company expects to see the hybrid RX share increase with the release of the new model.
My feelings about the 450h are complicated. The car is a technical tour de force, using every engineering trick to wring excellent fuel economy and low emissions from a big and heavy SUV. But it's also a big and heavy SUV, whose "hybrid" badges allow prospective owners to claim green credentials while sacrificing nothing. Why not a hybrid Yaris instead?
Still, there's a lot of cool technology to admire onboard the 2010 450h. I liked the innovative exhaust heat recovery system that warms up engine coolant (so your car reaches operating temperatures more quickly). Heat is also diverted to the catalytic converter, which does most of its serious polluting when it's cold.
The 3.5-liter V-6 has been massaged to work on an Atkinson Cycle -- a 19th century concept with a longer power stroke that increases fuel economy (at the expense of power) and reduces emissions and pumping losses. Teflon-coated oil seals cut friction.
Of course, I also drove the new 450h, which will be in showrooms in about three months, around Georgia's gorgeous barrier islands. During the slave era, many of these islands were dominated by massive cotton plantations that became impossible to maintain without free labor. The ruins of this economy are still visible, and properly entombed with historical markers.
Large and luxurious SUVs are probably anachronisms, too. We'll be thinking small in the 21st century. But for a big boat the 450h is impressively smooth, powerful and quiet; in fact, it drives very much like the 350. You don't sacrifice much -- or anything at all -- for almost double the city fuel efficiency.
A big question for the 450h is how much it will cost. The 350 will be $36,800 in front-wheel-drive form. If the 450h, its price has not been unannounced, requires a big premium ($5,000 or more) it probably won't set any sales records. Which would be a shame, because Lexus really has set a new standard for what can be done with big SUVs.
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