Motor Corp. makes a motion to the bench on behalf of consumers who want to have their cake and eat it, too.
Exhibit A: the '06 Lexus RX 400h hybrid cross/utility vehicle. Exhibit B: the '06Highlander Hybrid.
Together they present the case it is possible to offer utility, comfort and power in a comfortable, guilt-free package.
For the record, the RX 400h is the first luxury hybrid electric vehicle (HEV) on the market, and the Highlander is the first 7-passenger HEV. Both are full HEVs, in that they can run in electric-only or gasoline-engine-only mode, or both. They also represent the first 4-wheel-drive hybrids, with a third electric motor sending power to the rear wheels.
The technology is the fourth generation of Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive powertrain.
The pair shows how much HEVs have evolved. They will put many competitors on the defense, as they require no compromises. Rather, the evidence suggests the hybrids are superior to the conventional vehicles from which they are derived.
The only matter with which the jury may take issue is price.
Even with gasoline prices forecast to hit $3 a gallon by summer, it will take a lot of trips to the pump to make up the difference between the $48,535 Lexus RX 400h and the standard RX 330 that starts at $37,825, with a $650 destination fee.
Granted, some of the extra cost is in the new-generation Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management stability control system and other standard features that Lexus says represent about $6,000 worth of options on the RX 330.
Pricing for the Highlander HEV will be released closer to this summer's on-sale date. A conventional Highlander with all-wheel drive starts at $25,480, not including $565 destination charges. The price premium for the hybrid is expected to be about $5,000.
But in terms of performance, the midsize HEVs deliver bang — especially off the line — for the buck.
Both CUVs mate gasoline and electric motors to provide V-8 power with the judicious fuel economy of a compact sedan.
They achieve 268 hp (38 hp more than the RX 330 and conventional Highlander) by combining a 3.3L DOHC V-6 gasoline engine with a converter that boosts a 288-volt battery to 650 volts worth of electricity from the three motor generators.
The result is enough electric power to start the engine, boost torque during initial acceleration and provide drive to all four wheels.
For those squeamish about technology malfunctions, the hybrid system carries a warranty of eight years or 100,000 miles (161,000 km).
The 400h can accelerate from 0-60 mph (97 km/h) in 7.3 seconds, and that's with an extra 300 lbs. (136 kg) of hardware onboard, pushing curb weight to 4,365 lbs. (1,980 kg). By comparison, the RX 330 with AWD needs 7.8 seconds to make the same sprint.
Both have a towing capacity of 3,500 lbs. (1,588 kg).
Official Environmental Protection Agency fuel efficiency ratings for the 400h are 27 mpg (8.7 L/100 km) on the highway, which is 67% better than the RX 330, 31 mpg (7.6 L/100 km) in the city and 29 mpg (8.1 L/100 km) combined. The Highlander is expected to achieve the same results.
The electronically controlled continuously variable transmission is seamless in managing torque on winding roads and some mountainous climbs on the island of Hawaii that might have made the RX 330 gasp. Merging and passing are executed with ease.
The Highlander was equally adept in a test drive along the California coastline. It averaged 26.2 mpg (9.0 L/100 km) on a test drive up hills and in slow traffic that afforded enough battery-charging regenerative braking to light the resort upon return.
Electrically assisted steering (the motor is wrapped around the steering rack) on the Lexus is precise, and the electric air conditioning compressor is more than capable in offsetting a hot Hawaiian sun.
Conversely, Toyota officials caution the first driver on a cold morning may find the electric start requires a second try because a delay was built in to let the engine warm up. This strategy limits emissions when the gasoline engine kicks in.
Only a trained eye immediately will differentiate the HEVs from their conventional cousins. They are slightly longer and taller. The front fascias and bumpers are new, largely to incorporate an extra vent for cooling. Each sports a new grille, and the taillamps switch to more efficient light-emitting diodes.
The Lexus rides on new 18-in. aluminum wheels with performance tires. The Highlander sports 17-in. aluminum alloy wheels.
The Lexus interior cashes in many of the wood accents for brushed aluminum.
In both vehicles, a power meter replaces the tachometer on the instrument panel. The navigation screen doubles as a power-usage display, much like the Toyota Prius.
A Lexus cabin is the benchmark for a quiet ride. An HEV presents a unique challenge in that the whir of electric motors replaces muted background engine noise at idle or slow speeds.
To ensure acceptable noise, vibration and harshness levels, more acoustic material was added to the windshield; gussets and reinforcements improved rigidity; and engineers came up with a quieter radiator cooling fan blade design because they felt the forced air was too loud.
It did the job. In this church-like quiet, the electric motors can be heard upon acceleration, and again during regenerative braking. Even at highway speeds, the 400h was almost disconcertingly quiet, and the Highlander only a few decibels louder.
Safety features include electronically controlled braking, and a rollover sensor keeps in constant conversation with the airbag sensors.
The CUVs stem from the same platform and were “hybridized” together. The Lexus HEV began production in March and goes on sale April 15. In Japan, it is known as the Harrier Hybrid.
The Highlander has been added to the line at the plant in Kyushu, Japan, and goes on sale the first week of June. It will be sold as the Kluger V Hybrid in Japan.
Of the 62,000-unit total capacity, Lexus gets 24,000 for the U.S., alone, which may not be enough with more than 13,000 orders in the bank.
Toyota says it has 150,000 hand-raisers for the Highlander HEV before it even has begun taking orders. Toyota will allocate about 21,000 units for the U.S. market this year and about 48,000 for a full year.
Of the roughly 127,000 Highlander sales expected in 2005, about 20,450 should be hybrids. Toyota expects 6% of front-wheel-drive models will be equipped with the hybrid system and 15% of the 4WD models.
North America will be the biggest market for both. Lexus expects the 400h to take 25% of total RX sales. And the expectation is a high percentage will be new to the Lexus brand.
The combination of utility and fuel efficiency is expected to appeal to those who might not otherwise have considered a hybrid. They will have to fight those already on the waiting list, including those who can't wait to trade up from the Prius.
Toyota has prepared its case well, and the prosecution rests.
Ultimate success now rests with the jury.