2007 Saturn Vue Green Line (left) and 2007 Lexus RX400h
2007 Saturn Vue Green Line (left) and 2007 Lexus RX400h. Click image to enlarge

Story and photos by Peter Bleakney

Photo Gallery: Saturn Vue Green Line and Lexus RX400h

Hybrids good. SUVs bad.

If you’d just dropped in on planet Earth to peruse a few papers and watch a bit of TV, you could be forgiven for arriving at that over-simplified assessment of our personal transportation conundrum. Escalating concern over global warming and CO2 emissions has brought two automotive players into the forefront. The gas-electric hybrid is viewed as somewhat of a saviour, while the sport utility vehicle plays the part of the evil villain. Just look at the new federal budget.

So what do you get when you combine these apparently divergent concepts? A no-good do-gooder? The automotive equivalent of friendly fire? Not so fast, tofu-breath.

Today I’m looking at two 2007 SUV hybrids – the Lexus RX400h, starting at $62,250, and the $29,060 Saturn Vue Green Line. Dimensionally, the two vehicles are within an organically-grow leek’s width of each other, but beyond that (and the hybrid badges) they are very different. Most obvious is the price point: the Lexus is a luxury vehicle aimed at salving the consciences of well-heeled greenies, while the Saturn’s bottom line targets a much broader audience. So let’s see what makes them tick.

2007 Lexus RX400h
2007 Lexus RX400h. Click image to enlarge

Hybrid powertrains: The Lexus is a “full” hybrid, meaning it can run on gasoline, electric power, or a combination of both. The Vue is classified as a “mild” hybrid; it is powered by the gasoline engine at all times, getting extra help from an electric motor.

Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive, which debuted in the 2000 Prius (and has evolved considerably since then) is extremely complex and leaves no microchip unturned in the quest for hybrid efficiency. Applied to the RX400h, it is no less techy, but power output is a much higher priority here, totalling 268 hp and 212 lb.-ft. of torque when combining outputs of the 3.3-litre DOHC 24-valve V6, a 123-kilowatt front drive electric motor and the 50-kilowatt motor that drives the rear wheels. There’s a third electric motor that starts the V6 and regulates the ratios in the continuously variable transmission (CVT), another fuel saving device.

The electric motors act as generators when the vehicle is coasting or braking, capturing kinetic energy and sending the reclaimed electrical power to a thin nickel-metal hydride battery pack under the rear seat. Under hard acceleration or when road conditions warrant it, the rear wheels come online. They are not connected mechanically to the gas engine in any way, married as they are only to the electrical side of this equation. A raft of computers and sensors integrate all these elements into a relatively seamless driving experience.

2007 Saturn Vue Green Line
2007 Saturn Vue Green Line. Click image to enlarge

While the Lexus RX400h sports enough technology to launch the space shuttle, the Saturn Vue Green Line’s BAS (Belt/Alternator/Starter) Hybrid Propulsion Equipment is about as simple as it gets. Hanging off the side of the 2.4-litre Ecotec four-cylinder engine is a belt-driven 14.5-kilowatt motor/generator that, like those in the Lexus, recaptures energy during braking, charges the battery pack, and assisting the gas engine during launch and full-throttle applications. Combined output is 170 hp and 162 lb.-ft. of torque.

The Green Line features idle-stop but makes do with a basic four-speed automatic transmission. Ironically, the Vue was initially offered with a CVT, but Saturn ditched it three years into the run.

Down the Road: Turn the key in the Lexus and you’re greeted with eerie silence. A “Ready” light indicates it’s okay to select a gear and glide off in emissions-free calm. This doesn’t last long, as the gas engine fires up and comes online unobtrusively with just a touch of throttle.

2007 Lexus RX400h
2007 Lexus RX400h. Click image to enlarge

Lexus knows its clientele are willing to sacrifice nothing for the Hybrid badge. Luxury, good handling, lots of power and improved economy is a tall order, but the RX400h manages all this, especially the power part. Toe into the throttle and the SUV charges ahead from any speed, with highway passing power being especially impressive. Electric motors generate maximum torque from zero rpm, so grunt is never an issue with this fuel-sipper. With a zero-to-100 km/h time of 7.4 seconds, the RX400h is hardly an eco-weenie.

The rest of the driving experience is suitably Lexus. The ride is well damped with good body control and the drive train is hushed when not accelerating hard. The interior is finely crafted and all the expected mod-cons are present and accounted for. My tester was the Ultra Premium model, which at $70,700 adds rear seat DVD, navigation and an impressive 11-speaker Mark Levinson sound system.

There are a few hybrid peculiarities that enter the driving experience. Due to the CVT, the V6 drones unpleasantly when calling for bursts of speed, and there is the faintest sense of some pushing and tugging within the drive train as the gasoline engine starts and stops and the electric motors cycle between assist and charge mode. The motors also make a whining noise when coming to a stop, which my kids likened to the sound of a landing space ship. And of course there is the idle-stop feature, an important bit of fuel-saving tech that has you sitting in silence at stoplights while the rest of the world buzzes about.

2007 Saturn Vue Green Line
2007 Saturn Vue Green Line. Click image to enlarge

You could never call the Lexus quirky, but the Vue Green Line is more normal in operation. Other than the idle-stop function, there’s little here to give away its mild hybrid motivation.

It certainly doesn’t have the get-up-and-go of the Lexus, but with a claimed zero-to-100 km/h time of 10.4 seconds, it’ll out-drag the base 143 hp 2.2-litre Vue. Not that you’ll be inspired to take part in such an activity, as the engine sounds course when pressed and the fully electric steering isn’t particularly communicative. The handling is a tad squishy too.
So the Vue won’t be worrying a BMW X3, but no surprise. Under normal conditions it is a very pleasant drive, serving up a compliant ride and a calm highway demeanour.

The freshened Vue’s interior looks good too, with better quality plastics and some nice metal-look trim accents. Yes, it’s built to a price point, but there’s no penalty for it. My tester was fitted with the $1,520 “Comfortably Safe Package”, which includes six-way power driver’s seat, heated front seats, lumbar adjuster, side airbags and XM satellite radio.

Utility: The Vue’s dent-resistant polymer body panels and front and rear skid plates suggest it can take a bit of roughing up. Inside is where the Green Line shows its versatility. The little ute’s friendly, upright profile allows for generous cargo space in the hatch (872 litres), and with the passenger seat and 70/30 rear seats folded flat, you can load items up to 260 cm in length.

2007 Lexus RX400h
2007 Lexus RX400h. Click image to enlarge

The RX400h has a more commodious back seat than the Vue and the cargo space is slightly larger, at 900 litres. The powered liftgate is a nice feature, but the load floor is way up there. I gauge these things by the stare my dog gives me when I ask her to jump in. This was definitely an “I don’t think so, buddy” look.

The Saturn is tow-rated at 680 kg, while the RX400h with on-demand all-wheel drive will haul up to 1587 kg. The Green Line lives in that automotive netherworld occupied by front-drive SUVs – an oxymoron if ever there were one.

The Bottom Line: Ah, the part you’ve all been waiting for. The Lexus RX400h, despite its additional 406 kg, opulent appointments and considerable forward thrust, equalled the Vue Green Line’s 9.1 L/100 km over a week of mixed driving. The Lexus, unlike the Saturn, requires premium fuel.

A fair comparison? Not really. The Lexus Hybrid Synergy Drive system is costly and highly complex, whereas General Motor’s approach with the Vue Green Line is all about cost-effectiveness. The “bolt on” generator/motor with the integration of idle-stop gives good greenness for the buck – an estimated 20 per cent better fuel mileage than the base four-cylinder Vue.

2007 Saturn Vue Green Line (left) and 2007 Lexus RX400h
2007 Saturn Vue Green Line (left) and 2007 Lexus RX400h. Click image to enlarge

It is interesting to note the Lexus RX400h’s advantage is seen mostly in city driving (about 60 per cent better than the RX350). On the highway, the benefit is only 0.7 L/100 km.
So is it economically feasible to buy one of these SUVs just for the fuel savings? Now that both qualify for a $1,000 federal rebate and, in Ontario, a $2,000 provincial rebate, you could certainly make a case for the Vue Green Line, which comes in only $2,600 more than a comparably equipped gas model. Ontario buyers come out $400 ahead even before the gas savings.

The Lexus RX400h, which carries a $5,700 premium over the comparable RX350 Premium Package, is more of a stretch. With the two rebates and the Natural Resources Canada Fuel Consumption Guide estimated yearly fuel savings of $758, you could be seeing, er, green in less than four years.

But really, most will be going hybrid mainly to embrace their inner tree-hugger. Motor vehicles account for a small percentage of Canada’s green house gas production, so in the big picture, the Lexus RX400h and the Saturn Vue Green Line represent a very small step. But certainly, a step in the right direction.


Pricing

2007 Saturn Vue Green Line

2007 Lexus RX400h Ultra Premium


Specifications


Related stories on Autos


Manufacturer’s web site

Connect with Autos.ca