Burn baby burn – Telegraph

3 May 2015 | Author: | Comments Off on Burn baby burn – Telegraph
Lexus RX400h

Burn baby burn

Psst, wanna burn a Hummer? Radical and extreme, yes, but for some American environmental activists it is the ultimate statement, worth risking jail for. Why?

They say it’s because burning fossil fuels creates carbon dioxide (CO2) and transport is one of the fastest-growing man-made sources of that greenhouse gas. Urban 4x4s, or Sport Utility Vehicles (SUVs), with their drag-inducing coachwork, heavy four-wheel-drive systems and huge engines, are the tall poppies on a profligate waste mountain and the epitome of a sod-you attitude among developed nations towards global warming. So, burn too much gas and we’ll burn your car.

Two years ago, extreme environmentalists went on the rampage in the spiritual home of the urban SUV, southern California, where even the governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, drives a full-sized Hummer H1. Activists torched 40 Hummer H2s and moved the phrase Hummer burning into the lexicon of modern America as a euphemism for extreme environmental protest – an organisation called the Earth Liberation Front later claimed responsibility. Sporadic SUV-burning incidents have continued since.

So has the Earth breathed a sigh of relief? Er, not really. Hummer sales are largely unaffected, and as for the atmospheric effect of setting 40 Hummers on fire.

Burning a car creates a pretty nasty cocktail of chemicals, says Dr Richard Hull of Bolton University’s Fire Materials Laboratory. There’s carbon monoxide and you get hydrogen cyanides from the seat foam, probably chlorides from the PVC as well. And there’s some German work, where they set light to a brand-new VW Camper and measured the gases coming off, which suggests there’ll be a fair amount of dioxins, too.

As for the contribution to global warming, for each tonne of carbon-based organic material you’ll get about three-and-a-half times the amount of carbon dioxide. So if a big SUV contains, say, half a tonne of organic material, you’re looking at about one-and-a-half tonnes of carbon dioxide.

In other words, the Earth Liberation Front created, along with cocktails of poisonous chemicals, about 60 tonnes of global-warming carbon dioxide – or the equivalent of driving every one of those vehicles more than 2,500 miles. Hummers, whether they are being burned or driven, are not terrifically good for the environment.

British environmentalists appear to be less extreme. Two weeks ago, 30 members of Greenpeace handcuffed themselves to unfinished vehicles on Land Rover’s Solihull production line. When the police had unshackled the ringleaders, Land Rover directors invited them up to the boardroom for tea and a digestive biscuit to discuss the matter.

We’ve taken direct action to stop Land Rover making these gas-guzzling urban 4x4s, said Greenpeace executive director and former Labour government adviser Stephen Tindale. His organisation claims: While Land Rover’s parent company, Ford, is losing money in America making gas-guzzling urban 4x4s, Asian companies are thriving on making fuel-efficient vehicles.

Is that what you told Tony Blair, Mr Tindale? Because it isn’t actually true. Toyota and Nissan built their reputations with big 4x4s such as the Landcruiser and Patrol, and both companies are now making their own big urban SUVs in America, while Honda is making its gargantuan Ridgeline leisure pick-up truck in Canada.

All the Asian car makers are doing very nicely with their 4×4 sport utilities in Europe as well, and in less than two years Nissan will be offering no fewer than seven 4×4 SUVs to the British public. In the world of who’s doing what for the environment, nothing is what it seems.

It would be interesting to see what Greenpeace makes of the new vehicle you see here, the RX400h, sold under Toyota’s luxury Lexus brand. Powered by Toyota’s innovative hybrid petrol/electric driveline, which first saw service in the Prius, the RX400h is a two-tonne, high-riding, four-wheel-drive vehicle capable of 124mph and 0-62mph in 7.6 seconds. Yet it will also deliver an average of 35mpg in the Combined EU cycle, against its competitors’ equivalents of 15-20mpg.

So, it’s the sports ute that will save the world. Or is it?

The Lexus RX is a classic American urban SUV. It’s expensive, with the rugged looks, all-wheel drive and tall stance favoured by affluent Californians, but with little off-road ability. The basic RX300 version has a 3.0-litre V6 petrol engine, which emits 288 grammes of CO2 per kilometre.

This RX400h hybrid version is almost identical in appearance, but is faster, heavier and emits just 192g/km of CO2. Given an annual mileage of, say, 10,000, the hybrid version of the RX will save about three quarters of a tonne of CO2, which is equivalent to that produced annually by the normal metabolism of four adults, or by one man cycling 27,000 miles, and rather less than was contributed by each journalist in the flying, driving and eating involved in the Athens launch of the RX400h last week.

Still, three quarters of a tonne is a contribution and you will be hearing a fair bit about this hybrid SUV in the coming months. Most journalists on the launch wanted to get London mayor and noted Hummer-hater Ken Livingstone into the driving seat. Not that Livingstone is stupid enough to be angled into the RX400h, especially as his favoured form of transport, the London taxi, is a lot less environmental, producing 243g/km of CO2.

Nevertheless, if he did find himself in the cabin with a hostile hack, he might be moved to point out that, given the car’s weight of more than two tonnes, its environmental credentials will make little difference if it runs you over.

He might also reasonably ask whether it needed to be quite so fast. In America, the Lexus is being sold as a vehicle that gives V8 power with the economy of a V6. This is a message that will have more redolence over there, where there is already an 18,000-strong waiting list.

In Europe, buyers tend to buy SUVs with a big diesel instead, although large, petrol-engined models do have a certain damn-the-torpedoes cachet, as if their owners are saying: I can afford not to care.

There’s also a slight problem with the figures. Toyota’s hybrid system is most economical while shunting around urban areas, where it is able to store and reuse the energy created by braking. On a straight, long run, the Toyota Prius drinks a good deal more fuel than its quoted EU Combined figure of 65.7mpg – nearer to 45mpg, in fact. There is no reason to think the Lexus will be any different and long-run consumption in the mid to high 20s is a distinct possibility.

This really is an SUV designed specifically for urban areas.

It’s also tiny inside. While there’s plenty of room in the front seats and lots of storage spaces, in the back the batteries and their cooling systems are arranged in panels under the rear seats, which raises the cushion height and reduces headroom. The boot floor is very high to clear the rear electric motor and differential, so your flunkies will be struggling to load the bags of JP Tod, Valentino and Guess into the back when you are double-parked on Rodeo Drive.

It is beautifully made and attractive, with well-chosen materials and a clever design that in places echoes that of the BMW 7-series. The driving position is pretty unbeatable, the seats supportive and comfortable and the facia conveys vital information concisely and attractively. The centre console has a large display for navigation, which doubles as an active diagram showing where power is being made and what the on-board computer has decided to do with it.

This is undoubtedly a clever vehicle and, with split-second decisions needing to be made on the most economical use of the two electric motors and the petrol engine, the on-board computer is huge. Basically, the petrol engine and the bigger of the two electric motors drive the front wheels via an epicyclic gearbox, independently or together depending on how much performance is needed.

A separate generator charges the battery pack when required, driven either by the petrol engine, whose power can be split and diverted by the transmission, or over-run braking. The rear electric motor acts independently of the front power units and is activated when the computer detects wheel slip.

In practice, you don’t need to know any of this, or about the motor speed-reduction characteristics of the planetary gears. You just climb in, select drive and press the throttle. Press gently and, if the batteries are sufficiently charged, the engine won’t even start – the Lexus will glide soundlessly around the car park, creeping up on pedestrians without warning.

Press harder and the engine starts and the Lexus will leap forward. Ask for full power and the engine revs frantically, with the rubber-band gearing feel of the old Variomatic Dafs. In normal driving conditions, however, the engine mostly follows the action of the throttle, so the Lexus feels like a conventional, automatic SUV.

It’s fast, of course, but the abiding impression is of refinement. At speed, the driveline is virtually soundless; just a rustle of wind around the top of the screen betrays the fact that your speed is in excess of three figures. The ride is superb, stable and comfortable. The handling is not quite such a success, however.

This is mainly to do with the steering, which is wildly affected by the electric motor’s torque; it goes light and squirrelly just when you want absolute control. The steering weight goes awol when loaded up in corners, too, with drive disconcertingly switching between the two front wheels – it feels horrible.

The brakes aren’t up to much, either, even though the Lexus boasts an electronic by-wire braking system that calculates the amount of effort required at each wheel. The effort it puts in never feels quite enough to stop you, so you push some more and then the nose dips and all the passengers are thrown against their belts. For a company the size of Toyota (rumoured to be soon taking over from GM as the world’s largest car maker), the steering and brakes feel woefully under-developed.

Like most SUVs, the Lexus is a complete exercise in style over function, doing nothing particularly well, but unlike most it is also completely uninspiring to drive. I’ve had to refer to my notes for this test, because apart from the two things that were wrong with it, there is so little character and soul in the car that it’s like wallpaper on wheels. That might not overly worry its owners, who, if the Lexus Magazine is any guide, seem more preoccupied with golf than global warming.

Lexus RX400h

The fact is that this hybrid Lexus is going to be a talking point for the fuel it doesn’t use rather than the driving experience it doesn’t offer. Toyota is playing a long and clever game with its hybrid technology. It has cost huge amounts to develop and hardly makes a return for the company, which is why it is being used in expensive cars such as the Lexus, where it commands a hefty premium.

So when you see a venal politician or a smirking, supposedly eco-conscious starlet behind the wheel of the RX400h, it’s perhaps worth remembering that the money to develop this car came from the squillions of ordinary Toyota Corollas and Camrys that are not only highly profitable, but also, by force of numbers, having a bigger effect on the environment than the world’s combined total of SUVs, including Hummers.

In fact, with prices starting at £35,500, the hybrid Lexus is token environmentalism for rich bastards; its CO2 emissions don’t even qualify it for a reduction in vehicle excise duty.

As for Greenpeace, it’s walking the dangerous plank of using the end to justify the means, so making untruthful statements and singling out Land Rover and British jobs are seen as expedient ways of getting the environmental message across. It’s a rotten strategy, and Greenpeace deserves to be pilloried for it. Besides, we are likely to see an extra tax on big, heavy cars within the next few years anyway, which few could argue against.

In the meantime, if you really want to make a difference to the environment, go and buy a bicycle and a diesel-powered Skoda Octavia estate and keep it parked as much as you can.

Perhaps the biggest irony is that the only thing that distinguishes the RX400h from its gas-guzzling RX300 sister is a discreet boot badge, which will be invisible to the frenzied Hummer-burning mob when it chances upon your Lexus late one scary night in the car park. The current advice to the American fire service is that, when burned, the nickel metal hydride batteries in eco-friendly hybrid cars create potassium hydroxide, which reacts vigorously with certain metals and organic compounds to create hydrogen. Any student of history will tell you that fire and hydrogen are an excitable mix, so excitable that they might take you, your car and the eco-activists off to a place far hotter than anything threatened by global warming.

Me? I’ll stick to writing inflammatory things about environmentalists: it’s so much cleaner.

Lexus RX400h [tech/spec]

Price/availability: £35,485-£44,350. On sale June 15.

Engine/transmission: 3,311cc V6 petrol with DOHC per bank, four valves per cylinder and variable valve timing; 208bhp at 5,600rpm and 212lb ft of torque at 4,400rpm. Front 650-volt electric motor; 165bhp from 4,100-5,000rpm, 250lb ft from 0-2,000rpm. Rear 650-volt electric motor: 66bhp from 4,610-5,120rpm, 96lb ft from 0-610rpm.

Four-wheel drive with petrol and electric power to the front wheels via epicyclic transmission and single electric motor power to the rear wheels.

Performance: top speed 124mph, 0-62mph in 7.6sec, EU Urban fuel consumption 31mpg, CO2 emissions 192g/km.

We like Relatively good economy, refinement.

We don’t like Dreadful steering, lack of interior space, bland appearance, environmental tokenism. It’s another SUV.

Alternatives BMW X5 4.4i SE, £48,110. Land Rover Discovery 4.4 V8 S, £37,995. Mercedes-Benz ML 500, £45,295. Porsche Cayenne 4.5 V8S, £43,540. Volkswagen Touareg 4.2 V8 SE, £44,255.

Volvo XC90T6S, £34,515.

Lexus RX400h
Lexus RX400h
Lexus RX400h
Lexus RX400h
Lexus RX400h
Lexus RX400h
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