Overland/cross country vehicle: Lexus RX400h Hybrid

mnewxcv

Observer
I've always had an interest in the overland scene, and have been a lurker on the forum for many years now. I bought a 2000 Jeep Cherokee about 6 years ago and I still have it, and it has taught me quite a bit about wrenching on your rig. That being said, it has come to the point where I would like a vehicle that does not demand me wrenching on it so frequently. :p

When searching for a vehicle, there are many things I consider. Age, reliability (brand, do an extent), fuel efficiency, utility, capability, and comfort. I have a Mustang, so 'fun to drive' is already covered. The Jeep handled utility and capability just fine, but it is not very fuel efficient (17-19MPG ish), not exceptionally reliable (little things break), and with the rough country lift, well, it is far from the most comfortable way to get from A to B.

Having owned a 1995 Lexus a few years ago, my eyes were opened to how some cars are built to last. This was a 20 year old vehicle at the time with 160k miles and was in many ways like a brand new car. My love for Lexus grew with the comfort and luxury that accompanied. I sold that car and have been on the lookout for another Lexus since.

So what was I looking for exactly? I wanted something comfortable that I could daily drive, and with that, something relatively good on gas, since I do a bit more than average miles per year. I also wanted something that could take over for the Jeep as a rough weather vehicle, something I'm not afraid to take out in a blizzard. I also wanted something big enough to fit 4 comfortably, and move some furniture now and then if I find a Craigslist bargain.

I found that the Lexus RX330 was in my price range and for the most part met my list of requirements. It wasn't spectacular on gas (22mpg highway), but then I started reading a bit more on the RX400h. The RX400h shared an engine with the RX330, a 3.3L engine also found in Camrys, Siennas, and Highlanders. Being a Lexus RX, it was based on the Toyota Highlander (specifically, RX400h =~= Highlander Hybrid), but the 400h came standard with almost all of the options available on a RX330, and got 25mpg combined fuel economy.

I set off looking for one, but most had either high miles or were too expensive, as the hybrids seem to hold their value a bit more than their gas only cousins. At this point, I was beginning to think I should start looking for something else, but then I found a 2008 RX400h at an auction near me. It had some scrapes and dents, but it was a one owner car and the mileage was around 135k, which I was happy with.

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In hopes the dents would put it in my price range, I went and bid on it, and sure enough, I got to take it home for 35% under book value.

Now as it sits, it wasn't very overland-y, but just a luxury SUV/CUV depending how you look at it. Things needed to be done to make it more capable, but first, I wanted to address maintenance. Fortunately for me, I found full records at service done at the Lexus dealer by the previous owner including:

Alignment, radiator, sway bar bushings 4k miles ago
Air filter, cabin air filter, transmission flush, rear differential flush 6k miles ago
spark plugs, brake fluid 15k miles ago
front brake pads and rotors 20k miles ago
timing belt and water pump 25k miles ago
the list goes on and on, but basically anything that could wear has been replaced.
 
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mnewxcv

Observer
So back to making it overland-y. The RX400h uses a unique all wheel drive system. It has no transfer case and no rear drive shaft. Rather, it has a CVT transmission mated to the 3.3L engine and coupled to a 123kW (165HP) electric motor up front, and a completely independent rear electric motor which produces up to 50kW (67HP). As you can imagine, without doing some very custom one off modifications, there is little that can be done to the AWD system to make it more capable. Therefore, I put my attention to the tires, which are one of the most critical components in on and off road performance, and will allow the best case scenario for the AWD system. I wanted something that would do well in the snow, and something more aggressive than the street tires it came with, so dedicated snow tires were out. I also wanted something a little taller than the stockers, since the 7.1" ground clearance left something to be desired. I decided on Cooper Discoverer AT3 4S tires, a tire Cooper released a few months ago with little information on the internet yet. However, the AT3 line has been praised up until now, so I decided to take a chance. I went ahead and bought a set of 17" wheels off craigslist and ordered the Coopers, 29.2" diameter, 1" larger than stock, gaining 0.5" of ground clearance.

Before:

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After:

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The wheels aren't the prettiest, but that's a project for another day. The tires look and feel great. I can't wait to get them off the pavement to see how they perform. I did get a chance to try out the AWD system in the snow before putting the new tires on. The traction control kicked on frequently, but if it weren't for the traction light practically strobing on the dash and the sound of ABS slowing certain wheels, I wouldn't have known it was intervening. I put my foot on the gas, and the car just went. I know the new tires will make a huge difference, but I am glad to know the traction control and AWD system work well at figuring out what to do.

So what's next? My big goal would be to take this vehicle on a trip from MA to CA in the next year, and making all the stops in between. I want something that I can confidentially take down some fire roads and off the path camp sites. The space inside is plenty big for me to sleep in, so I would like to pick up a mattress topper and see how that works out in terms of a sleeping situation. Side note: another thing that crossed my mind as I was buying this vehicle was that as a hybrid, I can leave the ignition on for long periods of time without using much gas. At rest, the gas engine will only come on to power air conditioning, warm up, or recharge the hybrid battery. That means if I am in a situation where I want to leave the car on for climate control or to power/charge electronics, I can do so without using much fuel. It seems the car runs about 5 minutes per half hour to recharge the battery/produce heat.

Most of what I want to do involves making the interior a more functional living space. It is already as comfortable driving as I ever want it to be. I am also looking into lifting it slightly, in the form of strut spacers, which can be had anywhere from 3/4" to 1.5". The next thing is figuring out sleep and gear storage. Stay tuned, and I welcome any suggestions!
 
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With the type of off roading you're planning on doing I wouldn't focus too much on lifts. Just track out your trail with care and don't be afraid to not pursue a sketchy looking road. I took my 2005 Ford Escape Hybrid AWD down a trail it certainly shouldn't have gone but with slow speed and careful driving it had no issues. I should mention I did not mean to take it down such a rough trail, the national forest we were in didn't specify that the trail was meant for UTVs.

As for the interior mods it depends on how often you want to go overlanding. I'd suggest making a bed platform out of wood that can go in when you want to hit the trails and have it left out when you're using it for daily life. A portable CB or Ham that can be tucked away is also a nice thing to keep on hand too
 

mnewxcv

Observer
With the type of off roading you're planning on doing I wouldn't focus too much on lifts. Just track out your trail with care and don't be afraid to not pursue a sketchy looking road. I took my 2005 Ford Escape Hybrid AWD down a trail it certainly shouldn't have gone but with slow speed and careful driving it had no issues. I should mention I did not mean to take it down such a rough trail, the national forest we were in didn't specify that the trail was meant for UTVs.

As for the interior mods it depends on how often you want to go overlanding. I'd suggest making a bed platform out of wood that can go in when you want to hit the trails and have it left out when you're using it for daily life. A portable CB or Ham that can be tucked away is also a nice thing to keep on hand too
I'm thinking of just getting a memory foam mattress topper like some others have done, maybe one of the 3 or 4 inch ones, and laying it over the folded rear seats. I also have a 12v TEC cooler (chills and heats). The only reason I would want to go with a lift is to get over 8" of ground clearance. I would be looking at the .75" spacers which would put me right over 8.25", and they're only $120 for a kit. It is more a preparation thing than anything, as I don't want to get halfway across the country and in the middle of nowhere to find myself needing that little extra.

In terms of overlanding frequency, right now I am wanting to get ready for a few week long road trip in early 2019. Beyond that, we will see. I am not trying to make the vehicle any less of a vehicle than it is now, as in, I don't want to remove the rear seats and put in a permanent sleeping platform. I will definitely be shopping for a CB, or if I have time to take classes/certification, I would consider a HAM.
 

4xdog

Explorer
I've had a 2008 RX350 (AWD) since new. It's been a terrific car. I wouldn't hesitate to go car camping in it, and for simple dirt roads to a campsite it would do fine.

 

mnewxcv

Observer
One thing I really like about the vehicle is the storage. It isn't a particular big vehicle, but it has a large center console, door pockets on both front doors (big enough for me to keep my netbook with charger at all times), and in the hatch area, there is in floor storage.

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I have started putting some recovery gear in there, including a tow strap, some no name sand/snow tracks, a small spade shovel, a tow ball, air compressor, 120w power inverter and still plenty of room for more.

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And if you noticed that cable plugging into the rear 12V outlet, that is going to my backseat cooler with cold and hot functions.

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Lastly, I have the recovery hitch installed, a harbor freight special I hope I don't have to use, but would be foolish to not have.

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mnewxcv

Observer
If you recall (and you should, we're still on the first page), the aftermarket wheels I got were in pretty rough shape.

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I decided to sand down all the clearcoat failure down to the aluminum and then shine it up. My regret was almost instant, as the amount of time it has taken me to get this far on one wheel shocked me:

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An optimist might say I'm almost halfway done. I'm not feeling so optimistic.
 
Try some buffing compound on an orbital polisher. Makes quicker work of projects like shining up wheels. Or give up and paint them :) Benefits of having an older truck is I don't feel bad that my rims look bad
 

borison

Adventurer
The wheels cleaned up nice, but maybe just scuff em and spray your choice of rattle can. I like where you’re headed with this build. Good luck, I’ll keep an eye on it.
 

mnewxcv

Observer
thanks guys! I may end up spraying them gunmetal. I will see how the first wheel finishes up and make my decision after that. Kind of odd to spend so much time on something cosmetic, at least on this forum, but here is an untouched wheel and then the first wheel sanded up to 320 grit. I need to get some 500 grit paper tomorrow to finish it.

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want to get these done this weekend and then get back to outfitting with essentials.
 

mnewxcv

Observer
Hey all, been a bit since I've checked in. Not much of an update but I *did* finally get the wheels on!

About a month back, some time in early december as the temps started to drop, the car almost left me stranded. It had done this behavior once or twice before, in that I would drive somewhere and park (grocery store run for instance), and when I came back to the car, it wouldn't start. I realized that despite my gauges and lights all working, the 12v battery was not providing enough power to enable the electronics which use the hybrid motor to turn over the gas engine (the 12v battery does not turn over the engine, but needs high enough voltage to operate the electronics). This was partly due to the fact that the headlights stay on once you park and lock the car for about 30 seconds, or longer if you stay in the car before getting out and locking it. However, I shouldn't need to rush to turn the lights off in normal conditions. The last time this happened I got in to turn the car on and it wouldn't. The lights worked but not much else. The power telescoping steering wheel didn't move to it's normal position. I was on a residential street this time but it was late at night and it looked like it was going to need a jump start. I ended up finding a good Samaritan who was willing to help me out, but for the hell of it I tried once more to start the car before hooking up the cables. It fired up this time and I was on my way home.

That being said, a battery is cheap insurance and often times cheaper than a tow, and the logical thing was to replace the 12v battery. The 400h is equipped with a small 12v battery since, as I said, it isn't actually used to turn over the engine, just to power the electronics at startup. The Lexus branded one in there was rated for 450CCA, but testing it showed it was only good for about 250 amps. I assume the voltage drop was pretty immediate as well once you put a load on it (like leaving the headlights on). I looked into getting a bigger one in there but there isn't a whole lot of room under the hood to stuff one, and I didn't want to modify anything that could not be returned to stock. I ended up deciding on getting an Everstart Maxx battery from Walmart. It had a 3 year free replacement warranty and was prorated for 5 years, rated for 500CCA instead of 450, and I figure if it ever goes bad, I can almost always find a Walmart not too far away. Since replacement, I have had 2500 trouble free miles through December and January.

The whole time since owning the car and knowing the size of the battery got me looking into those portable jump starters you see on amazon though. Now THAT seems like cheap insurance. I was looking through reviews and options last week and stumbled upon a clearance one at Walmart (you'd think they'd sponsor me at this point!).

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It is a stanley and was on clearance, my store had it for $10, marked down from $60. I picked up 3 for the various vehicles in the family. If you are interested in one, you can check inventory here: https://brickseek.com/walmart-inventory-checker?sku=440765467 Be aware inventory and pricing is not guaranteed. However, it is listed as a 8000mAh unit, but the specs are actually 2500mAh. Big difference if you want to use this to charge devices, but still a fine tool for me to keep around just in case. It provides up to 300A of starting power, so in a pinch it should get the job done.

beyond that, I learned something neat about the vehicle. I had no idea until a couple weeks ago that the rear seats recline. I learned this accidentally when trying to fold down the seats to get a water heater in the back, and it reclined back about 15 degrees.

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After discovering this, I flipped through the manual to see if I was missing anything else, and found this neat feature:

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So I can comfortably recline in the back seat and stretch my legs forward across the back of the front seat! I had to try it out, and it was great!

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I can actually lay down relatively flat between the rear seat and the dashboard too, so perhaps I do not need another sleeping solution. I will have to try it out soon. It is just enough space for someone my height (5'8") to do this.

As for the wheels, I spent so much time trying to get them to polish up nice, but I could still see sanding marks and it was driving me crazy, so I said screw it and decided to paint them. I went with Duplicolor wheel coating in Graphite grey for the wheel faces, masked off the spokes which were already silver, and painted the center caps with Duplicolor plastic/bumper coating in dark grey/charcoal. I think it looks decent and I can finally call that part of the project done!

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Thanks for checking out the build, stay tuned for more!
 

mnewxcv

Observer
Today was a day to catch up on some maintenance. She was due for an oil change and I decided to go with the best:

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OK, technically they also make an annual performance 20k mile oil, but this should do fine since I will likely change it at 7500 miles first time around.

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I managed to break one of the bolts holding on the front splash shield when I removed it to access the oil filter. I was already missing one, so I went to home depot and got a 2 pack of zinc coated bolts to replace the broken/missing ones.

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lastly, I captured some of the old oil so I can do an oil analysis to see if there are any contaminants, and if I should reduce or extend my oil change interval.
 

Docmac

New member
This is a great read so far.
I'm in a similar scenario as you with an LX470 slightly modified and ab to click over 200k. I need a daily driver for my commute 60 mi x 4 days a week. But want to dual.purpose my commuter as a road trip car camping machine.
For the same reasons you describe I'm leaning toward a Toyota hybrid. The appeal.of having AC and heat will really extend the camping season for my 7yo son and I to do more hiking and camping. The RX450h or Rav4 hybrid are on my radar. Initially I was tempted to go with a Prius V but the low ground clearance has me worried... I looked under a prius V and the 5.9 inches of clearance and sensitive parts too easy to bash into a tree branch or rocks. And to a lesser extent the lack of AWD, but my understanding is that toyota hybrid AWD is a bit of a farce relative to Toyotas typical 4wd and honestly it seems that the world of AWD on unibody toyotas seems to be lacking when compared to subarus and, less so, Hondas AWD. And the hybrid RW electric motor even less effective. It just doesn't seem.to be very well executed with the rear electric motor with such limited power and no power sharing differential to limit slippage between the back wheels, sounds like basically an open diff and no trac system to effectively limit wheel spin to redirect the power to the wheel with traction. It's too bad, but still it is likely better than FWD only... sometimes all you need is that little nudge to get the driving wheels onto that bit of grip to pull you through.

I'm not very familiar with the 3.3 or the 3.5 v6 engines. Are they about the same reliability between the two engine series? Any.pointers when looking at the various model years of the RX hybrid? I'm aiming for the most recent and/or lowest miles for $12-15k, ideally toward the low end. I'm hoping I can find one under 100k and 8 years so.it will still.have the hybrid system warranty in case the battery or genset have issues. Hybrids are very new to me, makes and a little nervous not being able.to diagnosed and fix potential.problems without paying someone.
Good luck with build. Keep the reports coming, I think I'll be treading the same.path in the next few weeks.
RE: tires, I recently installed Cooper AT3 XLT 285/75 on my LX. I've really been pleased so far. They've done extremely well in the recent hurricane and stormy downpours, recent snow storm, and general daily commutes. Of course as the tire wears and the softer outter compound gives way to the denser/harder inner layers the tires characteristics will likely change. How else can they put up a 60k mile warranty AND have great attributes... like Blizzak tires that are great snow tires until 50% tread is gone, then you basically have all season tires.
Why 17" rims? I would think 16" rims would alow for more rubber, better to air down when needed, better ride compliance over all for the gravel and dirt?
 
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