Hybrid Mega Test Part One: Lexus vs Honda vs Subaru vs Toyota

Hybrid mega-test - Lexus, Subaru, Honda and RAV4

RAV4 is really fast when needed (picture not indicative!)

Is it a midsize class SUV where petrol-electric technology finally beats diesel? We pit four hybrid rivals against each other and then throw in a diesel for good measure

Some ideas take time to arrive. In 1966, the Jensen FF was the first car to use four-wheel drive, but it wasn't until Audi, Porsche and Lancia hung their heads nearly two decades later that the industry's speed suppliers began to take two-wheel drive seriously. It was a similar story with turbines for stop-start technology.

Now it may be the turn of a hybrid powertrain - in particular, a mixture of plugless gasoline and electricity. When Toyota introduced the world's first mass-produced hybrid car in 1997, they hardly imagined that 23 years and still no vehicle class would be required to force the technology into the mainstream. The engineering for the Prius was so complex that it took seven weeks to get the original prototype moving - and then only for a few hundred meters. Two years later, however, the car was in the hands of the public and returned to roughly double the fuel economy of a modern Corolla. At this moment, and rightly so, all the participants must have been believed, there would be no looking back.

But how many hybrid cars have you owned? Quite probably not, although it seems absurd to claim that hybrid technology is not yet mainstream. More than six million examples of Prius alone have been sold since 1997, and today almost every major automaker offers some variation of the hybrid powertrain, from Suzuki to Ferrari.

Broader sales figures tell a different story, of course, that widespread adoption is slow. Last year, less than one in 10 cars sold in the UK used any form of electric assistance. And while billboards across the country are now saturated with ads for self-charging cars, it has more to do with an industry desperate to sell technology and avoid CO2-compliant fines than relying on any pre-existing appetite.

Which brings us to Longcross tickets at the test site in Surrey and four medium-sized diesel-electric SUVs. Japanese, specifically, hence the angry creases and unexpected twists packed into the trail a little shorter (but wider) than the latest BMW 3 Series.

We put these four together to acknowledge the fact that, as a result of Dieselgate, the hybrid may soon overtake diesel as the standard powertrain in this top-selling class. And given this is a class that diesel has dominated so far, that will really be a game-changer. It can be said that hybrid technologies have been duly arrived. So what we're about to discover is in three parts: which offers the best all-inclusive, how does each stack in terms of cost of ownership, and is it worth passing as a compelling family car?

Our rivals are Toyota, Subaru, Lexus and Honda, although this is not the full cast. Mitsubishi is building a plug-in hybrid Outlander and Nissan is finally hybridizing the next-generation small Qashqai, which will arrive next year. The Europeans were noticeably going too far. Citroen only recently launched a plug-in hybrid C5 on sale and Peugeot will introduce the 5008 to the Russian car market this year, and premium brands have also taken their time – not that an Audi Q5 hybrid or an electrified Macan would ever need to compete. with Subaru and Co. in terms of cost. Ultimately, for those who want to buy now at a reasonable price, a car before your main post-diesel options.

Going in chronological order, you'd never guess the Lexus, seen here in F Sport guise and therefore equipped with springy suspension, is by far the oldest of our four, at the age of six. The origami design means it's still superficially desirable (or polarized), but at £42,500 it probably should be. That asking price means it costs about £4000 more than Subaru and Honda and £5000 more than Toyota. In other words, for the same cost you could put our top-producer RAV4 on a drive with enough free change over 42000 miles unleaded, to match the 48mpg WLTM economy figure, which is easily the best of our group.

In truth, price is the least of Lexus's concerns. The NX has always been a compromised car, not only because its low-speed ride often feels fragile enough to undermine coupe-like feelings in the cabin atmosphere. The once cutting-edge but now limp-feeling drivetrain is a 2,5-litre Atkinson-cycle gasoline engine working in tandem with an electric motor via a CVT, with an additional and completely separate electric motor driving the rear wheels – also at times an example of dissonance we came to dislike about hybrid technology. That is to say, the speed of the engine bearing is irrelevant to what is happening at road level, but the crankshaft revolutions are kept at optimal efficiency by the CVT, which regulates the speed of the wheel. I admit that amateurs feel this more keenly than most, and the average NX owner rarely uses more than half-throttle - that's the point after which undesirable effects become most noticeable - but the engine clearly strains at high revs and barely whispers 'premium'.

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In this company, it gets worse for the poor old Lexus, although the deeply bolstered seats are the most comfortable and the cabin is not only expensively upholstered, but solidly built – typical Lexus strengths. Aside from drivetrain aging, the next issue is space, or lack of it. As with Honda and Toyota, the rear seats recline, but the trunk is small and glossy high. In terms of performance, its 475 liters play 497 for the Honda, 520 for the Subaru and the deep but shallow 580 liters for the Toyota. Factor in the least understood infotainment system in an already weak field and mediocre fuel economy (more on that in a moment), and the Lexus seems to be a genuine case of style over substance. Today, a prospective hybrid crossover buyer can even sample the NX and conclude that based on its most attractive and expensive member, nothing else in this niche class would be worth considering.

But it only takes a few minutes behind the wheel of the SG-V hybrid to appreciate just how big of a mistake that would be. The fifth generation of the world's best-selling crossover is the first in its lineup to feature a hybrid powertrain, and the car feels right for it. Compared to the layout in the Lexus, Honda's 2.0-liter VTEC petrol engine, which is not directly coupled, is upstream of 181bhp electric drive and is primarily tasked with feeding the car's motor-generator, which in turn charges a small lithium-ion battery. Sounds like a tough decision, but the result is a surprisingly natural driving experience enhanced by the soothing atmosphere of the spacious cabin.

Honda uses a single-speed transmission, so you get a good dose of EV-style responsiveness at low speeds, most of the time without any combustion activity at all. Ask for extra power and the system stays meek, resisting any intrusive engine fireup better than any other car. At high speeds, the then lockable clutch allows the motor to drive the wheels straight, but again it looks decently natural, and paddles can be used at all times to usefully vary the level of regenerative braking.

Overall, it's the normality of the SG-V that makes it such a strong proposition. You do not notice its objective flaws, because for the terrible touch screen, it is so small. Inside, there's not a big tug or serious, top-down driving position recognizable from the biggest SUVs (the RAV4 model offers both), but the quality is high, the ergonomics are generous, the trail neat and the rolling refinement is excellent. You were to test blindfolded passengers with a driver in an SG-V then in, say, an Audi A4, they would struggle to notice the difference.

The Forester beats in different tones. It's typically rugged, full-time four-wheel-drive power Subaru denied perhaps the most natural powertrain pairing since the brand behind its 2.0-liter diesel boxer engine two years ago. What we have instead is the most timid – but also the lightest – hybrid application in the group, with a 16bhp electric motor running alongside a naturally aspirated flat-four 148bhp petrol. But despite welcome injection of electric torque for first throttle response, it's a slow car, and if the turbocharged Forester STI was emailed, fired from here to there in a jiffy, its hybrid successor was delivered by bike. Fast racing proves so much, pushing the RAV4 into the CR-V with uncommon ease, with the Lexus car length behind the Honda to 60 mph and straining the Subaru at a far pace. The 'e-boxer' Forester is also unable to glide in EV mode at low speeds and remains prone to revving.

However, it fights back with surprisingly well-appointed cabins, acres of space inside and an eye-catching dose of good old-fashioned utility. Due to its smaller battery, how the battery is positioned and how the CVT has been repurposed, its braked-trailer capacity of 1870kg easily improves on that of Toyota (1650kg), Lexus (1500kg) and Honda, whose 750kg potential would immediately take it out of service. Admittedly, these hybrids still fail to match most diesel options, but the Subaru is the closest and most natural off-roader, with the highest ground clearance and well-thought-out off-road ESP mods, although the Toyota is also impressive in this regard.

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And it's Toyota that, in the eyes of car readers, isn't the thing for a hybrid crossover to call, at least at first. The tough design brings some of the toughness owners in the US are now associated with the brand, thanks to models such as the Tacoma pickup. The interior has a sporty look with genuine machine parts designed to move around wearing work gloves - rubber-rimmed rotating dials for ventilation, chunky toggle switches for heaters - and there's a rich selection of electrical ports. The boot floor can also be flipped over for a windshield wiper and plastic surfaces, and if the sometimes hard plastic panels, the overall cabin feels solidly put together for a good price.

Under the skin, the latest RAV4 has also improved significantly. Its new platform is said to be half as rigid as the old iron, and it has increased ground clearance but a low center of gravity. In terms of architecture, the powertrain is recognizable as that of its corporate Lexus cousin, although fundamentally it is a later iteration and uses nickel-metal hydride batteries for better cold weather performance. With over 220 horsepower when both the electric motor and the 2,5-liter engine work together, the RAV4 can also feel amazingly fast, and as with other cars that use this latest Toyota hybrid setup (particularly the Corolla), there's a lot more linear in power. This is a much more complete product than the previous generation.

But it's just not as complete as the Honda. Engine grunts when cold and rough, while Honda's VTECs can go in and out of operation with barely a ripple at times, the larger RAV4 unit is much sharper to make itself famous. On the contrary, Toyota's body floats less at speed, it has more intuitive brakes for easier parking and maneuvering for balance is probably more fun to steer. Its ride is lacking in the CR-V Polish, although road injuries are more conscientiously bubble down to the seats and steering wheel, but not to the same extent that they do in the Lexus.

However, in this class so much comes down to cost of ownership, so it's important to note that both the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V are available in front- and all-wheel drive forms. In their entry-level trims, which are still decently equipped, both cars drop in the shade of over £30,000, making the pair not only comfortably the best all-rounders in this test, but also potentially the most affordable. For now, RAV4 also gets extra points for its 131g/km CO2 WLTP rating, which is an exceptional figure for such a significant beast and makes it an outstanding option if you want to run one of these as a car company.

As for fuel economy, during an impromptu test - 15 miles in a column on an outdoor track in Longcross tickets, traveling between 30 mph and 70 mph - and in part contradiction to official figures, the Honda comes out on top, recording strong 51.9 mpg, despite driving our trains out of cars and paying a small aerodynamic penalty for the privilege. Toyota comes in second with 46,5 mpg, and Forester and NX do poorly, struggling to get close to 40mpg despite all cars starting the test with batteries half full. The difference between the haves and have-nots could hardly be more obvious.

So, as far as hybrids go, progress for as long as you look in the right places. Lexus rightly considers the obsolete and curious Subaru to be underdeveloped, however Toyota and Honda seem to have really turned the corner in terms of real economy and simple handling, and Honda builds on that satisfyingly accommodating ride. The CR-V has and therefore wins, with the spacious and more strong-willed RAV4 in second place. The only thing that remains to be seen is whether one of the best diesel alternatives can be beaten in a shootout.

Read more... hybrid mega-test part two: is it better to do diesel here? to find out.

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