The end of the world as we know it is upon us yet again. Vehicles powered by fossil fuel are the new dinosaurs. Everyone from the research boffins to the man in the street is looking to find appropriate ways to keep mobile through the next few years of crisis. Somewhere amidst all the talk of peak oil and the panacea of nuclear-powered private vehicles, there has to be a patch of middle ground. Those who are really feeling the pressure have to be those who like to travel the length and breadth of this country, with its vast distances, rough roads and mountain passes. These are the much maligned SUV owners, the guys who reckon they can truly justify a big offroader because the vehicles should be inherently tougher and can carry more people and stuff in comfort. Trouble is, if you own an SUV, the fuel bills are now truly spiralling out of control. For a time the punters of diesel were smiling. At nearly R12 a litre the smiles have been wiped right off their faces. Petrol at over R10/litre is no picnic either, especially when you’re using a litre every four kilometers or so.
You are the guys crying out for answers. We feel your pain. Pared down to basics, there are just two answers: one, we could go in search of another planet where oil barons are tame, food is plentiful and dancing girls in skimpy outfits cater to our very need. Or, ahem, we could work clever and choose from the currently available alternatives.
Ever optimistic though, we headed for Sutherland where the search for other planets is a continuous one. We had rounded up a vehicle from each of the power camps: a Hummer H3 powered by a 180kW, 3.7 litre petrol (unleaded), weighing in at 2231kg (plus a shedload of chromed accessories); a facelifted Jeep Grand Cherokee Overland with a 160kW 3.0 litre V6 turbodiesel under the hood (good for generally available 500ppm diesel) and carrying 2135kg; and last the new green hope, a Lexus RX400H, a clever self-sustaining hybrid combining a 155kW 3.3 litre petrol V6 with a 123kW electric motor driving the front wheels and a 50kW electric engine driving the rear. All this in the most compact package in the line-up, but still tipping the scales at 2040kg.
Our test would take us a highly varied 700km route on tar from sea level at Cape Town along the N1 through to Matjiesfontein, then left on the scenic R354 to Sutherland, situated at a power-sapping 1500 metres above sea level – equivalent to much of the highveld. From there we hit the dirt and some ancient rocky passes, heading west into the Tankwa Karoo area, skirting the Springbokvlakte, before heading south on tyre-shredding shale roads towards Ceres and on to the tightly twisted Bain’s Kloof Pass.
A stringent real world test then, throwing up some real world fuel consumption figures.
PAARL TO SUTHERLAND VIA MATJIESFONTEIN
Fittingly we start this journey at a petrol station a few kilometers outside Paarl on a crisp early spring morning. The thought of three big SUVs at a fuel pump is enough to buckle any petrol card. The good news is the Lexus just needs a top-up, but the Jeep’s 80 litre tank is heading towards the red line while the Hummer’s even bigger 87 litre tank hovers around the quarter full mark. The trip hasn’t even started and I’m already worried about my card’s longevity as the Jeep swallows almost R800 in diesel and the Hummer R700 in petrol just to get all three cars started on full tanks.
It’s time to check out the RX400H, a car which Lexus is carefully marketing as a ‘Performance Hybrid’ and not necessarily a planet saver or the answer to our finite fuel woes. The sales pitch goes something like this: ‘Buy this 3.3 litre V6 and you get the performance potential of a petrol V8 with the economy of a turbodiesel. It’s the best of both worlds.’
This is what we’re about to find out. I press the ‘power’ start/stop button and there’s … silence. Instead of a rev counter, there’s a ‘power meter’ which indicates power consumption in kilowatts. I disengage the footbrake, lightly nudge the accelerator and stealthily slide out onto the N1 heading for the Huguenot Tunnel.
Press down on the accelerator and the petrol engine kicks in seamlessly, press down even harder and both engines team up to power the Lexus from 0-100km/h in a claimed time of 7.3 seconds and on to a top speed of 200km/h. We couldn’t verify it on track since our testing equipment got fried by what we suspect are the electromagnetic fields around the electric engines. It certainly felt fast enough under hard acceleration.
All of this technical wizardry is displayed on a funky and strangely addictive colour screen on the centre console, showing fuel consumption, when you’re running on electric power alone, when the petrol engine kicks in and how the battery is charged by the petrol engine (or by regenerative braking and by coasting). It also indicates when the second electric engine, the one that operates the rear wheels for the RX’s all-wheel drive, is activated. The drive through the glorious Hex River Valley is very, very Lexus. It’s refined, comfortable and even nimble, with a ride more like that of a car than an SUV. Short stints in the Jeep (wallowy ride, but what a sound system!) and the attention-getting Hummer (a veritable brick on wheels) confirms that on tar the Lexus has the opposition well and truly licked. It’s just a pity about the rather bland styling. At the historic Lord Milner Hotel in Matjiesfontein the Lexus is overlooked and it’s the outrageous Hummer and the butch Jeep that attract all the attention. And it still has to prove itself off-road, where the other two might just have the edge. Although Johnny the local tour guide, piano player and tractor driver at the Lord Milner does his best to entice us into the Laird’s Arms for a beer, we have an appointment with the stars. It’s time to turn off the N1 and head for SALT, South Africa’s large telescope perched on a flat hill just outside Sutherland. There are a lot of questions that still need answering.
SUTHERLAND TO CERES
The bling may have baffled the bemused tourists in Matjiesfontein, but I wasn’t buying into the charms of the big orange American behemoth when I got handed the keys the next morning. Up until now the Hummer had rocked and wallowed over every asphalt undulation since we left the Mother City and left each of us frustrated, aggravated and a trifle seasick from its non-stop suspension shimmy. Dynamically it’s a bit like steering the Titanic through the Thames and reacts like a rubberband to steering inputs. The Jeep isn’t much better on the black stuff, but at least its economical oil burner makes an honest argument. The Lexus however was in a one-horse race in terms of performance. Even at Sutherland’s high altitudes the hybrid excelled, offering power without the lag and economy without undue expense, along with roadholding and torsional rigidity its compatriots can only dream of.
When it came time to do a quick stocktake on the fuel situation before venturing onto the dirt, we had to crawl to Sutherland’s lone petrol station in the H3, while the others still had half a tank. We were constantly playing catch-up in the big Yank and it never felt comfortable at cruising pace on the open road. Its archaic four-speed auto constantly hunts for the right gear and after the 380km drag from Cape Town to Sutherland and a night spent pondering, ‘Is there a thirstier SUV out there?’ it was basically running on fumes. With consumption like this, no wonder America’s Iraqi invasion was paused until its fuel trucks caught up. That was of course in the original military ‘Humvee’, not the civilian H3 which GM derived by sliding the Chevy Colorado pick-up chassis under a bootylicous body double.
Compared to the original H2, the H3 is 280mm shorter in wheelbase, 76mm shorter overall, and 770kg lighter.
We were impressed with the H3’s extreme offroad credentials when we first tested it in August 2007, noting that its all-wheel drivetrain, low transfer-case gearing and lockable rear axle made quick work of any offroad obstacle we put in front of it.
But this assessment was to see how it fared traversing the long gravel tracks heading out of Sutherland towards the Ouberg Pass and the Tankwa Karoo, not climbing Kilimanjaro. I was optimistic that the big H3’s utilitarian underpinnings would give me some glimmer of hope, but this was not the case. Despite its anthill crushing ability, the Hummer chassis twists and turns like an agitated convict awaiting trail. This feedback is not as intrusive as in the Jeep, but not great nonetheless.
The Ouberg Pass was predictably but not intensely rutted and I think the Jeep’s soft suspension relayed every pebble on the road’s surface, with larger stones, deeper ruts and drainage channels sending bone jarring reverberations through the body. It’s surprising that a vehicle built to go offroad should have a softer suspension than most balloons. Even at slow speeds the suspension bottomed out over the smallest ruts and it often felt as if both front shocks were about to burst through the bonnet.
The Cape’s winter rains had transformed the stark plains of the Tankwa from a wasteland to a carpet of colourful flowers. If I was in the Lexus, I would have stopped, taken pictures and renewed my subscription to National Geographic (I did and I have.– Ed). But in the Hummer, all I wanted to do was drive straight through them, crushing every petal in my path, shouting, ‘you can’t handle the truth!’ The thing is, looking out the small rectangular windows of the Hummer, you just can’t help feel like a US Marine in Operation Desert Storm. Hoooha! The H3’s lack of grunt quickly fizzles out that Rambo fantasy, reducing Desert storm to a Karoo drizzle. The truth: the Hummer has no balls, a bit like a body builder with a high voice.
As we turned left on to the road from Calvinia to Ceres, the road surface improved to smooth, compacted gravel peppered with humps over drainage channels designed to catch out the weary explorer. The only way the Hummer could keep pace with other two was by keepin’ it buried. Over the sharp rises its long wheel travel helped launch the car in unison, and landed it firmly like a stadium truck with the minimum of unsettling squat. For this I have to give the designers their credit.
By contrast, the Lexus looks soft, but in reality was as solid off the road as it was on. Sure, it’s not designed to compete with the Discos of this world, but it’s got the best ride, the best chassis strength and highest levels of comfort of the three we tested.
It was the only vehicle whose occupants didn’t feel battle scarred when we finally reached the tar road outside Ceres.
CERES TO WELLINGTON
I must confess, I’m not a fan of dirt roads, so hitting the tar just as I wrestled back control of the Jeep was perfect timing. The Jeep’s soft suspension offered a comfy ride over most surfaces and its slow-speed, off-road traction was never in doubt. But it hadn’t coped well with some of the gravel road’s deeper ruts, bottoming out on the bump stops with alarming ease. At least three innocuous looking ruts came crashing through into the cabin, with the sort of impact that rattles your teeth. The jarring definitely did more harm to my psyche than the car, but nonetheless, it was sure to be more at home on the black stuff. No such problems for the Lexus with its firmer suspension and stiffer bodyshell, while the Hummer’s high profile off-road biased tyres absorbed absolutely everything. We stopped for a bite in Ceres, before heading on up over the Mitchell’s Pass, bypassing Wolseley to the start of the Bain’s Kloof pass. The road is extremely narrow and bumpy on the way up, with unforgiving rocks on either side that seem to close in on you like a vice. As the turns got tighter, the Jeep’s weight transfer and generous body roll became ever more noticeable. Angus B picked just the wrong moment for a power nap. If it wasn’t his head hitting the side window every few corners, then it was my constant mumbling about the Jeep’s lack of composure that kept him awake. And we were just trying to keep up. In fairness the Grand Cherokee wasn’t built as a hill-climbing rally star, but you just know that Pierre was having more fun in the Lexus. The good bits, like the exceptional 3.0 litre diesel and smooth-shifting, intelligent five-speed auto box (without doubt the best drivetrain combination of the three), were overshadowed by the car’s constant pitch, roll and dive routine. The big Jeep refused to be hustled and descending the pass’s faster, larger radius turns was hard, unrewarding work. I ended up sweating and longing for the previous day’s smooth and straight stretches of the N1 – the kind of roads where the Jeep is best enjoyed. It’s also where you can indulge in the car’s excellent MyGIG touchscreen and infotainment system featuring a 20Gigabyte hard disk drive with a jukebox function. Our press car (so it’s not showroom spec) came loaded with a few hundred songs ranging from alternative rock to music for the deeply disturbed. With a mini USB port, iPod, CD and DVD input, it’s a truly useful piece of equipment. The comprehensive standard spec list also includes heated seats in the front and rear, a reversing camera and parking sensors. All for R494000. As luxury SUVs go though, there are better cars available for similar money and trundling through Wellington after two days of travel and a night of astrological insight, I had no doubt who the real star was.
It’s a no-brainer. The Lexus would have walked this shootout even if it was the bog standard petrol version, and not the innovative and impressive hybrid we drove on this trip. It offers a level of luxury, build quality and good road manners that the two Americans can’t match. Even on the dirt, where we initially thought the ‘harder’ off-roaders would have the edge, the solid Lexus impressed. Once you add the boosted performance of the hybrid thanks to its electric engine and the better fuel economy, it really becomes a lopsided contest. For the record the Lexus averaged 11.11ℓ per 100km, the diesel Jeep 12.49ℓ and the Hummer a planet crunching 17.43ℓ. All three cars travelled exactly the same distance, and fuel consumption was measured from full tank to full tank.
Is the Lexus hybrid the answer to our fuel woes? Not by a long shot. Yes, CO2 emissions are lower but fuel consumption is on par (or just marginally better) than the diesel alternatives. You’ll also be paying a 20% premium for the hybrid compared to the petrol version. That extra R80 000 or R90 000 could buy you a lot of fuel, but then that’s not a very eco-friendly way to think about things. Instead we’ll doff our hat to Lexus and parent company Toyota for bringing this technology to the market as an interim measure while we develop an alternative fuel source … or find that fossil fuel-rich planet hiding amongst the stars.