Increasingly strict NOx emissions standards will make diesel cars more expensive and hybrids more attractive, a senior official at Toyota’s luxury vehicle division Lexus told deputy editor Graeme Roberts.

All car manufacturers will have some form of hybrid very soon or are planning something,” said Karl Schlicht, vice president of Lexus Europe, as the automaker launched the hybrid RX400h luxury SUV to European journalists.

“I think it’s fair to say that Lexus’s dedication to hybrid technology and our early success have surprised some of the established manufacturers. It is evident that when NOx standards start to bite, diesels will become more expensive and hybrids even more attractive.

“The NOx issue has been avoided in Europe and this needs to change. There is a reason why, in other markets, such as North America and Japan, NOx standards are stricter than in Europe. Level the standards for particulate emissions globally and hybrids become very attractive. Add the performance dimension offered by the RX 400h and the proposition becomes even more interesting,” he added.

“When you consider global economies of scale, this again tilts the balance towards hybrids. Simplify the standards and take NOx into account, then let the consumer decide.

“Hybrids will represent a core technological advantage for Lexus.”

The RX400h went on sale in the US last month – with 18,000 confirmed orders already on hand – and reaches dealers in the UK, Lexus Europe’s largest single market, in June. Already, without any promotion other than word of mouth, deposits have been taken from “over 1,000” retail customers and Lexus UK sees no problem reaching its target of 1,625 units in 2005.

“We’re already looking at a waiting list of six months in the UK,” another Lexus official told just-auto, adding that high demand in other European markets has already resulted in projected delivery dates extending into 2006. Although some petrol-powered RXs are made in Canada, all hybrid models come only from Kyushu in Japan.

Across Europe, Lexus expects the 400h to account for 4,000 of this year’s 14,000 total RX SUV model line sales, rising to half of the 16,000 it expects to sell in 2006.

In the UK, the majority of the current RX’s 11,460 sales since launch in April 2003 have been to private buyers rather than ‘corporate’ purchasers (mostly small business owners and professional people rather than large fleets). This is due to the lack of fuel-efficient diesel models, as offered by the perceived rivals such as BMW’s X5, Mercedes’ ML-class and VW’s Touareg. Reflecting European taxation laws, and the high cost of petrol, the RX has so far been offered here only with a three-litre petrol V6, (rather than the newer 3.3-litre unit fitted in many other markets).

The hybrid-powered model will attract competitive benefit-in-kind taxation rates for British drivers running the SUV on their company’s nickel and Lexus GB expects that 65% will be bought by ‘corporate’ customers. It is after 3,850 sales in the first full year, 2006, and expects volume to settle at around 4,000 annually thereafter.

“Diesel or die” is an appropriate mantra for luxury brands in the UK and Europe, because, without some oil-burning engines in the range, obtaining a decent share of corporate and fleet sales is impossible. Business buyers of luxury cars in the UK prefer diesels for their fuel economy and tax benefits – over 60% of Mercedes S-class and BMW 7-series sales are diesel models and Lexus has so far lagged way behind its European rivals.

But it is now hedging its bets and going with both options – its first-ever diesel engine option for the upcoming redesigned IS compact sedan line (a BMW 3-series rival) but hybrid power trains for the luxury RX SUV line and upcoming GS450h (a rival for the BMW 5-series and Mercedes E-class).

No numbers were forthcoming but Lexus officials are clearly optimistic diesels and hybrids will boost European volume from last year’s Europe-wide 28,000 units (up 12% on 2003).

To the end of April this year, Lexus GB sales were down 5.3% to 3,572 units, but new model launches (the redesigned petrol GS line just went on sale) should boost the numbers for the rest of the year.

Like the smaller Toyota Prius sedan, the hybrid RX400h is a technological masterpiece, bristling with electric motors (its designer managed to count up to 27), a generator combined with the front electric drive motor, batteries, electronic control units and ingenious ways of using gears to vary the drive from electric-only, to combined petrol-electric, and then reverse the energy flow to recharge the battery on the over-run.

Unlike the petrol-powered RXs, the hybrid has electrically powered steering and air conditioning.

The world’s first luxury hybrid SUV (remember Ford has launched a hybrid Escape small SUV) has Toyota’s fourth-generation hybrid technology (already!) and switches to four-wheel drive by bringing in an additional rear axle-mounted electric motor when needed. That’s usually when accelerating fast from a standing start – the rear motor kicks in for the first few hundred yards – and when driving in slippery surfaces such as gravel, snow or sand.

Acceleration from the petrol-electric drivetrain is in the V8 SUV league – 0-100km/h (62mph) is claimed to take 7.6 seconds (top speed 124mph) and, in real-world motoring in and around Athens, Greece, just-auto saw fuel economy ranging from 9.7 litres/100km to 14.9, (roughly 28.2 to 18.3mpg) sufficient to please corporate fleet accountants. Lexus claims 34.9mpg on the official combined EU test cycle.

Unlike petrol RX models, the 400h has a CVT transmission which delivers seamless ‘shifts’ but brings with it more engine noise and some unusual transmission whine. There’s also substantial torque steer under hard acceleration.

Like the Prius, the RX hybrid moves on electric power at low manoeuvring speeds and can thus creep silently backwards out of a car park space, surprising passing pedestrians who don’t hear the warning sounds of a starter motor (the generator doubles as a starter, kicking the petrol engine into life without the usual gear-meshing sounds) and petrol engine firing.

Lexus Europe was a bit defensive about suggestions their new hybrid could prove a threat to pedestrians, pointing out that the top model gets a rear view camera as standard, but said they could fit a reversing beeper, as fitted to many vehicles in Japan, if the European market demanded it.

Chief development engineer Osana Sadakata reckons you can get the RX400h to 70km/h (40mph) on electricity alone with a light foot and run two to three kilometres before the battery demands replenishment from the petrol engine-powered generator; ever up for a challenge we found a quiet stretch of level road and managed an indicated 65km/h and about a kilometre before a slight rise resulted in the petrol engine firing.

In the UK, the RX400h will be priced from £35,485 to £44,350.

Standard equipment on all models includes power windows, seats and mirrors, 8-speaker, 6-CD hifi, nine airbags, 18-inch alloy wheels, dual-zone climate control and privacy glass. SE version additions include leather upholstery, sunroof, heated front seats, seat and mirror memory, power tailgate and rain-sensing wipers, and the top SE-L gets sat-nav with reversing camera, Bluetooth compatibility and a rear seat DVD system.