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2006 Lexus RX400h Road Trip in Scotland
By Bill Roebuck
Small cars are the norm on the roads in the United Kingdom. They're easier to drive safely there because in most cases, the lanes in both towns and highways are pretty narrow and somewhat challenging compared to what we have in North America.
So after returning from a recent driving holiday around Scotland, it surprised me to read that the U.K's Department of Transport feels the need to introduce 'psychological traffic calming' techniques.
The DoT says that optical tricks such as painting the road different colours or placing obstacles in the way of sightlines can make roads look narrower, bumpier or windier than they are. The result is drivers go more slowly.
The plan is based on a 2005 study called Psychological Traffic Calming, conducted over four years by the U.K.'s Transport Research Laboratory. The TRL found that a variety of optical tricks were successful in slowing speeds.
According to the study, the most successful measures tested, which are likely to be used in the future in the U.K., used painted-on red bricks to make the road look narrower, and small areas that are built out into the road with trees, shrubs or wooden posts.
After almost two weeks of driving around Scotland in September 2005, I concluded that such road impediments already occur naturally at almost every turn, especially here, where we covered more than 1,800 km, mostly on secondary roads, in a new Lexus RX400h.
Certainly the major routes are easy to drive. The M-class highways might be mistaken for the German autobahn, considering the high speeds at which some drivers travel on them. No problem keeping up in the Lexus. The fact that it's a hybrid (with gas and electric-powered motors) didn't slow it down one iota. It's as quick and powerful as any other luxury SUV on the road.
Fully-equipped with almost every option and power toy you could ask for, the RX400h made the trip an enjoyable experience for me and my three passengers, despite the curves the local road system threw at us.
A bonus was its fuel-frugal hybrid gas/electric engine, considering gas was at least twice as expensive as it was at home -- and that was back when it was more than a dollar a litre in Canada. It was about a pound a litre in Scotland at the time, roughly $2.50 Canadian.
Another benefit of the Lexus was its navigation system, which helped us find our way many times, despite roads that seemed to meander off to nowhere at times. This was especially true in Glagow, a city that a recent Toyota-sponsored study ranked fifth of the top 10 worst places to drive in the U.K.
Using the nav system, the RX400h took us directly to our Glasgow hotel, despite the twists, turns and steep hill climbs it directed us through. We were sure we were completely lost, but suddenly the right street was before us. Without the system, it would have taken much longer to arrive, that's certain.
We didn't depend on the nav system at all times -- we sometimes got completely out of its range when away from major centres, and it did lead us down the wrong path on rare occasions. But in populated areas, it was flawless.
The comparatively large size of this midsize SUV was, at times, like trying to manoeuvre an elephant along a forest footpath. Many -- maybe half -- of the roads we encountered were just single lanes, with pullovers every few hundred metres to allow passing. There usually were no shoulders at all, so a moment's inattention could put your wheels off the tarmac. We didn't worry, though, confident the Lexus all-wheel-drive would get us back on track no matter what the conditions.
Added to challenge of the narrow roadways was the fact that you're driving on an unfamiliar route on the wrong side of the road, as well as sitting on the wrong side of the car, and you might be able to imagine why driving in Scotland put you on high alert at all times.
That's probably a good thing, and may contribute to the fact that the traffic deaths per billion km travelled in UK were 7.28 in 2001, compared to 8.94 in Canada.
The handling of the Lexus was certainly precise enough to tackle the twistiest Scottish roads. One day, we drove through a blistering North Sea gale; even the heavily flooded roads didn't affect the steering. The high winds and horizontal rain were only a problem when we left the cocoon of this premium SUV.
Even though this was a hybrid model, there was plenty of power for passing acceleration when it was needed. In fact, the hybrid is even peppier than the almost-identical gas-powered RX 330 I'd tested earlier back home. The transmission shifted completely seamlessly, even under hard acceleration.
Each of us had plenty of headroom and legroom. We rated all seating positions as very comfortable for long periods of driving. Large map pockets in the doors proved practical, though we found the front seat cupholders too small and too close together.
The rain -- and we experienced lots of it -- showed a design fault. Water dribbles onto the seats when you open the front or rear doors. Another quibble was the lack of a clear view when backing up, although that was compensated for by a reverse-view camera you could watch on the instrument panel.
An air suspension system in the RX smoothed out the ride despite carrying four passengers and a full load of suitcases. Yes, the feature list goes on and on, as you might expect in a vehicle that tops out in the UK at £44,350. (In Canada, the similarly equipped Ultra Premium model is $69,700.)
As much as I liked the RX400h, I would have been happier in it if the roads were wider. It was no fault of the car, but I rarely dared to glance at the speedometer on those country twisters, since I was giving so much thought to the next challenge the road ahead was presenting. The fact that our SUV had nine air bags proved to be a comforting thought.
The UK's efforts to slow down their drivers may deserve merit, but based on my experience of its roads, and how fast the locals can manoeuvre around on them, it seems that the residents would quickly adapt to any new psychological traffic calming measures and end up driving at their normal speeds.
As for the tourists like me, such measures would probably slow our travelling speed even more than the existing roads did.
But the flexibility and challenge of driving in unfamiliar territory is part of the excitement of a road trip in the first place, no matter where you go. And having a vehicle as competent as the RX400h only added to the pleasure of the trip.
© 2005, Bill Roebuck, CarTest.ca