2004 Lexus RX 330 First Drive

  • Full Review
  • Pricing & Specs
  • Road Tests (2)
  • Comparison
  • Long-Term

2004 Lexus RX 330 SUV

(3.3L V6 5-speed Automatic)

Second Edition of a Best-Seller

"We don't have to be all things to all people," said a Lexus executive to an inquiring journalist. It was the first night of the RX 330 introduction, and everyone was gathered around a perfectly lit specimen of the redesigned crossover SUV. The reporter's question? Why doesn't it have a third-row seat? Apparently, much as the ES 300 needn't shoulder the burden of being the company's sporty entry-luxury sedan, the RX can pass family-hauling duty to either the all-new GX 470 or the revered LX 470. Lexus anticipates that only 30 to 35 percent of RX 330 buyers will have children under age 18, and as such, "they don't want to be tied to a vehicle that screams 'soccer mom.'"

The RX 330 is the successor to the RX 300, still the best-selling Lexus model after five years on the market (without the use of incentives). And after spending several hours with the new RX, we have no qualms about saying to current owners: You'll love it.

Everything people found so endearing about the first RX — the elevated stance, forgiving ride, smooth drivetrain and luxurious cabin — is intact. But Lexus, noting competition from the Acura MDX, BMW X5 3.0i and Volvo XC90, has refined the package in ways that should appeal to buyers, certainly those who have an RX 300 coming off lease. During our drive, we took note of the roomier interior with even classier furnishings, better ergonomics and additional convenience and safety features. We also noted the 330's stronger performance provided by a new 3.3-liter V6 and a reengineered suspension that yields tighter handling around corners without compromising its plush ride quality.

The exterior has been restyled as well. We found it sleeker, more sporting and much less like a minivan than before — aided by the mildly aggressive slant of the rear glass and rearmost pillars, monotone body paint (in lieu of lower-body cladding) and the standard 17-inch and optional 18-inch wheels. The rear fascia is again easily identified by clear-lens taillights, but now they bleed into the rear glass.

A quick scan of the specs shows that the RX 330, like most successors, is larger than the RX 300 in just about every way. Overall, it's six inches longer, one inch wider and about a half-inch taller, and rides on a four-inch longer wheelbase. This expansion results in a couple more inches of legroom in the front seat, as well as an inch and a half more shoulder room front and rear (oddly, there's about an inch less headroom in the front seat, so six-footers may want to check this out on a test drive).

The biggest spatial gain is in the cargo bay, where the RX 330 offers 84.7 cubic feet of capacity (compared to the RX 300's 75 cubes) with the 40/20/40 rear seats folded. Note that 84.7 is conspicuously close to the MDX's max cargo capacity of 82, a number we're sure that company engineers wanted to meet or exceed; the MDX still wins with the second-row seats up with its total of 49.7 cubic feet. The new RX holds 38.3 cubes with the rear seats in use, which is actually a bit less than the RX 300's 39.8 — thankfully, the rear suspension arms aren't quite as intrusive in the new model.

As in the previous RX, fore and aft adjustment for the rear seats makes it easier to accommodate adults, while allowing owners to maximize cargo space when needed. The RX 330's seats offer a six-inch range of adjustment compared with the RX 300's 4.7. The seat partitions move independently, which gives you more flexibility when you have a mix of passengers and cargo. With the seats in their forward-most position, legroom is still passable for adults, though only for short trips.

When you aren't hauling bulky items, you can slide the seats all the way back, yielding enough legroom for all but the tallest adults. Further, the seats themselves offer a pleasant blend of softness and supportive contouring in the outboard positions, as well as sufficient bench height for proper thigh support — characteristics that were lacking in the RX 300's accommodations.

Up front, the captain's chairs are supple, as Lexus tradition dictates, if a bit more tailored than before, with eight-way power adjustment for the driver and four-way power adjustment for the passenger. Power tilt and telescope adjustment for the steering wheel is new this year, and we found that it did make it easier to find a comfortable driving position. As on the RX 300, cloth upholstery is standard, but most vehicles will have the optional leather. Seat heaters are a stand-alone extra.

While the RX 300 was known for its good crash test scores, Lexus will meet its German competitors on their terms this year. The RX 330 includes dual-stage front airbags with various sensors that adjust deployment speed (or in the case of a front passenger under 68 pounds, not deploy at all), seat-mounted side airbags for front occupants (which Lexus says are larger than before), side curtain airbags for front and rear outboard occupants and a knee airbag for the driver.

Once you're seated, you'll note that your surroundings are considerably more stylish than before. The electroluminescent gauges are arranged in individual pods ringed in bright chrome trim. Rich walnut or bird's eye maple wood trim accents the dash, center console and door panels. Those who require more reminders of lush forestland can opt for wood trim on the steering wheel and shift knob.

The dash is shapelier than before as well. The gear selector no longer grows obtrusively out of it and is instead a slimmer piece (with a more dignified staggered gate) mounted at the bottom of the center stack — but still within easy reach. The adjacent center console unit slides fore and aft, allowing the driver to stow a purse up front and/or minimize the console's intrusion into the second row when three people are seated in back.

The biggest improvement, at least in our view, is the reorganization of the center stack controls. Previously, even in vehicles without the optional navigation system, an LCD panel served as the catch-all display for most audio, climate and trip computer functions. And in vehicles with the nav system, drivers had to scroll through the touchscreen display continually just to get to basic functions like radio presets and tonal adjustments. To many of our editors, this setup seemed needlessly complicated and just another opportunity for drivers to divert their attention from the road.

Fortunately, Lexus saw fit to give the stereo its own display and controls in all RX 330s, and for the most part, these controls are large and easy to use while driving. Also of assistance are the redundant audio controls on the steering wheel — a new standard item this year. Further, the climate controls have been moved up in the dash and the buttons arranged on either side of the center stack to accommodate the new dual-zone system (standard on all 330s) — such that both the driver and front passenger can easily adjust their desired cabin temperatures. In non-nav vehicles, the climate controls share a tidy display at the top of the dash with trip computer functions. We spent all of our time in nav-equipped vehicles, where space constraints still require the climate display to share the navigation screen with the various map and trip functions. So it's not perfect but certainly better than before.

Visibility from the driver seat is good, thanks to the generously sized side mirrors, though a driving partner pointed out that the wide D-pillars create large blind spots. A full set of auto-dimming mirrors is standard on all RX 330s. A tailgate-mounted camera (optional on nav-equipped vehicles) projects its images on the navigation display screen. We were able to try out this feature, and while it prevented any parking lot mishaps, we're sure that a basic set of rear parking sensors would work just as well and cost less. You see, the required navigation system will be bundled with another excellent Mark Levinson sound system, among other things, and that likely means safety-conscious buyers will have to pay a hefty price for admission.

During our 2002 Luxury Crossover Comparison Test, it was obvious to us that while the RX 300's performance was still adequate among crossover SUVs, it would need a little more in the way of power and handling to keep up with the MDX and X5 3.0i. Lexus has addressed both of these areas in the RX 330.

The new 3.3-liter V6 shares its genealogy with the outgoing 3.0-liter, and that should tell you that it's as smooth and quiet as its predecessor. Horsepower output has increased to 230 (from 220), while torque is now rated 242 pound-feet at 3,600 rpm (versus 222 lb-ft at 4,400 rpm). This engine also employs the company's continuously Variable Valve Timing with intelligence (or VVT-i) to maximize the available thrust at all engine speeds. The use of an electronically controlled throttle allows the new engine to meet the ULEV certification standard; the old V6 met only the less stringent LEV standard.

Lexus has chosen to go with a five-speed automatic this year instead of the old four-speed unit. Besides improving acceleration, the new transmission's overdrive fifth gear will allow the RX 330 to turn in better fuel economy numbers than the RX 300. EPA estimates are 18 mpg in the city and 24 on the highway for all-wheel-drive models and an impressive 20 city/26 highway rating for front-wheel-drive (2WD, that is) models. If you want a luxury crossover SUV but think you might feel guilty about excessive fuel consumption (the XC90 T6's 15/20 and the X5 3.0i's 15/21 ratings come to mind), the RX 330 is definitely the one to get. The optional Performance Package adds an automanual shift gate to appease buyers who desire some semblance of manual control.

Equipped thusly, the RX 330 will be the fastest luxury crossover SUV, according to Lexus. The company claims a 0-to-60-mph time of 7.8 seconds for AWD models (7.7 for front-drive models). That seems like a tall order to us, given that the MDX received a midcycle injection of power for 2003 that brought it to 260 hp and 250 lb-ft of torque. Still, the RX does weigh about 350 pounds less than the Acura, so we'll see what happens when we test these rivals.

Of course, what really matters to consumers is how a vehicle actually feels out on the road, and our initial driving impressions suggest that the RX 330 will satisfy most. There's certainly enough power for running errands around town, as well as strong midrange pull for all manner of highway travel. On a couple of occasions, the transmission seemed a tad hesitant to kick down to a lower gear, but as we were driving preproduction versions, we'll wait until we've had some time with a full-production RX 330 before passing judgment in this area.

As before, four-wheel-drive models come with a full-time system that automatically adjusts the power split between the front and rear wheels — without input from the driver. However, the RX 330 drops its predecessor's mechanically controlled 4WD (the sort with a center viscous coupling) in favor of a lighter electronically controlled setup managed by the Vehicle Skid Control (VSC) system. Under ideal traction conditions, power is split 50/50 between the front and rear axles. When slippage occurs, VSC can adjust the power distribution front to rear and side to side. Additionally, on both 4WD and front-drive models, VSC continues to offer a stability control function — it can reduce engine power and brake individual wheels as it deems necessary to keep the RX 330 in line while cornering.

As on the RX 300, the RX 330's suspension is a fully independent design with struts at each corner, but a stiffer body structure, revised geometry and new springs, shock absorbers and bushings have improved handling characteristics without adversely affecting ride quality. Other changes include a quicker steering ratio, a smaller turning radius (37.4 feet), bigger front brake discs and standard 17-inch wheels. Eighteen-inch wheels with more aggressive rubber are optional.

For those who require a bit more versatility, Lexus will present an optional air suspension (as part of the Performance Package), which offers four driver-selectable settings — Access, Low, Normal and High. "Normal" is the default — in this mode, the ride height is lowered 0.3 inch at vehicle speeds above 62 mph to reduce aerodynamic drag (for the sake of fuel economy) and improve ride and handling. "Low" mode drops ride height by 0.6 inch, and is intended for drivers seeking slightly quicker steering response and added grip on curvy roads. "High" increases ground clearance by 1.2 inches (for a total of 8.3) and improves approach and departure angles in the event that an owner decides to take her RX 330 down an unpaved road. Finally, "Access" allows the vehicle to "kneel" 1.2 inches to make it easier to load and unload passengers and cargo.

We had the opportunity to drive a 4WD RX 330 with the standard suspension and a front-wheel-drive (2WD) model with the optional air suspension (both vehicles had the optional 18-inch wheels). The 4WD model definitely reminded us of the RX 300, as its ride was quite soft and obviously intended for leisurely drivers. Still, the steering exhibited less slop than before, and while the body leaned around turns, the vehicle felt well within our control at all times.

The air-suspension-equipped RX was quite a different story — this vehicle took corners with a much flatter body attitude, especially in "Low" mode, and was easy and indeed rather fun to maneuver on curvy stretches of blacktop. We felt it handled as well as, if not better than, the MDX, while maintaining the cushy ride that only a Lexus can deliver. There will be a number of option packages for the RX 330; if you like to drive, you should definitely consider the Performance Package.

Lexus has gone beyond merely refining its best-seller, and has added a number of interesting features that are sure to stand out in the mind of the luxury crossover shopper. How about a standard tonneau cover for the cargo bay that retracts automatically when you open the liftgate? There's also a power liftgate that opens with all the refinement you'd expect from a Lexus as well as an oversize multipanel sunroof, a rear DVD entertainment system, adaptive cruise control and adaptive headlights.

The adaptive headlights (called Adaptive Front Lighting System or AFS by Lexus) are a segment-busting feature in the modern automotive world, and after a quick nighttime demonstration, we were suitably impressed. During a left turn, the left headlight can pivot up to 15 degrees in that direction to illuminate your path, while the right headlight remains centered. In a right turn, the right headlight pivots up to five degrees. As we rode along, the company's AFS expert noted that engineers continue to refine the system to make its operation as seamless as possible. AFS is intended to supplement self-leveling HID headlights and is available as part of the Performance Package.

Pricing is not yet available, but we were told that the base price should start around $35 grand with fully loaded models topping out around $45,000. Lexus expects to sell 75,000 annually in the U.S., which is roughly on par with annual RX 300 sales (the addition of the more expensive GX 470 to the company's SUV lineup is expected to encourage "incremental growth" rather than diminish interest in the entry-level RX). Of particular interest to some consumers is that this will be the first Lexus model built in North America.

While we don't know that we'd want to spend our lives (or part of them, anyway) with a luxury crossover SUV, we do know that many consumers crave the image, comfort and practicality such vehicles provide. And after driving the '04 RX 330, we feel that unless you've got to have an uncomfortable third-row seat, this one may be the best the segment has to offer.

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