We've heard it all before: the roads of America are becoming more treacherous, trucks and sport-utility vehicles are too wide to see around and too tall to see over, station wagons are not cool, and gas is cheap. All of these factors mean that car manufacturers are forced to adapt to America's changing tastes if they want to remain competitive. Luxury car marques have hit make-or-break times recently, scrambling to give their dealerships high-demand sport-utes for an equally high profit. It's enough to make car enthusiasts sick.
Lexus already sells the LX-series sport-utility vehicle that shares most of its parts with the Toyota Land Cruiser. Other automakers have not been so fortunate. Just this year, Cadillac was forced to stick their badge on a Chevrolet Tahoe just to have a competitor for the wildly popular Expedition twin Lincoln Navigator. But the truck-based sport-utes are not going to win over anyone who still enjoys driving. Big trucks handle poorly, are hard to park and fit in a garage, and, since nobody's driving these things off-road anyway, who needs a heavy-duty machine?
So a new class of truck was invented. Last year, Mercedes-Benz entered the foray with their compact-sized M-Class sport-ute, an instant success that even won some awards from the press. The M-Class displayed unique design and defined a new segment of the market: the car-like luxury utility vehicle. In the near future, even performance-oriented BMW and Porsche will enter the compact sport-ute market, proving that car companies must adapt to survive, just as Darwin predicted.
With the RX300, Lexus has taken a step in the right direction. Rather than rip off an existing platform from Toyota, such as the RAV4, Lexus quickly developed something they can call their very own. The RX300 has its own floorpan and platform, and one look will tell you that the design is truly unique.
This vehicle has the usable feel normally associated with a sedan, if not the looks of your conventional four-door. The exterior can only be described as different. Round headlights and taillights appear under distinctively shaped lenses. Small triangular quarter-windows hem in the side windows, a particularly odd effect from inside, where it makes you wonder why they didn't just mount the side mirrors on the A-pillars rather than the doors. The front and rear bumpers are finished in gray paint, which we mention because the paint on our test car was chipped in several places, revealing black plastic underneath. Monotone paint probably wouldn't hurt appearances any.
Exterior dimensions measure 180.1 inches long, 71.5 inches wide and 65.7 inches tall - similar to the Jeep Grand Cherokee, if a few inches closer to the ground. The RX300 displays similar dimensions, in fact, to several of today's minivans. Riding on a 103-inch wheelbase, the RX300 has a turning circle of just 40 feet. Not quite nimble, but not bad.
But unlike the Grand Cherokee, the RX300 is not meant for use off the road. At its heart is a front-wheel drive layout, which is good for traction on slippery roads but not on slippery rocks. Our all-wheel drive model benefited from better performance in the wet, something we were unable to test during the four sunny days we lived with the car.
Ground clearance is only 7.7 inches, and approach and departure angles (that's off-road speak for how steep a rock you can run into or roll off of) are 28 and 23 degrees, respectively. Let's put it this way: the RX300 is no Jeep Wrangler. Thankfully, Lexus resisted the temptation to stick running boards along the sides, something we find totally useless about the Nissan Pathfinder and Infiniti QX4 twins. Step-in ease is therefore improved, and most drivers won't have to climb in or duck down to enter - you simply slide into the thigh-level seat.
Sitting inside the RX300 is like sitting in a sedan with excellent road visibility. It's spacious and comfortable in the front seats or the rear bench. The optional leather package includes leather trim on the seating surfaces and headrests, and the surfaces actually feel like leather instead of vinyl. The seats, both front and back, offer plenty of thigh support for a variety of leg sizes. Dashboard material and instruments feel more substantial than the plastic of a Mercedes M-Class. That may not be saying much given the cheap feel of the Mercedes sport sport-ute, but the Lexus family heritage is obvious in the RX300.
Standard equipment includes attractive 16-inch aluminum alloy wheels, a full-size spare tire, automatic climate control, powered front seats, power and heated side mirrors, cruise control, real wood trim, liquid crystal information display, tilt steering wheel, and a 190-watt seven-speaker AM/FM stereo with cassette. Safety items include seat-mounted side impact airbags, four-wheel antilock brakes, side impact door beams, headrests for all five seating positions and daytime running lights.
A tonneau cover is also standard, and that covers any valuables that may be stored behind the rear seat. The rear bench (headrests removed) folds flat for carrying cargo, creating over 130 cubic feet of total interior volume. With that much carpeted space available inside, who needs to go off-road to pitch a tent? Just plop the sleeping bag down in the back of the RX300 and you're roughing it in a luxurious mobile camper. We even found that the built-in clock has an alarm feature, but we didn't get a chance to test it out.
The instrument panel is uncluttered and perfectly useful, but the centrally located instrument screen is more of a novelty than a worthwhile feature. The 5.8-inch wide liquid crystal display says gimmick with a capital "G." Displaying such crucial bits of data such as the time, outside temperature, audio information, climate control information, average fuel consumption, average speed, etc., the purplish-blue readout spent most of its time with us dimmed to black. Please, if you must provide gee-whiz gadgetry, make it something we couldn't get from the normal sources like the odometer or digital radio dial. Small screen technology like this should be reserved for either television or GPS maps.
But back to more important matters. The driver is faced with a shift lever positioned at the lower middle of the center console, which can be a reach for those with shorter arms. Personally, I appreciated how the open floor space lent another area to stretch my legs, but my less vertically gifted wife complained of the distance between herself and the gear selector.
Power is provided by an all-aluminum, 3.0-liter 24-valve V6 engine with Continuously Variable Valve Timing (VVTi), the first-ever use of variable valve timing on a vehicle in this class. A three-stage variable intake system and two-way bypass exhaust system help to make eighty percent of the peak torque available at only 1,600 rpm, which makes acceleration a breeze. Horsepower peaks at 220, and torque at 222.
Lexus claims that the RX300 goes from zero-to-60 in 8.8 seconds (8.5 seconds on the two-wheel drive model), and the quarter mile comes in at 16.6 seconds. Top speed is only 112 mph, which is low for a vehicle with this kind of power. However, since nobody needs to drive that fast, it's not a concern. The fact is that getting up to high speeds in the RX300 is relatively easy for something with a curb weight of 4,037 lbs.
As for the drive itself, it couldn't be any more like a car or any further from a truck. The RX300 handles twisty roads like a pro. Its wheels stay planted around turns, body roll is like that of a GS sedan, the brakes are strong and hold up well under repeated use, the transmission is silky and seamless, and the steering displays closer kinship to a roadster than a road hog. Understeer was prevalent due to the high front-weight bias. The RX300 balances out at a 57/43 ratio, front to rear, and though the AWD system moves some of the driving force to the rear, you'll want to slow down around tight turns.
What we could use is more power, perhaps of the 4.0-liter variety with 300 horsepower and 310 foot-pounds of torque. The 220 horsepower unit performed well enough around town, but this car couldn't get by with much less for more serious workouts. And with a meager 3,500 lb. towing capacity, forget about hauling a camping trailer for those cross-country summer trips to the mountains. In fact, our test of the RX300 was performed near sea level, and we might have been a harsher judge of character if we had had to get through Colorado's Eisenhower Tunnel.
Mercedes continues to offer the RX300's only real competition in the prestige section of the compact sport sport-ute market, and the Germans now offer a powerful 4.3-liter motor for performance seekers. If Lexus wants to stay in the game, all they need to do is keep their eyes on the competition, and hope that the RX300's styling is indeed the model for SUVs of the future. We'll reserve judgment until BMW and Porsche have spoken. Meanwhile, the trend has been set.