The Lexus RX 300. Many drove it. Some deemed it an "utter and absolute disappointment." Some liked it better than they thought they would. Others loved it. Divergent opinions from different editors all of them valid to some degree. What we all agreed upon, however, was that Lexus' midsize SUV looked distinctly egg-like.
It does recall a fabricated egg. Not that it's anything that the Romanovs would approve. It's more garish, with lots of chrome, and recalled the odd collector's egg from Franklin Mint ("Each month, you'll have the excitement of another new egg Plus, if you call right now, you'll receive the 13th egg absolutely free!") featuring scenes from various Shelley Winters' movies.
The egg shape is quite appropriate, actually. The RX 300, introduced in 1998 as a 1999 model, hatched a brand-new niche that of the car-based luxury SUV. It has sparked the growing legions of pavement-biased SUVs, attracting the well-to-do to a segment that was, at one time, populated by more plebian consumers.
Now, the cadre of luxury manufacturers, upon discovering that there's a vast, previously unmolested populace (and their pocketbooks) panting to jump aboard the SUV extravaganza, are furiously expanding the sport luxury vehicle segment (quelle horreur the Porsche Cayenne!). Why not? Every sale of a luxury car yields a big, fat average profit of $15,000, and sometimes more, for the carmaker. Can the RX 300 still float in this cashmere-drenched world?
In 1999, Lexus was the best-selling luxury brand in America, surpassing the old vanguard of Lincoln and Mercedes-Benz. The 2000 model year has seen a bit of a decline, with Lexus in the third place position. Actually, Lexus should regain its title next year with the release of the excellent IS 300 and the redesigned LS 430. Its ace-in-the-hole, however, is its midsize SUV, the RX 300, the best-selling vehicle of the Lexus lineup, which comprises half of all Lexus sales.
What is it about this vehicle that attracts legions of devotees, as per the discussions in our Town Hall, but also raises the ire of so many? This seemingly innocuous vehicle, based on the ES 300's sedate sedan platform, which in turn is based upon the more humble Toyota Camry platform (call them second cousins) evoked love-it or hate-it responses from our editors. Let's delve into the issue, shall we?
The RX 300 is replete with thoughtful Lexus details, with refined touches like the subtle beep beep of the security alarm system to considerate accommodations like a one-touch opener not only for the driver's side window but for all four windows and the sunroof, just by pressing the unlock button.
Getting into the vehicle posed no problem for any of our staffers, thanks to its low doorsill lip that greatly facilitated ingress/egress. The seats were exceedingly comfortable, with an effective lumbar control, articulating headrests and fold-down armrests. There was good side bolstering, but a few editors would have appreciated a longer seat bottom for improved thigh support.
The interior received mixed reviews from different drivers. One editor faulted the RX 300's commonality with a minivan: "I own a Sienna and recently drive it 1,000 miles round trip to my brother's house in Arizona. The seating position and the view out the RX 300's windshield are very mommymobile-like, and the front three-quarter windows that remind me of the old Ford Aerostar minivan don't help matters in the image department. Even the passenger compartment floor is flat, like a van."
He continued: "If the RX 300 didn't have a center console glued to the floor, you could wriggle between the seats and access the rear bench. The center stack is poorly designed, from the phallic positioning of the gear shifter to the silly three-sectioned LCD screen to the squashed radio and climate controls. The seats front and rear are uncomfortable, with small bottom cushions. The rear bench is mounted too low to the floor to provide adequate thigh support."
Meanwhile, another editor praised interior comfort, with a rear seat with headrests for all three passengers and plenty of toe and knee room. The 60/40 split seat allows each seatback to recline for optimal comfort, and the fold-down armrest was at a comfortable height. As the truck possesses svelte proportions, shoulder space was a bit tight for three adults. Plus the seat was positioned a bit low to provide adequate thigh support, not to mention the fact that the middle passenger has only a lap belt. In short, you'd be driving a much happier crowd with two rear passengers than three.
It should be noted that the rear bench slides 4.7 inches fore and aft on tracks. This allows your long-limbed passengers more legroom when pushed back. Slide the seat forward and gain 9.4 cubic feet of extra space for cargo. With the seat folded, the RX 300 provides 75 cubic feet of space, although it's a rather compact package at 180.1 inches in length.
The shifter location with its odd angle and placement (on the lower center console) also had its detractors and fans. This driver found it easy to grow accustomed to it and the space available between the front seats where the shifter should have been, and grew increasingly attached to the nice place to put your purse (or man-purse, but only if it's European) so that it will be within reach but not in plain view. The center console, with its two sliding drawers, was deemed doofy by some and ingenious by others.
The display screen was universally bashed, however. Taking up an inordinate amount of space, it did little aside from lending a vacuous air to the center stack with little to justify its existence. On a blue screen with white letters (uh, am I supposed to set the time on my VCR here?), it displays a multitude of information that could be shown elsewhere.
The trip computer displays the driving time, the average vehicle speed and fuel consumption which is updated every 10 seconds, and momentary fuel consumption updated every 2 seconds so that you can rest assured that your SUV is burning up that expensive premium unleaded just as fast as it can (we averaged a thirsty 17.2 mpg during highway and city driving). Because it's imperative for you to know that every 2 seconds, isn't it?
It also displays the information for the climate control (but no dual-zone function, a low-down dirty shame), the outside temperature and the time. All that room, but no compass? Or worse, a compass that's available only as part of a $6,870 navigation package that'll be available only for the 2001 model year? Dude
The auburn wood trim of the dash won praises from one editor, while another was bowled over when he learned that it wasn't plood but, in fact, real walnut it emitted a flimsy noise when tapped. Our test vehicle was equipped with the in-dash six-CD changer, a rather expensive but useful option. We were cheesed out by the switchgear, especially the cruise and power mirror controls, that is shared with the lower line Toyotas. The Optitron gauges were handsome and easy to read.
The RX 300 is composed of unibody construction to minimize creaking in the joints, and absorbs road irregularities as well as collisions better than a body-on-frame configuration. Add in a four-wheel independent suspension and an active engine mount to obliterate NVH, and you're in for a Lexus-typical smooth ride; of course the result is devoid of any road feel, save for the bump steer that gets transmitted to the driver via the light steering. The huge turning radius, coupled with the light, numb steering didn't help matters. Not only was it not fun to drive on road, it was a pain in the arse to park in a tight parking spot.
Braking performance fell short of the superb feel and distance we've come to expect from Lexus products. Stopping from 60 mph resulted in an average distance of 134 feet, and though the vented four-wheel disc ABS setup provided a decent performance, it lacked the linear and refined feel of Lexus sedans or even its full-size SUV, the LX 470.
The suspension, composed of MacPherson struts and an antiroll bar in front and Chapman struts and traverse links in the rear, is tuned to deliver a soft, cushioned ride, translating to terrific amounts of body roll, as well as obtrusive diving upon braking. As a result, even moderate cornering speeds reminded us that SUVs have the greatest instances of rollovers among any kind of vehicles.
Underhood, motivation is delivered to the front or all four wheels via Lexus' 3.0-liter, DOHC VVT-i V6 that makes 220 horsepower and 222 foot-pounds of torque, with 80 percent of twisting force available at a low 1,600 rpm; launch from a standstill is spunky and spirited. The transmission is exemplary, with upshifts and downshifts that seemingly read your mind. It held third gear going up a hill without having to use the overdrive-off button, and was confidence inspiring when merging and passing.
Lexus has its customers' numbers. In its omniscient wisdom, it has analyzed the fact that only 7 percent of SUV buyers will ever take their vehicles off-road. And if you're a Lexus buyer, that number would drop precipitously. Yet the company also took into consideration the nagging guilt that SUV owners feel when others ridicule them for owning trucks that aren't really trucks "Ha ha, you can't even take that thing off-road," they chortle. "Shoot, you can't even take it into the snow. It's useless. USELESS!" But what's the point of installing a true low-range transfer case when it's rarely, if ever, going to be used?
The solution was to make an all-wheel-drive option, combining an integrated transfer case with a viscous coupling center differential and an optional limited-slip rear differential. It provides a 50/50 front-to-rear power split for even traction, and we surmise that this system, along with the transmission in the "Snow" mode that starts the RX 300 off in second gear for less slippage, will be useful for residents of colder climes.
Our so-equipped test vehicle was able to scamper up and down a moderately angled, gravel-strewn off-road path with no problem, save for the low-cut dry brush loudly scraping its undercarriage, no thanks to its meager 7.7-inch ground clearance. For light-duty off-roading and extra security in inclement weather conditions, we feel that this is a palatable alternative to a "real" 4WD system.
The Lexus RX 300 may have been the progenitor of the sport luxury ute segment, but in two short years, it has already fallen behind. Want better off-road capability? Get the Infiniti QX4, or better yet, the Nissan Pathfinder LE, which you'll find to have just as nice an interior, plus more cargo space. The trade-off is a slight decrease in ride quality on the pavement. The Mercedes M-Class has a wide array of engine choices and exterior styling that evokes sportiness rather than a henhouse. The BMW X5 is a superb on-road handler, but of course its ridiculous premium transcends any previous boundaries set by trucks.
In the final analysis, however, the RX 300's greatest competitor comes in the form of the new Acura MDX that sports a third row of seats, providing room for seven. It also has a larger, more powerful engine, yet gets better fuel mileage than the RX 300. It handles better, too.
An old Michael Jackson song goes a little something like this "You're too high to go over, you're too low to get under; you're stuck in the middle, and the pain is thunder." While it helped create a brand-new niche, its competitors are leeching onto its formula, limpet-like. And it's suffering from growing pains.
You've got to break some eggs in order to make an omelet.
System Score: 7.75
Components. This is a nicely laid-out system. It starts with a pair of 6-inch full-range speakers in the rear doors. The front doors contain a similarly sized pair of drivers that are rolled off to a pair of tweeters above. Here's where it gets interesting. Instead of the usual tweeter placement in the top of the doors or even in a special enclosure between the dashboard and side mirrors, the Lexus engineers have elected to position the tweeters on top of the dash, adjacent to the A-pillars. Not only is this a genius placement, but they sound great. Other features include a six-disc CD changer tucked into the glove box, plus an AM/FM/cassette faceplate that interfaces with a video screen above. Tone controls include a nice touch: a "mid" adjustment, for added sonic flexibility. The radio is at a perfect elevation in the dash, but the features leave something to be desired. For instance: funky plastic buttons, bunched-together presets, and a very confusing arrangement for the changer controls, some of which work off the faceplate and others which work off the buttons beneath the video screen.
Performance. This one sounds great. The dash-mounted tweeters produce an excellent soundstage, while the door-mounted drivers give a surprisingly thumping performance. The system also has a warmth and smoothness you don't find that often something hard to put into words but which we've heard in other Lexus vehicles. It's not the loudest system on the planet, and it does tend to get a little grainy and "dirty" when turned up too loud, but it has an overall sonic purity that will please most listeners.
Best Feature: Dash-mounted tweeters.
Worst Feature: Funky CD cartridge.
Conclusion. This system sounds excellent, but has some strange design cues. For example, the cartridge in the CD changer is one of the worst designs I've ever seen. Unlike most changers, which have slide-out drawers, these come completely out of the cartridge and fall into your hands. Bizarre. Also, for such a nice-sounding system, the radio controls feel very cheap. I marked off for the weird engineering, but there's no denying the sound quality of this system. Scott Memmer