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Published: 08/25/2003 - by Brian Moody, Road Test Editor
We may not care or even be aware of it, but technology surrounds us and in many cases, it's technology that makes our lives more comfortable or luxurious. The average automobile has numerous electric motors and simple computers, and the average Best Buy shopping spree contains more sophisticated gadgets than even early space travel. Technology is a hobby for some people, and there's even a 24-hour-a-day cable channel dedicated to technology. A cable channel like Tech TV would most likely have flopped horribly only 10 years ago, but today networks such as CNN and Fox News are following its lead and introducing technology segments of their own in hopes of keeping up with the advanced technology of everyday life.
The interesting thing about all this technology is that it is making our lives easier and our cars more luxurious, yet most consumers simply don't want to be bothered with the "icky" aspect of actually knowing how the technology works. And that's just fine by Lexus. Company engineers have so effectively and seamlessly integrated complex systems into the new RX 330 that the average person would be hard-pressed to know that anything unusual was happening.
Everything about the car says comfort and most of that pampering is fueled by sophisticated technology. Tired of the idiots who insist on driving behind you with their foglights on even though it's not the least bit foggy outside? The self-dimming inside and outside rearview mirrors are amazingly effective and eliminate that irritation with no action required by the driver oh, and the outside mirrors are heated, too, just in case there's any ice in the morning. Do you find it difficult to load or unload your cargo from an SUV? If equipped with the optional air suspension, the RX has you covered there, too, with its "kneel" mode. Simply press a button and the car will lower itself slightly (about one inch) to help you get in and out as well as make loading and unloading easier. Spend some time with the new RX 330 and you can't help but feel pampered.
The RX 330 is such a huge improvement over the RX 300 it replaces that there's almost no comparison. The old RX was based on the old Camry platform, and the new RX shares the new Camry's underpinnings. But unlike the RX 300, the RX 330's relationship to the Camry is hard to see or feel. It's obvious from the moment you step inside, the wood is richer, the seats softer and the ride smoother. Most controls now have better placement and steering wheel-mounted audio controls are now part of the standard equipment list. As noted in our first drive, we welcome the separation of the audio and climate control functions the new setup is much easier to use and slightly more intuitive. There's more of just about everything more power, more cargo space and more safety features. The new air suspension system not only allows for the previously mentioned kneel mode and driver-selectable ride height, but it also improves handling. When the suspension is set at its lowest ride height, the RX corners much better and lacks the loose, leaning feeling of most luxury SUVs. Even when the suspension is in the "normal" mode, the ride feels controlled without being harsh. Speed bumps are a perfect example the RX rolls over the bump, the suspension compresses, rebounds and bounces only once there's no slop or excessive bouncing. Still, the overall ride retains the plush quality we've come to expect from Lexus.
The high-tech wonderfest continues well beyond the practical and borders on futuristic. The adaptive cruise control is a fairly new feature that is usually seen only on premium nameplates (though the 2004 Toyota Sienna also offers it). The RX uses a radarlike eye that is mounted up front to see other cars on the road. The system will then automatically regulate the vehicle's speed so as to keep a safe distance between your car and the car ahead. The adaptive cruise control will, if necessary, use a little bit of braking to control vehicle speed. It's a great feature to have, but it is not perfect. Often, the system seems to adjust the RX's speed in a manner that is simply too intrusive. We can't help but be amazed at the technology of it all, but the application of that technology feels rather clunky in practice. If you live in a more urban area, you'll likely not get the same use out of the adaptive cruise control as someone who lives in a rural or suburban area. It's a feature that adds $600 to the price tag, but we would suggest skipping it unless you do a lot of highway travel.
Some say technology is addictive, and that is certainly the case with the RX's optional navigation and rear camera system. Lexus has one of the best nav systems around, but the addition of a rear-mounted backup camera is incredible. Shift the RX into reverse and the navigation screen automatically becomes a monitor that shows the view from a tiny camera that's mounted on the rear door. The camera uses a sort of mild fish-eye lens to improve the driver's view of the surrounding area and even has a built-in auto-iris to adjust for lighting conditions. No more backing over bicycles or bumping into other cars when parallel parking after a week of use, we grew quite used to the feature. Unfortunately, backing out of a driveway in a car without the feature left us feeling completely blind.
But all this whiz-bang technology is employed not only for the driver's comfort but for passengers' safety as well. In addition to the usual systems such as ABS and stability control, the RX now comes with a tire-pressure monitoring system. There are also larger side airbags than before, side curtain airbags (for the front and rear) and a new driver-side knee airbag. Our vehicle was equipped with the optional Performance Package and that includes an advanced adaptive lighting system. In order to help light the way when rounding corners, the system allows the headlights to swivel slightly in whichever direction the front wheels are pointing. Hey, didn't the 1948 Tucker have this feature? Luckily, Lexus plans to build a few more than just 51 vehicles.
On the road, the RX 330's bigger V6 and its added horsepower are obvious right away. The engine grows to 3.3 liters for 2004 (hence the name RX 330) and horsepower is up to 230, but the typical Lexus refinement is not sacrificed. Many associate luxury with the power of a V8 but the new RX offers plenty of smooth power while at the same time delivering a respectable 20 city/26 highway EPA rating with front-wheel drive (AWD models are rated 18/24). Acceleration is brisk and the added power makes the RX feel light on its feet. At full throttle, the motor does exhibit a controlled growl that might sound intrusive in other vehicles, but in the Lexus it just sounds cool. The driving experience is much improved over the previous model's, and those who liked to contend the RX 300 was just a fancy and pricier Toyota Highlander won't be able to make that argument about the 330 with a straight face.
Speaking of not keeping a straight face, the sunroof that's included in the optional Performance Package is nothing less than bewildering. The description says "one-touch open/close moonroof." Sounds good, but the operation was anything but simple and frankly had some of us looking for the "Candid Camera" host to jump out of the backseat as we fumbled with the confusing buttons. There are two buttons controlling the moonroof operation but each button seems to do the same thing as the other. One button marked "tilt" could be used to tilt the sunroof up for increased ventilation but when using that same button to close the roof, the glass would tilt back down to the closed position, then slide all the way open in one move. The same would be true when trying to close the sunroof. Holding the button down caused the glass to slide forward but then it would continue to the "tilt" position. More than one editor noticed that we could never really be sure if the sunroof was closed all the way or not, and this frequently resulted in a whistling sound due to the fact that the sunroof was slightly open. We finally concluded that the only way to make sure the roof was completely closed was to press the button very quickly several times in a row so it would move just a little bit at a time. To say the least, this was very irritating and stood out all the more because of the RX's $46,477 as-tested price tag plus the fact that the rest of the car is just so good.
There's no question the new RX is better than the one it replaces, and that goes for the sleeker exterior as well. Some editors praised the old RX's look, but most said it reminded them of a Silly Putty egg or the original "Star Trek" shuttlecraft. Either way, the new RX has a sportier look with its swoopy rear window, racy-looking wheels and a more angular front end treatment. It all seems to add up to a slightly more aggressive and more masculine look. Styling is always subjective, but the RX 330 looks more like a vehicle that justifies the steep price tag, whereas those who thought the old RX looked like a more expensive Highlander weren't totally wrong.
Anyone who lamented the RX 300's rear-seat legroom will certainly have nothing to complain about. The new RX has a three-inch-longer wheelbase and the interior certainly feels roomier as a result. The seats seem softer and more comfortable as well. Cargo capacity is adequate, but Lexus readily admits that most RX buyers do not have children and it seems doubtful to us that the "empty-nesters" who buy this vehicle will be using their RX 330 for serious cargo hauling. Still, the RX 330 does offer more than 84 cubic feet of cargo capacity when the rear seats are folded down. By comparison, Infiniti's new FX45 offers only 65 cubic feet of cargo space as they have clearly chosen style and outright performance over any sort or serious hauling ability. Our guess is that the RX's cargo area with the seats up or down will be perfect for a weekend of antique shopping.
At the end of the day, the RX 330 is certainly an impressive luxury SUV that offers more performance, technology and style than the previous model. Our complaints about the car really come down to two things a befuddling sunroof and expensive option packages. The RX's base price is about $35,000. That's not a bad deal considering the long list of standard equipment. But our test vehicle came with the $5,400 Performance Package, $2,300 Navigation System and $1,800 rear-seat entertainment system and ran up a total of just over $46,000. It's hard to fault a car that so effectively incorporates so much luxury, performance and technology into one package, but a near $50,000 price tag must at least be noted. It's also important to point out that most people who buy RX 330s are over 45 years old and make more than $125,000 per year, so price may be irrelevant. Whatever your feeling on the price, the RX 330 truly surpasses its predecessor and offers all the coddling and comfort one would expect from a real luxury car. Just don't open the sunroof.
System Score: 7.0
Components: Anytime I get into a Lexus, I instantly look for the Mark Levinson logo on the dash. If the car in question doesn't have a Levinson stereo, it's disappointing. This RX 330 did not have a Mark Levinson stereo; although, it is available as an option. The Lexus Premium Audio system (the only one available outside of the Levinson system) offers eight speakers and 132 watts. The Lexus Premium Audio system also offers ASL, or Automatic Sound Levelizer. The ASL automatically adjusts for ambient sound i.e. road noise, wind noise, etc. A radio with a single CD player is standard, but a six-disc changer is optional.
The head unit is easy enough to use and is more straightforward on the new RX, as the old one incorporated the audio controls into the climate control/navigation screen. The only real drawback from an operational standpoint is the use of the numbered radio preset buttons. In other cars, the radio presets double as a CD selector. For example, if you are listening to CD #4 and you want to jump to CD #1, you'd simply press the button with a "1" on it. Not so in Lexus/Toyota products. With this system you must use a CD up or down button to shuffle through the changer until you come to the one you want it's kind of a hassle. The steering wheel-mounted audio controls are a little easier to use for the same function, just press and hold the track up or down button and you can change the CD being played.
Performance: The eight speakers offer excellent bass response but midrange and highs can tend to be a bit shrill at higher volumes. Lower or normal sound levels offer the system the best chance to shine, but even then, music with lots of midrange tends to sound muddy at that more pleasant volume. In most cases, dropping the midrange control to "-2" or "-3" really cleans the sound up nicely, but the occasional whistling high still gets through this seemed especially true when listening to tracks with female vocals. It's almost like the speakers have too much to do and can't ever really catch up to the amount of sound coming from the deck.
It certainly isn't a bad system, but without the Mark Levinson stereo we're left with a so-so feeling about listening to good music in the RX.
Best Feature: Great bass response.
Worst Feature: Lack of sound separation.
Conclusion: The Lexus Premium system sounds good and is probably better than many other non-name brand systems but it still has its shortcomings. The Mark Levinson option adds about $6,000 to the price (it comes with a nav system, too) but it sounds incredible. Brian Moody
Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
I can understand Lexus looking to be a little more sporty and daring with the new RX, but to my eye it's not attractive. With its sedan-style greenhouse and angled D-pillars, the RX 330 resembles an oversize four-door hatchback more than an SUV. And the juvenile, street racer taillights don't work for me, either; they look as if there's crumpled-up tinfoil behind those clear lenses.
Once inside, my opinion softened considerably; in typical Lexus fashion, the cabin is gorgeous even the rear-seat center armrest is lavishly trimmed, and the metallic accents also bespeak quality visually and tactilely. User-friendly touches abound; there is an additional cupholder on the left side of the dash, making it easier for lefties to juggle their java, and the power tilting/telescoping steering wheel made it easy for me to fine-tune my driving position. I was skeptical about the rear backup video camera, thinking it would display a grainy, distorted image on par with a 7-Eleven's surveillance unit. But was I wrong! It actually worked great, with a clear shot of the view astern that made backing up into tight spots less stressful.
One annoying quirk I noted concerned the power sunroof. There are two separate buttons, one for the tilt-up function and one to slide the panel open or closed. Normally, this familiar setup works fine, but in this RX 330 both buttons strangely served both functions and there's not enough of a pause after the roof closes up. For example, if the "slide" button was held a millisecond too long after powering the roof closed, it would then tilt open. It was an exercise in frustration attempting to seal the roof completely before the bugger either started to pivot upward or slide open.
Underway, the polished demeanor of the RX 330 won me over. This V6 never had me thinking "if only it had another 20 or so horses." It furnishes V8-like vigor, whether scurrying away from a stoplight or quickly moving from 40 to 70 mph when merging onto the freeway. A seamless automatic, smooth handling and ride characteristics, and comfy seats had me really enjoying the new RX by the end of my driving loop.
With such a great personality, I guess I could live with the looks.
Photo Editor Scott Jacobs says:
I have to be honest here. I wasn't a fan of the previous-generation RX. I just didn't like its overall design cues. I found the exterior to be bulbous and ugly, while the interior was just too boring for me. It's obvious that many people didn't share my tastes, as it was a wildly popular vehicle. So when I saw this generation in person, I was pleased with the exterior's new looks. Yeah, it holds the same basic shape, but it's far more angular and aggressive-looking.
It seemed to me that Lexus holds the "if it isn't broken, don't fix it" attitude for its interior design, as this generation's interior hardly looks any different than the previous one's. Unfortunately, it carries over three minor features that I found to be rather irksome. The first, an aesthetic complaint, is the position of the shifter in the lower center console area (I'd prefer it to be either on the steering column or squarely between the passenger and driver). The second is that to manually control the fan speed, you have to access it through the touchscreen. I'd much rather have a dial to quickly adjust fan speed. Finally, while driving the RX on some curvy roads, I became very aware of the lack of seat support/bolstering in the driver seat as my upper body was sliding all over the place when I went through timid turns.
On the flip side, the RX 330 offers superior luxury and comfort. The engine makes a barely perceptible murmur, the ride is quiet, and there is almost no wind noise whatsoever. To complement this cabin serenity, Lexus has decked the 330 out with supple, high-quality leather and beautiful wood trim. While all of these luxury appointments are fine and dandy, it's far more than I'd personally want or expect.
Ultimately, the RX didn't appeal to me personally, but I'd be stupid not to see what this vehicle offers to luxury SUV shoppers. Its awesome luxury features combined with Lexus' bulletproof reputation assures people will have this on their short shopping lists.
"I've only had it about a month and my wife keeps coming up with excuses for me to take her car and leave her mine. Great ride, extremely smooth, very well-thought-out interior. It makes you dread getting to your destination and getting out." scubawin, July 19, 2003
"This vehicle is very refined and plush. The driving is unbelievable and the amenities are incredible. Before you purchase any SUV you have to at least drive the RX!" SpinDoctor10, July 15, 2003
"Totally satisfied. Drives like a car. Totally practical." Slope, July 13, 2003
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