2003 Lexus RX 300 Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
A luxury wagon with a smooth, quiet ride.
When it was introduced in mid-1998, the RX 300 represented the vanguard of a new class of vehicles. More a tall car than a truck-like SUV, the RX 300 nonetheless delivered the SUV attributes most urban/suburban buyers wanted: a high seating position, generous, versatile cargo capacity, and all-weather traction. But what made it popular was its Lexus levels of quality, luxury, comfort, and quietude.
The RX 300's near-instant success quickly inspired imitators, including the Acura MDX, BMW X5, and Buick Rendezvous. Still, the RX 300 remains one of the top contenders. It delivers a smooth on-road ride, fine handling, a quiet interior and a responsive V6 engine.
RX 300 can be equipped with either full-time four-wheel drive for poor weather driving conditions, or front-wheel drive. It's not built for optimal off-road adventures. If that's what you're looking for, try the similarly priced Land Rover Discovery.
For 2002, Lexus has updated the RX 300's DVD navigation system.
RX 300 comes in one thoroughly equipped trim level. Buyers have a choice of front-wheel drive ($33,955) or four-wheel drive ($35,705). We recommend the latter.
Four-wheel antilock disc brakes (ABS) are standard. Front and side airbags are standard along with shoulder belts with pretensioners and force limiters. All seating positions have three-point shoulder belts. Ivory-colored fabric seats are standard; leather-trimmed upholstery is optional.
The DVD-based navigation system with compass can be added as a stand-alone option ($2,000), or as part of the Navigation System Package ($5,390) that also includes leather upholstery, heated seats, a power moonroof, HID headlights and other luxury amenities. Either way, the system uses touch-screen technology, and DVD-ROM discs for map data. One DVD can help you navigate around the entire United States, making cross-country drives a snap.
The Lexus RX 300 doesn't look like an off-road vehicle, and you wouldn't want to drive one to the next Jeep Jamboree. It looks more like a luxury wagon and that's what it is, though it is quite capable of handling dirt two-tracks and snow-covered mountain roads.
Its unique styling seems most at home in upscale urban settings. It is as aerodynamic as it looks, with a low 0.36 coefficient of drag, which helps reduce wind noise.
The RX 300 is slightly longer and wider than a Jeep Grand Cherokee. Like a car, it employs a unit-body chassis instead of the inherently heavier body-on-frame design used on most trucks and sport-utilities. Though a few bits come from the Lexus ES 300 sedan, the RX 300 is built on a unique platform.
Last year (2001), the front headlamps receive an 'emerald shading' to make them look like light units on the Lexus LS 430 flagship sedan. The RX 300's taillamps were also redesigned for 2001. Projector-beam foglamps add to the RX 300's sports appeal.
Getting in and out of a vehicle couldn't be easier. While most sport-utilities require a step up and most sports cars require ducking down, the RX 300 allows you to slide straight in. Once in, drivers are treated to comfortable seats and a beautiful interior. Ours came in elegant light beige leather. (Lexus offers black leather as well.)
Overall, this is a lovely interior and very well designed. The U-shaped piece of wood trim capped by a pair of vents on the center console looks odd and unnatural to me, but my colleagues have disagreed, saying it complements the RX 300's interior and exterior design. Open the sunroof and the little sunroof spoiler generates quite a bit of wind noise.
Regardless, everything works magnificently. All the switchgear operates flawlessly and all controls are positioned exactly as one would expect. The one thing that isn't positioned exactly as you'd expect is the shift lever, which is mounted in the center of the instrument panel. This design frees some floor space between the front seats for small packages, purses or a brace of Big Macs. It also makes it easier to slide over to the other seat.
The rear seats slide forward and aft to create legroom or increase cargo space. They also recline individually.
For 2002, the DVD navigation system has been upgraded. Route calculation is nearly twice as fast as before, and map scrolling speed has increased as well. The database has been expanded to include more Canadian destinations. Aside from that, the RX 300 continues unchanged from 2001.
Ride quality and on-road handling are among the RX 300's best features. Underway, the RX 300 is smooth and whisper quiet. It's stable in high-speed sweeping turns, but also seems at home on winding mountain roads, dispatching them almost as deftly as a sedan. There's none of the wallowing, or compromised turn-in stability suffered by truck-based SUVs.
Vehicle Skid Control, which detects when either the front or rear wheels lose traction and reduces power or selectively applies brakes to correct the skid, adds a measurable improvement to the RX 300's driving abilities.
With 7.7 inches of ground clearance, the RX 300 easily forded a roadside ditch and berm. But its crisp, predictable handling on loose surfaces is what we liked best. The RX 300 can be driven quite quickly over gravel and dirt roads. Bumps do not upset its handling balance when driving hard through loose corners. Pushed beyond its limit, the front tires wash out predictably and the rear end never, ever steps out. All of this instills confidence while driving on loose surfaces. It's also a benefit when quickly rounding a slippery corner that tightens up, only to have a deer dart out onto the road. In this situation, the RX 300 performs precisely and predictably.
The available four-wheel-drive system operates full time and requires no action from the driver. It splits engine torque equally between the front and rear wheels on the highway. When things get slippery a viscous limited-slip center differential directs torque to the wheels with the most traction. An optional limited-slip rear differential aids traction further and enhances control. Lexus developed a four-speed electronically controlled automatic transmission with an integrated transfer case to work with the system. No low-range gear set is available, however. This is not really an off-road vehicle; it's an off-highway vehicle.
The front-drive model is worth considering for those who live in the Sunbelt, because it handles beat-up city streets and potholes better than many sedans. Being lighter, it is a bit quicker than the four-wheel-drive model, and electronic traction control is available to help with slippery surfaces. Still, it seems a shame to pass on the RX 300's four-wheel-drive system because it increases stability in the rain and improves driver control in emergency maneuvers, even on dry, sunny days.
Ride quality on paved roads is silky and controlled. Big bumps on unpaved roads are well damped. RX 300 does not ride quite as well on rough roads as the larger, more expensive, more off-road-oriented Lexus LX 470. Washboard surfaces generated some vibration.
Steering is precise and direct, allowing smooth cornering lines and stable high-speed cruising. Our test vehicle had Bridgestone Dueler H/T tires, which are quiet on the highway and provide good grip on and off road. Stiff, light-truck sidewalls give them good protection for light off-pavement use. Overall, they are a good choice, although some RX 300's are delivered with analogous Goodyears. Slightly more aggressive tires would reduce braking distances and provide a better cornering grip on dirt or gravel roads; that's something to be considered by anyone who frequently drives on unpaved roads.
The V6 engine is silky smooth and offers excellent around-town and highway performance. It accelerates the RX 300 briskly from a standstill. Passing performance at higher speeds is not its strongest suit, however, and it bogs a bit when upshifting from second to third gear. The 3.0-liter, all-aluminum V6 delivers 220 horsepower and 222 foot-pounds of torque. It's a sophisticated unit with four cams, 24 valves, continuously variable valve timing, a three-stage variable intake system and a two-way bypass exhaust system. EPA rates 2WD models at 19/23 mpg, 4WD models at 18/22; Lexus recommends 92-octane (premium) fuel for optimal performance, but you can use 87-octane safely.
Braking is smooth and consistent, though we found the pe.
The Lexus RX 300 handles well and rides nicely. Exceptional traction on slippery surfaces makes it a good luxury car for people who frequently drive on snow-covered or unpaved roads. RX 300 provides almost as much cargo space as a Jeep Grand Cherokee, but boasts vastly superior ride and handling. Inside it looks, feels and drives like a luxury sports sedan.
The RX 300 is not a great off-road vehicle, however, nor is it the brawniest in towing capability. But most people don't drive off-road anyway. For that reason, the RX 300 remains at the forefront of successful SUV designs.
2WD ($33,955); 4WD ($35,705).
Options As Tested
Premium Package Plus ($2545) includes leather trim package, electrochromic inside and outside mirrors, programmable garage door opener, driver's seat memory, in-dash six-CD changer, power moonroof.
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