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The 1999 Lexus RX 300 may be the ultimate luxury car/SUV hybrid. It offers a seemingly perfect compromise between a luxury sedan and a truck-based sport-utility vehicle.
It offers sure traction in foul weather, responsive handling on paved and unpaved roads, a smooth ride, maneuverability in crowded parking lots, and easy access to a luxurious interior. RX 300 is not the ultimate off-road vehicle, but it handles corners almost as well as a sedan and easily tackles unpaved roads and heavy snowfall. A low floor height makes sliding in and out easy, yet there's plenty of ground clearance for light off-highway driving. Four people can sit comfortably or the seats can be folded down for hauling a load a wood.
We spent a rainy day driving a four-wheel-drive RX 300 on a gravel West Virginia road covered with patches of light snow and mud, and a week on interstates, winding rural roads and city streets around Annapolis, Maryland.
While the interior is superb, ride quality and handling prowess are among the RX 300's best features. Supremely stable in high-speed sweeping turns, the RX 300 also seems at home on winding mountain roads, dispatching them as deftly as a sedan. There's none of the wallowing and turn-in stability compromises found on truck-based SUVs.
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 won our hearts. The RX 300 can be driven quite quickly over gravel and dirt roads and bumps do not upset it when driving hard through loose corners. Pushed beyond its limit, the front tires wash out predictably--the rear end never, ever steps out. All of this instills confidence while driving on loose surfaces. It's also a major benefit when rounding a slippery corner that tightens up just before a deer darts out onto the road. This happened to us and the RX 300 performed precisely and predictably.
The front-drive model is well worth considering for those who live in the Sunbelt because it handles beat up city streets and potholes better than a sedan. Being lighter, it is a bit quicker than the four-wheel-drive model and electronic traction control is available to aid control on 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. Bridgestone Dueler H/T tires 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. Slightly more aggressive tires would be beneficial for anyone who frequently drives on unpaved roads by reducing braking distances and providing better grip in slippery corners.
The V6 engine is silky smooth and offers excellent around-town and highway performance. It accelerates 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. Overall, it's a wonderful engine.
Braking is smooth and consistent, though we found the pedal a bit soft. Antilock brakes enhance control by allowing the driver to brake and steer away from hazards without losing control. Come around a corner, panic, slam on the brakes, and the RX 300 steers and stops without unwanted drama. But ABS can increase stopping distances on muddy, unpaved roads or in the snow and we wish we could switch it off under certain conditions; RX 300 is by no means unique in this regard.
We give an enthusiastic thumbs up to the Lexus RX 300. Its excellent handling and exceptional traction on slippery surfaces make it a perfect luxury vehicle for people who 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 sport sedan.
However, the RX 300 may not be the ultimate off-road vehicle, nor the brawniest in towing capability. But most people don't drive off road anyway. For that reason, the RX 300 heralds one of the directions SUVs are headed.