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Since few people venture off road in sport-utility vehicles, it makes sense to design them primarily for highway use. The Lexus RX 300 is such a vehicle, a hybrid luxury car/sport-utility vehicle. It offers sure traction in foul weather and responsive handling on paved and unpaved roads. It provides a smooth ride, maneuverability in crowded parking lots, and easy access to its luxurious interior.
RX 300 is not the ultimate off-road vehicle, but it handles corners well and offers good performance on 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.
Four-wheel antilock disc brakes (ABS) are standard. Front and side airbags are standard along with shoulder belts with pretensioners and force limiters. The lack of a three-point shoulder belt in the rear seat center position is a disappointing omission for a vehicle costing more than $33,000, however.
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, followed by 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. Underway, the RX 300 is smooth and whisper quiet, though the little sunroof spoiler generates quite a bit of wind noise when the sunroof is open. 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 is what we liked best. The RX 300 can be driven quite quickly over gravel and dirt roads. Bumps do not upset the 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 completely new 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 well 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 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. 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 19/24 mpg, 4WD models at 18/22; Lexus recommends 92-octane fuel.
Braking is smooth and consistent, though we found the pedal a bit soft. Antilock brakes enhance control by
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 heralds one of the directions SUVs are headed.