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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.
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.
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.