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With the RX 300, Lexus has had the best-selling luxury SUV in not only America but the world. But the RX 300 was introduced in 1998 and, with a growing number of challengers, Lexus can't afford to stand still. (No one can.) Therefore, the RX 300 has been replaced by the all-new 2004 Lexus RX 330.
Lexus calls the RX 330 a luxury utility vehicle, and is bold enough to dub it an "LUV." The RX 330 falls into that category of SUV that is based on a unit-body car platform rather than a truck frame, and it could be called a crossover vehicle. As such, the RX 330 gives up some off-road ability but will do what most SUV buyers want: provide more cargo room than a sedan while conferring an over-the-traffic view and a sense of security from its elevated driving position.
The 2004 RX 330 is longer and wider than the model it replaces. It comes with a leather interior that feels soft and warm and inviting with splashes of real wood trim. The front seats are positioned off the floor at a comfortable chair height and are snug and supportive and the back seats are roomy and comfortable.
Rather than offering base and premium models, Lexus allows buyers to upgrade with freestanding options and option packages. The Premium Package ($2,145) includes leather, power tilt/telescope steering wheel, roof rack, and moonroof. The Premium Plus Package ($3,440) adds a power liftgate, HID headlamps and a wood and leather steering wheel.
The Performance Package ($5,455) includes all of the items in the Premium Package, plus 18-inch plated aluminum alloy wheels, air suspension, sequential shifting transmission, power rear door, HID headlamps with AFS (see Walkaround), and rain-sensing wipers. There's also a multi-panel moonroof available that's larger than the standard moonroof with other features bundled in for $4,220. An available navigation system includes a rear-view camera ($2,350). Dynamic cruise control ($600) and a rear-seat entertainment system ($1,840) are also available.
Truck-based SUVs have been popular for their perceived roominess, added ride height and ability to go anywhere at any time. However, many of them ride like trucks, get poor gas mileage, and are tall and tippy. This has led to the popularity of models based on car platforms, of which the original Lexus RX 300 was the pioneer.
The new Lexus RX 330 is an advance in this mien. It's notable for its smooth ride even over broken, potholed pavement. Like the previous RX 300, the RX 330 should be good on dirt and gravel roads as well, though we haven't tried this. We found the RX 330 poised in corners, the steering light and accurate. Its fully independent suspension keeps the tires in contact with the pavement for lots of grip.
The 3.3-liter V6 zips the RX 330 to speed (from 0 to 60 mph in 7.8 seconds, according to Lexus). Larger than last year's engine, the V6 develops a healthy 230 horsepower and 242 pounds-feet of torque. Torque is the twist that yields acceleration, and the RX 330's torque peak comes at a relatively low 3600 rpm. This means that this Lexus can accelerate around town without having to rev into the upper ranges, reducing cabin noise and eliminating the frantic feel that engines needing high revs often have.
The RX 330 benefits from a five-speed automatic transmission, which has a lower low gear and a higher high gear than the old RX 300's four-speed automatic. The lower first gear allows quicker dig off the line, good when having to merge into traffic from a standing start. The higher fifth gear allows lower revs at cruise, which translates into quieter running with less engine noise, plus better gas mileage and longer engine life because the engine doesn't go around as many times. At times, the transmission seemed slow to downshift, however.
The RX 330 is free from road noise and wind noise even when equipped with a roof rack. Lexus engineers took the time to aerodynamically shape the roof rack to reduce noise.
The brakes, large discs front and rear, are smooth and have good feel. The RX 330 comes with the latest in braking technology: A four-sensor/four-channel anti-lock brake system helps the driver maintain control of the steering under hard braking. Electronic brake force distribution balances braking forces for shorter stops. Brake Assist senses when the driver is in a panic braking situation and helps ensure full force is being applied.
Rather than using a true four-wheel-drive system with locking center differentials or viscous couplings, the RX 330 uses the antilock brake system to prevent wheel spin, thereby sending torque to the wheels that still have grip. It's a good setup for slippery pavement, light snow, or gravel. All RX 330 models come equipped with the Vehicle Stability Control system (VSC), which helps prevent a skid.
We also drove an RX 330 with the optional air suspension. This system has four driver-selectable height settings for comfort and convenience. The air suspension lowers the RX 330 by 0.3 inches at speeds over 62 mph for reduced air drag for better handling and fuel economy. Drivers can select a mode that lowers the car by 0.6 inches for better cornering and a more sedan-like ride. Rough and unpaved roads that require greater ground clearance can be accommodated by selecting the High position, which puts an additional 1.2 inches underneath the RX 330 at speeds up to 30 mph. An Access mode, which lowers the RX 330 for easier entry and exit, can be selected with the transmission in Park, or it can be programmed go to this position automatically when the ignition is turned off. It's available as part of the Performance Package.
Lexus calls the RX 330 an LUV for "luxury utility vehicle." We'll call it an SUV for "suburban utility vehicle." In many ways, a minivan has more utility, more room inside, more seats, and even, as in the new 2004 Toyota Sienna, four-wheel drive. But the RX 330 has more panache than any minivan, which may be perceived as too suburban.
That said, the RX 330 offers a good ride, a plush, innovative interior, ready power with an 18/24 mpg city/highway EPA mileage rating (4x4), and the confidence that all-wheel drive confers in winter driving, all with more room and, to some eyes, more elan than a simple sedan. Add Lexus quality and reliability and that all-important see-over-the-traffic seat height and it's your move, LUV.