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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 Therefore, the RX 300 has been replaced by the all-new 2004 Lexus RX 330.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.
Lexus RX 330 joins the trend of zoomier styling on crossover SUVs, notably the new Infiniti FX45. RX 330 is much sleeker than the RX 300, making the older model look really dated. Unlike the RX 300, which had a body-color C-pillar, the D-pillar is emphasized on the RX 330, and is more steeply raked. There's more rake to the windshield as well, and the front facia and headlamps are reminiscent of the Lexus ES 300 sedan.
Although there are definite car cues to the new design, Lexus designers have also included meatier elements, such as the beefy front bumper and pronounced fender flares. Well-designed door handles are of the reach-through type that are more hand-friendly than the fingertip-grip variety, less chance of breaking long fingernails.
A novel feature, something not seen on the U.S. market since the 1949 Tucker, is the Adaptive Front Lighting System (AFS). This system swivels the left and right headlamp as determined by an onboard processor that calculates the optimum angle to provide the best illumination, allowing drivers to see around corners better. It's available only as part of the Performance Package.
A rear view of the RX 330 reveals a visor over the top edge of the rear window, a short radio antenna at the right rear corner of the roof (promising better reception in marginal areas than the imbedded-in-glass type), and clear-lensed taillamps. The latter are trendy with the sport compact kids; we think they should stay there, as these don't seem to be as visible, especially in bright sunlight, as the old-fogy red lenses.
The Lexus RX 330 competes with the Volvo XC90 ($33,350), Acura MDX ($34,900), Mercedes-Benz M-Class ($37,670), BMW X5 ($39,995), and Infiniti FX45 ($44,225), among others. The RX 330 utilizes a modified version of the platform used by the Lexus ES300 sedan, Toyota Camry, and Toyota Highlander sport-utility.
It doesn't take more than a glance inside to know the Lexus RX 330 is aimed at the luxury SUV market. Leather on the seats (on most models) is soft and slightly bunched, and there are splashes of real wood trim on the doors and center console. The instrument panel has three large round gauges trimmed in silver. The center dash area, or stack, is framed in metal-looking plastic.
Climate controls are located high on the center stack and to either side of an LCD screen used to control ventilation, audio, trip computer, outside temperature and clock (with alarm). The radio has a knobs for volume and tuning, much easier to use than the typical German system that has tuning buttons that default to a seek mode.
The screen is also used for the optional navigation system as well as the rear-view camera that comes with it. The camera works automatically when the transmission is shifted into reverse. We found it very useful to check for children or obstacles before backing up (but you don't watch the screen once you've started backing up). Big outside mirrors afford a good view rearward.
A novelty when the RX 300 was introduced, the shifter for the automatic transmission is still located on the center stack. Rather than the popular tip-shift for sportier rides, the RX 330's shifter has a zig-zag pattern for shifting between gears. We found it made shifting between reverse, drive and lower gears ponderous, particularly when in a hurry.
The front seats are positioned off the floor at a comfortable chair height and are snug and supportive. Foldable armrests on both front seats provide additional comfort on longer trips. The center console slides forward and back, allowing room for a purse or whatever on the floor between the front seats.
The back seats are roomy and comfortable. The rear seat is contoured for two, though it has belts for three. There's a folding center armrest with cupholders, storage and its own wood trim. The rear seats fold forward 40-20-40, the center section folding forward for longer items such as skis, shovels, and fly rods, while still allowing four people to ride in comfort. This is more comfortable than typical 60-40 folding seats, which force one of four passengers to travel in the less-comfortable center-rear seat when carrying aforementioned long items. Folding the rear seats down is fairly easy, though we found ourselves struggling to reach to the far side of the opposite seat to release it.
RX 330 bucks a current trend by having no third-row seat. Lexus says buyers wanting more passenger space can buy one of the larger two ( and more expensive) Lexus SUVs.
RX 330 is rated to carry 84.7 cubic feet of stuff. That's more cargo space than a Lincoln Aviator (77.1) or Infiniti FX35 (64.5) and certainly more than a BMW X5 (54.4) has to offer. But the RX 330's rear seats don't fold for a completely flat cargo floor. We found loading and unloading a mountain bike easier in a Mercury Mountaineer. The RX 330 adds two hidden compartments under the cargo floor for additional storage. The cargo cover has an automatic retract feature, which could be useful when your arms are full and you don't want to put things down on wet pavement.
In addition to the usual steering wheel and passenger multi-stage frontal airbags, the RX 330 has a knee bag for the driver. The side-impact airbags, standard, are large, protecting the torso, abdomen and hips.
Lexus Link is an optional system that summons aid, using satellite and cell phone technology, at the touch of a button or automatically with airbag deployment. Based on GM's OnStar system, Lexus Link can also pinpoint vehicle location for roadside assistance, or in case of theft. Operators can use the system to unlock the doors should you lock the keys inside.
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.
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