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The Lexus RX 330 excels at smoothness. It rides more quietly than most cars, not to mention most SUVs. It glides over bumpy roads. It's very easy to drive with light steering and excellent brakes. Its airy cabin is luxurious and inviting.
And it offers the latest in technology: headlamps that swivel to help the driver see around corners, a rear-mounted camera that displays what's behind you on the dash-mounted navigation screen, a voice-activated hands-free telephone system that wirelessly links to your Bluetooth compatible cell phone, a cruise control system that can adjust for changes in traffic, and a giant sunroof. Even more important, it's equipped with the latest in passive safety features, including seven airbags.
With the RX series, Lexus pioneered the crossover style of SUV, based on a unibody car platform rather than a heavy-duty truck frame; and in the process set new standards for the modern luxury utility. Crossover utility vehicles offer better ride and handling than truck-based SUVs, but with more cargo room than a car, a better view over traffic and a sense of security from an elevated driving position. Granted, crossover vehicles offer neither the big towing capacity nor the off-road capability of a true truck. But the RX 330 handles gravel roads just fine and can tow up to 3500 pounds with the optional trailer package.
Redesigned for the 2004 model year, the RX 330 has been refined for 2006 with two-way power lumbar support for the front passenger seat, an LED glovebox lamp, and anti-theft headlamps.
The RX 330's list of standard luxuries is long, and includes automatic climate control, premium audio, cruise control, traction and stability control, privacy glass, automatic headlamps, ten-way power for both front seats, wood and leather trim for the steering wheel and shift knob, a power rear liftgate, and 17-inch aluminum wheels. Cloth upholstery comes standard.
The Premium Package ($2,145) includes leather upholstery, power tilt/telescope steering wheel, roof rack, and a one-touch moonroof. The Premium Plus Package ($2,960) adds to that high-intensity discharge headlamps with an adaptive front lighting system and a steering wheel trimmed in wood and leather. The Performance Package ($4,675) includes all of the items in the Premium Package, plus 18-inch graphite-colored aluminum alloy wheels with P235/55R18 tires, height-adjustable air suspension, sequential-shifting transmission, rain-sensing wipers, the HID headlamps with AFS, and a power rear liftgate. (Some of these packages may change.)
Open-sky enthusiasts who aren't content with the optional moonroof can opt for a giant multi-panel moonroof, which comes bundled with leather-trimmed upholstery and other features ($3,740). The navigation system ($2,350) was updated for 2005 with Bluetooth, voice activation and improved graphics, and now comes with a rear-view camera that projects an image of much of what's behind whenever reverse is selected. Dynamic cruise control, a rear-seat entertainment system, and a six-disc CD changer are also available. XM Satellite Radio is offered as a dealer-installed option.
Safety features that come standard include dual frontal airbags, front-seat side-impact airbags (for torso protection), side curtain airbags (for head protection), plus a driver's knee bag. The side curtain airbags extend to help protect rear-seat passengers as well, and respond to a rollover sensor in addition to the usual decelerometer.
The Lexus RX 330 is notable for its smooth ride. It glides over broken, potholed pavement. Its steering is light and accurate and it feels poised when cornering. Its fully independent suspension helps keep the tires in contact with the pavement for lots of grip.
The RX 330 is smooth and quite responsive, particularly around town. Its 3.3-liter V6 engine rated at 223 horsepower at 5600 rpm and 238 pound-feet of torque at 3600 rpm. (That's a little less than last year's ratings because the Society of Automotive Engineers, or SAE, revised its testing standards for horsepower and torque. The 2006 is just as powerful as the 2005 engine. It's just that the numbers are calculated differently.)
The five-speed automatic transmission offers better response and efficiency than a traditional four-speed automatic. Its low first gear offers quicker response off the line, useful when you need to merge into traffic from a standing start. We found throttle tip-in overly sensitive at times, but quickly adapted for smooth take-offs. Lexus says the all-wheel drive RX 330 can sprint from 0 to 60 mph in 7.8 seconds and run a standing-start quarter-mile in 16.0. Fifth gear, meanwhile, provides lower engine speeds when cruising, which translates into quieter running with less engine noise and better gas mileage.
The front-wheel-drive model's EPA ratings of 19/25 mpg City/Highway are among the best in the class. The AWD versions get an EPA-estimated 18/24 mpg.
The RX is relatively immune to road noise, and there's very little wind noise. Lexus engineers took the time to aerodynamically shape the RX 330's roof rack for quieter running.
The brakes are smooth and respond with good pedal feel. The brakes feature large discs front and rear and electronic brake-force distribution (EBD), which directs braking effort in proportion to weight bias and brake loading for improved stability under hard braking. The RX 330 benefits from four-sensor/four-channel anti-lock brakes (ABS), which can help the driver maintain steering control in an emergency stopping situation. Brake Assist is also provided, which is designed to sense panic braking and to maintain full braking pressure, even if the driver makes the common mistake of relaxing pressure on the brake pedal.
The all-wheel-drive system automatically routes power to the wheels with the best grip and works with the ABS to slow any wheel that slips and spins.
The Performance Package features an air suspension with four driver-selectable settings. The air suspension automatically lowers the RX 330 by 0.3 inches at speeds higher than 62 mph, to reduce 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 smoother ride. Rough roads and unpaved trails requiring greater ground clearance can be accommodated by the High position, which raises the ride height by 1.2 inches at speeds up to 30 mph. An Access mode lowers the RX 330 for easier entry and exit when in Park; the Access mode can be programmed to lower the RX automatically when the ignition is turned off, a nice feature.
The Lexus RX 330 provides a smooth ride, a plush and innovative interior, and responsive power. It rides like a car but offers a lot more room. All-wheel drive is an option for drivers who need winter weather traction. The Lexus reputation for quality and reliability and responsive dealers add to its appeal.
New Car Test Drive correspondent John Matras is based in Pennsylvania.