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FIRST DRIVE
For Lexus, a little is a lot
The 5-year-old luxury crossover RX 300 SUV is replaced by the more powerful RX 330. The new, improved version also costs a bit less.


By John O'Dell, Times Staff Writer


Lexus didn't invent the luxury crossover SUV with its RX 300 back in 1998. That honor goes to Mercedes Benz, whose ML320 debuted a few months earlier.

But that year and every year since, the Lexus RX has captured the title that really counts: It is the segment's undisputed sales champ.

Now the aging RX 300 is gone, replaced after its five-year run by the bigger, more powerful RX 330.

Those who long for an SUV yet flinch at the sight of a hulking Hummer H2 and worry that the neighbors might think them unpatriotic fuel-wasting yahoos needn't fret: Although no longer the cute ute that the RX 300 was, the new RX 330 isn't a brute by any stretch.

Lexus simply improved an already classy vehicle, adding just the right touch of beefiness so that what had been seen principally as Mom's car still will appeal to her while catching Dad's eye as well.

One appealing feature is the price: The base price of the front-wheel-drive RX 330 is $35,600, including delivery fees, or $100 less than the similarly equipped 2003 RX 300; the all-wheel-drive model starts at $37,050, or $500 less than its '03 counterpart.

The RX 330 also handles better, especially with the optional adjustable air suspension, and has an improved ride -- although the standard suspension still is a bit cushy, tuned more for turnpike cruisers than for push-the-limits driving enthusiasts. Steering is faster, brakes are bigger and stopping times quicker, and body roll and sway is less than in the RX 300.

Things to complain about are few and minor: The radio controls in the center stack are angled slightly away from the driver -- not impossible to use, but not as friendly as they could be. And there was perhaps a bit more wind noise from the large side mirrors than you might expect from a luxury vehicle, although my test drives were in preproduction models and that issue could well be solved in the production version.

The new model isn't quite as tight navigating the twisties as the BMW X5 3.0, Infiniti FX45 or Acura MDX -- all potential competitors -- but hey, it's a Lexus aimed at empty-nesters and doesn't claim the same sports car alternative status as the others.

It also doesn't have the third-row seats that are standard in the competing Volvo XC 90. Lexus executives say the company already sells two SUVs, the GX 470 and the LX 470, with three rows of seats.

The prevailing theme of the RX 330, which began showing up at dealerships last week, is that, with the exception of price, a little bit more is a whole lot better.

So the body is six inches longer, an inch wider and half an inch taller. The V-6 engine is 3.3 liters instead of 3.0. Horsepower is boosted to 230 from the predecessor's 220, and torque jumps to 242 pound-feet, available at 3,600 rpm, versus the RX 300's 222 pound-feet at 4,200 rpm.

The five-speed automatic transmission is bigger too -- the RX 300 has a four-speed -- and helps boost the model's zero-60 performance as well as its fuel economy. An option is the "multimode" five-speed automatic with sequential manual shifting.

Lexus says the RX 330 gets to 60 mph almost a full second faster than its predecessor -- 7.7 seconds for the all-wheel-drive models and 7.8 seconds for the front-wheel-drive version.

And with the overdrive fifth speed, mileage increases to 20 per gallon in city driving and 26 on the highway for the two-wheel-drive models (versus 19 and 23) and to 18 city and 24 highway (versus 18 and 22) for those with all-wheel drive.

There's more cargo space too -- 85 cubic feet in the new model, versus 79 in the RX 300 when the back seats are folded flat.

But the sharply sloped rear window that adds a rakish touch to the new RX also slices through the rear cargo area, limiting the height of stuff that can be stowed inside. The extra length, though, provides for a big boost in cargo space when the back seats are upright and in place -- 38.3 cubic feet versus 32.2 in the RX 300.

A note to readers over 6 feet tall: The zoomier styling also cuts almost an inch from front seat headroom, more if you order one of the two optional moon roofs. And tall passengers in models with the oversized three-panel moon roof (half again as big as a standard-size moon roof) will find rear seat headroom cramped as well.

Other styling cues on the new RX include a sportier nose; blacked-out B-pillars that disappear into the dark privacy glass to provide a coupe-like side view and a tall beltline that provides for a sportier profile but makes it difficult for driver or passengers to rest elbows on the window sills.

The only awkward design element is seen from the rear -- follow an RX 330 down the highway and it looks skinnier and taller than it really is, an illusion enhanced by clear-lens taillights mounted almost two-thirds of the way up the tailgate.

The whole thing rides on standard 17-inch wheels with fat 225/65R17 mud-and-snow rated tires. A set of 18-inch alloys with 235/55HR18 tires is an option.

Inside, Lexus decked out the RX 330 cabin in real wood (walnut or bird's eye maple) trim with chrome door handles, metallic instrument and control panel trim and a real fabric roof liner instead of the molded one-piece liner in previous models. Instruments are well lighted and easy to see.

Standard equipment includes an eight-way power driver's seat and a four-way power passenger seat up front; rear seats that recline and slide fore and aft and are split 40/20/40 so ski equipment, surfboards and long pieces of lumber can poke through in the center position while leaving individual seats on either side for passengers.

The rear seat also features a center armrest with cup holders and a storage compartment, and in the rear cargo area the tonneau cover retracts automatically -- also a standard feature -- when the tailgate is lifted.

Also standard: audio controls on the steering wheel; dual zone climate control; a sliding center console with illuminated storage bin and a single-disc, eight-speaker stereo system.

Safety equipment includes a four-wheel anti-lock braking system; skid and traction control systems; tire pressure monitoring; front and front-side air bags; a driver's knee protection air bag, and side-curtain air bags to provide head protection for both front and rear passengers.

The list of options is long and includes neat gizmos such as adaptive cruise control that helps keep the RX a set distance from vehicles in front of it, and an adaptive front lighting system that swivels the headlamps to help illuminate curves.

There's also a rear backup camera that displays its image in the optional navigation system screen on the dash, front seat heaters, rain-sensing window wipers and headlamp washers.

Other options include a DVD-based rear seat entertainment system; a Mark Levinson Audio system with 11 speakers and a six-CD changer for the audiophile who spends lots of time on the road; moon roofs, either standard-size or an oversize three-panel model; and a power lift tailgate.

The air suspension system, which chief engineer Yukihiro Okane called "a big challenge," provides three ride heights and a low "access" mode. In high position, reserved for speeds less than 31 miles per hour, the vehicle's ground clearance is a full 8.3 inches.

The suspension system's normal mode puts ground clearance at 7.1 inches (with a slight drop over 62 mph to improve streamlining and fuel economy). Low mode drops clearance to 6.5 inches for improved handling with a lower center of gravity. Access mode drops it to just 5.9 inches to make it easy for people to get in and out.
 

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My sister drives an RX 300.

I've always liked this suv. The drive is very sporty and the name tag carries the prestige. But it's too small for my family. Pilot is still the way to go!
 
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