Story and photos by Grant Yoxon
Frank, my truck driving nephew, wasn’t impressed with the Lexus RX 300. “Townie,” he sneered.
Frank knows a thing or two about trucks. He owns several including a Freightliner highway tractor, a Dodge Ram 2500 extended cab with Cummins diesel, and an assortment of other pickups and dump trucks.
When not hauling cars with his freightliner or ripping up pavement with his asphalt grinder, Frank enjoys heading off-road and trail-riding with his Polaris Sportsman 500 High Output All Terrain Vehicle.
His personalized license plate on the Dodge reads “MUD BUD”.
“There’s no shifter,” he said, noticing the carpeted floor between the driver and passenger seat. “How do you shift it into four wheel drive?”
“You don’t. This vehicle is in all-wheel-drive all the time,” I explained. “It has an integrated transfer case and viscous limited slip centre differential. Normally, torque is split 50/50 between the front and rear axles. If the front or rear wheels slip, the differential directs power to the axle with the most traction.”
“Well, that might be okay for you townies, but people who live in the country need real trucks and this isn’t a real truck.”
For sure, the Lexus RX 300 is no truck. But it’s not everyone who wants or needs a truck. They don’t haul heavy cargo. They don’t need to pull a fifth wheel trailer. And they’re really not interested in taking a $50,000 vehicle up to its wheel hubs in mud.
They want a vehicle with the comfort and ride of a luxury sedan, the cargo carrying capacity of a station wagon, enough grunt to haul a boat to the lake and, when the weather turns foul, the added security of all-wheel-drive.
This was the market Lexus went after when it introduced the RX 300 in the spring of 1998 as a 1999 model. Apparently, Lexus was very perceptive because the mid-sized luxury sport utility vehicle has been its best selling model ever since.
For us townies – and a good number of country dwellers too I would imagine – the RX 300 offered the right package of luxury, all-weather performance and above all, safety. Not only does the RX 300 offer all-wheel-drive, but also traction control and vehicle skid control. Both systems use throttle and brake control to reduce wheel spin or to correct oversteer and understeer during cornering. Four-channel, four sensor anti-lock brakes are standard.
The RX 300 fared well in crash tests, earning five stars (the highest rating) in US National Highway and Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) side impact testing for front and rear occupants, five stars for passenger safety in a front impact and four stars for the driver. In frontal offset testing performed by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the RX 300 earned a “good” overall rating and “Best Pick”.
Of course, it is well-known that SUVs have a higher risk of rolling over than cars and the RX 300 is rated three stars out of five on rollover resistance by the NHTSA. This means that in a single vehicle crash, there is a 20-30 percent chance the RX 300 will roll over. Compared to other SUVs this is both good and average – the majority of SUVs fall in this category and only a few are rated better.
The RX 300 has standard front and side air bags for front seat occupants and seatbelts have pre-tensioners and force limiters. In 1998, this was pretty much state-of-the-art for safety equipment. But increasingly common in luxury vehicles – and not available for the RX 300 – are side curtains that unfold in a side impact crash to protect the heads of both front and rear occupants. The RX 300 is widely expected to receive a major overhaul for the 2004 model year, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see this feature in the future.
One has to wonder if Lexus isn’t holding off on adding some desirable features to the RX 300 given that a re-design is imminent. Some elements seem curiously dated, while others are lacking.
The RX 300’s six-CD changer is not mounted in the dash where you’d expect it. The changer is in the glove box. CDs are loaded into a cassette then inserted into the changer. There are no audio controls on the steering wheel, a feature found in many less expensive vehicles.
Although the audio and heater controls are well-placed and easy to reach on the centre console, they are similar in size and feel. More than once I found myself turning up the temperature, when I thought I was turning up the volume.
The RX 300 is equipped with automatic climate control, but dual zone climate control is not available.
Audio, climate control and trip information is displayed on a blue liquid crystal screen mounted at the top of the centre console. Curiously information is displayed in reverse order to the location of the controls on the console.
Lexus’s excellent navigation system is not available, although it is optionally available for US buyers. Similarly, the world-class Mark Levinson stereo system – available on the comparably priced ES 300 – is not available for RX 300 audiophiles.
When seated comfortably with respect to the pedals, the steering wheel was too far away for me, a situation that would be cured by a telescopic steering column. The RX 300 has only the most basic tilt steering.
We tested two RX 300s over the past couple of months – the luxury edition which is the base model in Canada, priced at $51,250, and a ‘Coach’ edition, a designer model that adds a few unique features for $53,850. Also available in Canada is a sport package that includes a unique black interior with aluminum accents, standard roof rack and rear spoiler for $52,100.
The big difference between the Coach edition and the base model is birds eye maple wood trim instead of California walnut, a unique ‘Modellista’ grille, chrome plated wheels and standard roof rack. Perforated leather seats, Coach edition floor mats and badges, and some designer luggage round out the package.
One has to wonder if it is worth $2,600. I would easily trade the luggage, floor mats and fancy grille for a functional steering column, dual zone climate control, a real in-dash CD player, Mark Levinson audio and the opportunity to order the DVD-based navigation system.
Despite being a little dated, the RX 300 is still a pleasing vehicle to my eye, visually emphasizing the ‘sport’ in sport utility vehicle. The interior is luxuriously appointed with fine leather, the heated front seats are wide and comfortable for my middle-aged butt and getting in and out is a breeze. One doesn’t climb up into the RX 300. The seats are set at the perfect level. You just move over a bit and you’re sitting down.
The rear seats are just as comfortable and recline for passengers who want to relax. They also move forward and aft to maximize either legroom or luggage space. Depending on the position of the seat, luggage capacity ranges from .913 cu. m (32.2 cu. ft.) to 1.073 cu. m (37.8 cu. ft.). The rear seat will fold practically flat to permit up to 2.125 cu. m (74.8 cu. ft.) of cargo space.
Unfortunately, there is no internal release for the rear hatch, which opens upward like the rear door of a minivan. If I had one request for a future RX 300, it would be for a power rear hatch. There is no reason why this feature should be restricted to minivans.
Other standard comfort and convenience features include heated, power adjustable front seats, drivers seat memory system, power windows, all auto up and down, electrochromic automatic dimming side view mirrors and electrochromic rear view mirror with integrated digital compass, dust and pollen filtration system, and power tilt and slide moonroof.
On the road the Lexus RX 300 rides as comfortably as a sedan. Once you get used to the higher SUV-style seating position, it is easy to forget you are not driving a car. The RX 300 has a fully independent suspension with MacPherson struts front and rear. Anti-vibration sub-frames at both ends of the monocoque chassis and strut tower braces between the front and rear struts optimize stability, control and ride comfort, and provide an exceptionally quiet cabin.
Still, despite displaying extremely good road manners for an SUV, the RX 300 does not respond to abrupt manoeuvres and panic braking as well as a car. This is not a criticism of the Lexus RX 300, but of SUVs in general. You can’t toss around an SUV as adroitly as a sports sedan.
Power is provided by the same 3.0 litre engine found in the ES 300 and Toyota Camry, Avalon and Sienna minivan, but tweaked for improved performance. The all-aluminum, 24-valve, dual overhead cam V6 is a smooth operating, quiet engine that produces 220 horsepower at 5,800 rpm and 222 lb/ft of torque at 4,400 rpm, 80 per cent of which is available at only 1,600 rpm. Lexus claims a 0-60 mph time of just 8.8 seconds, which is quick for an SUV, but .7 seconds slower than the ES 300 with 210 hp, reflecting the extra weight of the SUV.
The extra torque comes in handy not only to pull its own weight, but also to pull a trailer. Towing capacity is 1,587 kg (3,500 lbs).
Heck, Frank could even tow his ATV to the start of the trail and get there in pretty luxurious comfort. But then his trail-riding friends might think he was a ‘townie’.
|Options||Coach edition package, $2,600|
|Price as tested||$55,370|
|Type||4-door 5-passenger luxury sport utility|
|Layout||transverse front engine, full-time all-wheel-drive|
|Engine||3.0 Litre V-6, DOHC 24 valves, Variable Valve Timing with intelligence (VVT-i)|
|Horsepower||220 @ 5,800 rpm|
|Torque||222 lb-ft @ 4,400 rpm|
|Tires||P225 70R16 all season radials|
|Curb weight||1,685 kg (3,715 lbs)|
|Wheelbase||2,615 mm (103.0 in.)|
|Length||4,580 mm (180.3 in.)|
|Width||1,815 mm (71.5 in.)|
|Height||1,670 mm (65.7 in.)|
|Ground clearance||196 mm (7.7 in.)|
|Towing capacity||1,587 kg (3,500 lbs)|
|Cargo Capacity||1.073 m3 (37.8 cu. Ft.) (behind rear seat)|
|2.125 m3 (74.8 cu. Ft.) (behind front seats)|
|Fuel consumption||City/Highway 13.0/9.7 L/100km ( 22/29 mpg)|
|Warranty||48 months/80,000 km|
|Powertrain Warranty||72 months/110,000 km|