2004 Lexus RX 330
Click image to enlarge


story and photos by Greg Wilson

Smooth operator


When it was introduced in 1998, the Lexus RX 300 was an early leader in the then-controversial movement towards car-based luxury SUVs. Its unit body platform, fully independent suspension, permanent all-wheel-drive system, and relatively soft suspension made it one of the most car-like SUVs on the market. Six years later, most other luxury automakers have introduced their own car-like SUVs – vehicles like the Infiniti FX35, Nissan Murano, BMW X5, Land Rover Freelander, and Cadillac SRX. Even truck-based SUVs like the Lincoln Aviator emphasize driving ease and comfort.

Not surprisingly then, the new 2004 Lexus RX 330 is even more car-like than the RX 300. Bigger and roomier, the RX 330 is 150 mm longer (5.9 in.), most of which has gone into a longer wheelbase which was stretched by 100 mm (3.9 in.). As well, the RX 330 is 30 mm (1.2 in.) wider and 10 mm (0.4 in.) taller. All this adds up to a roomier cabin – front passengers have over 50 mm (1 inch) more legroom and rear passengers even more. Despite its larger size, the RX 330 is only 63 kg (140 lb.) heavier than the RX 300.

Cargo capacity behind the rear seat is up only about 1/2 a cubic foot, but with the rear seatbacks folded down, maximum cargo area has increased by a substantial 10 cubic feet to 84.7 cubic feet.

The RX 300’s styling is rather streamlined when compared with other SUVs, but the RX 330 is even more aerodynamic. Its slippery shape facilitates airflow and minimizes wind noise which contributes to an even quieter cabin.

Under the hood, a new 3.3 litre twin cam 24 valve VVT-i V6 engine replaces the 3.0 litre unit. At first glance, it doesn’t appear to be a lot more powerful. Horsepower is up from 220 to 230 and torque is up from 222 to 242 foot pounds. However, maximum torque is now reached at 3600 rpm instead of 4400 rpm, and combined with variable valve timing, provides more satisfying throttle response at lower speeds. As well, the engine uses less gas than the RX 300, and achieves Ultra-Low Emissions Vehicle (ULEV) status – in part due to a new electronic “drive-by-wire” throttle.

2004 Lexus RX 330
Click image to enlarge

Another noteworthy powertrain improvement for 2004: a new five-speed automatic transmission replaces the four-speed automatic.

The RX 300 and RX 330 both have the kind of four-wheel-drive system you never touch – it’s full-time, all the time. For 2004, the revised AWD system uses a centre differential to split engine power between the front and rear wheels, but the use of a new traction and stability control has eliminated the need for a centre viscous coupling. The new system is lighter and more vibration-free, according to Lexus.

As before, the RX 330 comes with disc brakes on all four wheels and anti-lock brakes, Electronic Brake Force Distribution (EBD) and Brake Assist (automatic emergency braking assist). However, the brake system has been redesigned with larger discs, a new master cylinder and a brake pedal assembly with a shorter stroke. The Brake Assist system has also been improved. The RX 330’s optional vehicle stability system helps prevent understeer and oversteer, and a traction control system prevents wheelspin. Standard 17 inch tires replace last year’s standard 16 inch tires.


Model lineup and pricing


The 2004 RX 330 base model starts at $49,900, which is actually $1,700 less than the 2003 base model. Standard features include the five-speed automatic transmission, leather power seats with seat heaters, dual zone automatic climate control with air filter, AM/FM/CD/cassette audio system with eight speakers, power tilt/telescopic steering wheel, woodgrain trim, 40/20/40 split folding rear seatbacks, remote keyless entry, and anti-theft system. As well, standard safety features include multi-stage airbags for the driver and front passenger, a new knee airbag for the driver, a new type of large side airbag in the front seats, and side curtain airbags for both front and rear seat occupants.

2004 Lexus RX 330
Click image to enlarge

For $52,700, the RX 330 with the Luxury Package adds power moonroof, rain sensing wipers, and illuminated entry. For $54,875, the Premium package includes an in-dash 6-disc CD player, moonroof, power rear hatch door, rain-sensing wipers, and wood/leather wrapped steering wheel and shift knob. For $57,025, the Premium Package with multi-panel moonroof adds two moonroofs, a 240 watt Mark Levinson 11 speaker audio system. And for $62,190, the Ultra Premium package adds a rear DVD player/monitor and a DVD-based Navigation system.

Those who want the sportiest RX 330 available can choose the RX 330 Sport, which for $56,180, includes a new adaptive, height adjustable air suspension, sequential shifter, auto-leveling HID headlamps, moonroof, and 18 inch wheels and tires.

By the way, the 2004 RX 330 is built in Canada, the first Lexus to be built outside of Japan! It’s manufactured in the same factory that builds the Corolla and Matrix in Cambridge, Ontario – a plant that has won four Gold Awards from J.D. Power and Associates for plant quality in the past 12 years.


Interior impressions


When you open the driver’s door of the RX330, you are greeted by an illuminated “Lexus” logo on the door sill – so you’ll know what kind of vehicle you own even at night! The step-in height of 482 mm (19 inches) is low – yet when you get in, the driver’s position feels elevated.

2004 Lexus RX 330

2004 Lexus RX 330

2004 Lexus RX 330
Click image to enlarge

The interior is attractive and luxurious with liberal use of wood trim (maple or walnut), metallic dash trim, and high quality plastics. The leather front seats have handy inboard folding armrests, and infinitely variable seat heater adjustments which include the seat cushion and backrest. My test vehicle had the attractive, optional leather/wood combination steering wheel. Finding a comfortable driving position is as easy as adjusting the power tilt and telescopic steering wheel and the 8-way power driver’s seat. The passenger seat is a 4-way power seat.

The instruments are located in three deep pods directly ahead of the driver, and they are illuminated all the time for easy visibility. A large black on white LCD display at the top of the control panel includes readouts for the clock, outside temperature gauge, and trip computer readouts such as trip fuel economy and average speed. The LCD display also shows driver and passenger temperature readings for the automatic climate control and ventilation functions.

The operation of the RX330’s controls can be characterized as “smooth and silky”. From the dials on the radio to the feel of the steering, everything seems to have a refined, luxurious motion.

The RX330’s shift lever, as before, is mounted high on the lower centre dash area where it’s easy to reach. Its gated shift pattern allows the driver to shift side-to-side between 4th and 5th gears, however, I find zig zag shifters more of a hassle than a benefit. I prefer the straight “pull back” type.

On the lower console, which is separate from the dash, I liked the covered cupholders and covered storage bin which has unique dual doors that you open and close by pushing a button.

Getting in to the rear seats is easy due to the low step-in height and large rear doors. Adults in the rear seats have plenty of legroom and headroom, and a fold-down centre armrest includes a wood-trimmed cupholder cover and a separate storage area. The back of the front seats also includes expandable elastic pockets with a hard cover.

The RX 330 has unique 40-20-40 folding rear seatbacks. The outboard seats fold almost flat simply by pulling up on a lever on the top of the seatback and pushing down. The centre portion also folds down separately, enabling skis or long objects to be carried in the middle while two passengers sit on the outsides.


Flexible cargo area


2004 Lexus RX 330

2004 Lexus RX 330
Click image to enlarge

At the rear, the lift-up hatch door can be raised manually, or with an optional power feature. Press a button on the key head, three warning beeps sound, and the tailgate raises up automatically, and lowers automatically.

The cargo load floor height is 736 mm (29 inches), and a plastic scuff guard on the rear bumper prevents damage to the paint. The cargo area is 1117 mm (44 inches) wide, but the suspension strut towers reduce the minimum width to 990 mm (39 inches). From the tailgate to the rear seat, the cargo floor is 990 mm (39 inches) long, and with the rear seat backs folded, the cargo floor length is a full six feet (1828 mm).

Under the cargo floor are three handy covered storage areas. These compartments can be opened by pressing a button on the cargo floor. The forward compartment contrains the jack and a few tools and more cargo space.


Increased safety


In addition to increased structural strength, the new RX 330 offers multi-stage front airbags which deploy according to inputs that include crash severity, passenger weight and the position of the driver’s seat on the track. As well, there’s a new knee airbag for the driver and a new type of large side airbag in the front seats that specifically protects the torso, abdomen and pelvis. The side curtain airbags offer additional crash protection for both front and rear seat occupants.

Driving Impressions


“Quiet and refined” is the best way to describe the RX330’s driving manners. Cabin noise is very low, even while accelerating. At idle, there is virtually no engine vibration through the steering wheel, and at speed the engine and tires are barely audible. Wind noise is the major noise, but it’s not excessive.

2004 Lexus RX 330
Click image to enlarge

The lengths which Lexus engineers went to make the RX 330 quieter are really quite amazing: the hydraulic engine mounts were redesigned, and the exhaust system on the RX 330 was straightened to make it more rigid and help eliminate low frequency exhaust vibrations, particularly at idle. To reduce mid-range drivetrain vibration, Lexus engineers lined up the drive components between the engine and rear axle – the result was a 20 per cent decrease in driveline vibration transmitted through the front door panels.

Sound-proofing materials were added all around the passenger cabin to reduce high frequency noise from the wind, engine and road. Outside, the luggage rack crossbars were redesigned to eliminate lift and the noise that goes with it. The windshield wiper arms were repositioned to rest below the main air stream from the hood. Even the body panel gaps between hood and fender, and between front and rear doors feature all-new seals to nearly eliminate noise.

From the driver’s seat, I found visibility good in all directions with the exception of the right rear where the pillar is thicker than average. The three rear head restraints, particularly the centre one, are positioned lower in their rest positions so as not to impede the driver’s visibility.

2004 Lexus RX 330
Click image to enlarge

The new 3.3 litre V6 engine produces 230 horsepower at 5,600 rpm and 242 lb-ft of torque at 3,600 rpm, a 4.5 per cent increase in horsepower and 9.0 per cent increase in torque at lower engine rpms. In addition, Toyota’s Variable Valve Timing with intelligence (VVT-i) optimizes torque at all engine speeds. Acceleration from 0 to 100 km/h is brisk, though not noticeably better than the RX 300 I thought – reason: the RX 330 weighs more. But low speed responsiveness has improved, and the RX 330 is more enjoyable to drive around town. The new 5-speed automatic glides from gear to gear and is responive to pedal input. Like many automatic transmissions nowadays, it holds in a lower gear as you descend a grade to act as an engine brake, and won’t shift up as you climb a grade to prevent ‘gear hunting’. On the freeway, the quiet engine does just 2000 rpm at 100 km/h.

The RX 330’s revised, fully independent McPherson strut suspension feels tight and sold, but the RX 330 has a softer ride and more lean than some SUVs. The steering too, has a lighter feel than some competitors. The RX 330 was designed for ride comfort rather than handling. Still, I liked its fairly tight 11.4 metre (37.4 ft.) turning diameter and ease of maneouverability.

My car had the optional HID projector beam low beams – at night, they illuminated a wide, clear band that extended to the sides of the vehicle. The high beams added an upper range to the existing low beams of almost equal intensity. Once you’ve tried good headlamps, you can never go back to regular ones…


Optional air suspension


My test vehicle didn’t have the optional air suspension, but it is available on the Sport model. It’s a driver-selectable system with automatic levelling and four selectable height settings. In “Normal” mode, the system automatically lowers the RX 330 slightly to improve handling and ride comfort at highway speeds. The vehicle returns to normal ride height when the speed falls below 80 km/h.

“Low” mode reduces the ride height by 15 mm (0.6 inches) to boost steering response and tracking through curves. “High” position raises the chassis by 30 mm (1.2 inches), increasing ground clearance when driving over rough terrain. “Access” mode automatically lowers the vehicle by 30 mm (1.2 inches) when the engine is stopped for easier entry and exit.


Competitor overview


Six cylinder competitors for the 230 horsepower Lexus RX 330 ($49,900) include the 260 horsepower Acura MDX ($49,800), 215 horsepower Mercedes-Benz ML320 Classic ($49,500), 225 horsepower BMW X5 3.0i ($57,800), 208 horsepower Volvo XC90 2.5T ($54,995), 280 horsepower Infiniti FX35 ($52,500), and 220 horsepower VW Touareg V6 ($52,100).

These are all impressive competitors, but where the RX 330 stands out is in ride comfort, quietness, ease of driving, fit and finish, and most likely, overall reliability. The RX 330 is not as sporty or as fun to drive as the X5, MDX or FX35, and arguably less capable off-road than the ML320 and Touareg with its special air suspension. But for typical urban and highway luxury with the added advantage of all-weather traction and ground clearance, the RX 330 is a fine road machine.


Verdict


Not particularly exciting to drive, but oh so smooth and quiet – and practical too.


Technical Data: 2004 Lexus RX 330

Base price $49,900
Options (Premium Package: in-dash 6-disc CD player, power hatch, power moonroof, HID headlamps, leather and wood steering wheel and shifter, rain sensing wipers.
Price as tested $54,785
Type 4-door, 5-passenger mid-size SUV
Layout transverse front engine/all-wheel-drive
Engine 3.3 litre V6, DOHC, 24 valves, VVT-i
Horsepower 230 @ 5600 rpm
Torque 242 lb-ft. @ 3600 rpm
Transmission 5-speed automatic
Tires P225/65R-17 all-season
Curb weight 1844 kg (4065 lb.)
Towing capacity 1587 kg (3500 lb.)
Wheelbase 2715 mm (106.9 in.)
Length 4730 mm (186.2 in.)
Width 1845 mm ( 72.6 in.)
Height 1680 mm (66.1 in.)
Ground clearance 180 mm (7.1 in.)
Cargo capacity 1080 litres (38.3 cu. ft.) behind rear seats
  2400 litres (84.7 cu. ft.) behind front seats
Fuel consumption City: 12.8 l/100 km (22 mpg)
  Hwy: 9.0 l/100 km (31 mpg)
Warranty 4 yrs/80,000 km
Powertrain Warranty 6 yrs/110,000 km

Connect with Autos.ca