Story by Grant Yoxon
Photos by Laurance Yap
Vancouver, B.C. – Five years ago, Lexus introduced a new sport utility vehicle that was exactly what affluent consumers wanted – an SUV that combined the all-weather capability and safety of all wheel drive with the comfort, convenience and performance of a luxury sedan. Although Lexus officials confess to having been only “cautiously optimistic” about their sport utility, the RX 300 quickly became Lexus’ biggest selling vehicle, accounting for nearly 40% of Lexus sales, and the best selling luxury SUV in North America.
Imitators were quick to follow and today, the luxury SUV segment is overflowing with competitive products from other luxury brands including Acura, Infiniti, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Lincoln, Volvo and Cadillac. Even Porsche, who recently introduced the Cayenne sport utility, decided the segment was too important to ignore.
That the RX 300 has remained a dominant player in this segment is a bit surprising. It is not a particularly spacious wagon and many of its luxury features have become commonplace items in lesser vehicles. But the Lexus name, its reputation for quality and reliability, is a saleable commodity and the company has had no trouble selling as many RX 300s as it could produce.
But the RX 300 will soon pass into history. This month, Lexus will begin selling an all new RX, the RX 330. And this time Lexus is more than cautiously optimistic. Officials of the company that we spoke with at the Canadian media introduction of the 2004 RX 330 in Vancouver are confident that the second generation RX – the first Lexus to be built outside of Japan – will sell even better.
Changes and improvements on the RX 330 are significant with new exterior and interior styling, a new engine and transmission, new suspension, a new all-wheel-drive system, improved safety and a slew of new technology.
The exterior styling – the RX 300 was less boxy than most – has become even sleeker and more aerodynamic. The broad C-pillar which once sliced diagonally through the side glass has been moved back leaving an uninterrupted facade. The roof now trails more graciously toward the belt line. Contributing to an improved coefficient of drag of 0.35 are a redesigned roof rack, repositioned windshield wipers, and improved seals between the doors and the hood and fender. Although minor, these improvements help make the Lexus RX 330 nearly as quiet on the highway as the ES 300 sedan.
The vehicle is 155 millimetres (6.1 inches) longer, 28 mm (1.1 in.) wider and slightly higher (10 mm or .04 in) than the previous model. The wheelbase has been stretched almost 100 mm (3.9 in) as well. Despite its growth in size, interior room is only slightly larger and the RX 330 is still a five seater.
Under the hood is the new 3.3 litre V6 which will also power the 2004 Toyota Sienna minivan. This engine, which produces 230 horsepower at 5,600 rpm and 242 pound feet of torque at 3,600 rpm, features an all-aluminum block and heads, variable valve timing, acoustic control induction and electronic throttle control. Despite weighing 1,844 kilograms (4,065 pounds) – 64 kg (140 lbs) more than the RX 300 – acceleration is brisk. Lexus claims the RX 330 will accelerate from 0 – 96 kilometres per hour in 7.8 seconds. Towing capacity – 1,587 kg (3500 lbs) – should be sufficient for most light duty towing needs.
The 3.3 litre V6 is ULEV (ultra-low emissions) rated and has a Canadian fuel economy rating of 12.8 litres per 100 kilometres (22 miles per gallon) in city driving and 9.0 L/100 km (31 mpg) on the highway.
Power is transferred through a new five-speed automatic transmission that features a gated shifter mounted below the centre stack controls. This transmission is also available with “sequential multi-mode control” with the RX 300 Sport Package, which allows the driver to manually shift the gears.
Like the RX 300, the RX 330 has full-time four-wheel-drive, using a centre differential to split power evenly between the front and rear wheels. But unlike the RX 300, the RX 330 does not have a viscous coupling in the centre differential. If wheel slip occurs, the system uses electronic controls – Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) and Traction Control (TRAC) – to re-apportion engine power front-to-rear and side-to-side. The new four-wheel-drive system is lighter than previous and laid out in a straighter line to reduce drive line friction, vibration and noise.
The RX 330’s suspension has been completely re-engineered, from suspension geometry to shock absorbers, and the turning radius has been reduced 12 metres (39 feet), improving manoeuvrability. The RX 330s we drove handled well and provided decent road feel without sacrificing ride comfort. The body felt tight over rough roads and sedan-smooth on the highway.
Buyers who need more versatility from the suspension can opt for the RX 330 Sport and its standard air suspension. This system offers three different ride heights for driving and a unique access mode. In ‘Normal’ mode, the system automatically lowers the RX 330 7 mm at highway speeds to improve fuel economy and stability. The driver can also select to manually lower the ride height by 15 mm, increasing steering response and cornering ability. For off road conditions, the RX 330 can be raised 30 mm to increase ground clearance. A special ‘Access’ mode will lower the vehicle 30 mm when the engine is turned off to permit easier entry, exit and loading.
Air suspension is just one of a number of advanced technology features available with the RX 330. The RX 330 Sport also has an adaptive front lighting system that swivels the right and left headlights independently in the direction of a turn, allowing the driver to see further into a curve. The top-of-the-line Ultra Premium RX 330 includes a rear-mounted camera that displays on the DVD-based navigation system monitor whenever reverse gear is selected. A wide-opening multi-panel moonroof is also available, as is a power rear lift gate.
Standard equipment on the $49,900 ($1,700 less than the base RX 300) RX 330 ‘Leather Edition’ includes leather interior, heated power front seats with two driver memory settings, dual-zone climate control with air filter, anti theft system and engine immobilizer, integrated Homelink garage door opener, automatic retracting cargo cover, keyless remote entry, power tilt and telescopic steering wheel with integrated audio controls, auto dimming mirrors, wood grain trim, sliding centre console and 17-inch alloy wheels.
The Luxury package, priced at $52,700, adds power moonroof, rain sensing wipers and premium illuminated entry system. A premium luxury package ($54,785) ads wood and leather trimmed steering wheel and shifter knob, auto levelling HID headlamps, a power rear hatch and 6-disc CD changer. For $57,025, buyers can upgrade to an 11-speaker Mark Levinson audio system and multi-panel moonroof. For those who must have it all, the Ultra Premium package ($62,190) offers DVD-based navigation system with rear back-up monitor and rear-seat DVD entertainment system.
Many of the technological improvements found on the new RX involve safety and, kudos to Lexus, most are available across the model line. You won’t have to shell out for the most opulent RX 330 to get safety features like four wheel anti-lock brakes with brake assist (senses a panic stop and applies more brake pressure) and brake-force distribution (optimizes braking effort between the front and rear axles). They are standard features, as are all-speed traction control and vehicle stability control. VSC detects a front or rear wheel slide and attempts to control the condition by reducing engine torque or by braking individual wheels.
Air bag protection within the cabin is extensive, with multi-stage driver and dual-stage passenger front air bags, driver’s side knee air bag, front and rear side-curtain air bags and front seat-mounted side air bags that protect the torso, abdomen and pelvis.
While technology will woo potential buyers, it’s the small things that make happy customers. Attention to this kind of detail is evident throughout the cabin. For example, the passenger’s vanity mirror has adjustable illumination, while lights on the driver’s vanity mirror won’t shine in your eyes. All windows are auto up and down. The centre console moves forward and back. The steering wheel telescopes and tilts at the touch of a switch. Three separate storage bins can be found beneath the cargo floor. Outside mirrors turn down in reverse. Electroluminescent instrumentation is easy on the eyes and illuminates in stages. Heated seats have continuous temperature settings from 30 degrees to 42 degrees Celsius.
Lexus is counting on its technology, attention to detail and reputation for quality and reliability to move many more RX 330s than it did with the previous generation. Toyota has invested $650 million to expand its award winning Cambridge, Ontario plant and boost annual RX production by 60,000 units. If you buy a Lexus RX 330 this month, it will have been built in Kyushu, Japan. But if you buy in the Fall, there is a good chance it will come from Cambridge.