1999 Lexus RX300
1999 Lexus RX300, Click image to enlarge

By Jeremy Cato

Lexus, the luxury arm of Toyota Motor Corporation, consistently ranks at the very top of customer surveys for quality and reliability. Just why is illustrated wonderfully by the small handful of buyer’s alerts and recall notices for the RX300.

In terms of quality issues, there just isn’t anything there to get very worried about. Which really is quite amazing, given the RX300 arrived as an entirely new 1999 model, one which led the vanguard of what has become a wave of so-called “crossover” vehicles.

Lexus clearly was ahead of the curve with the RX300. How far ahead? Consider last January’s North American International Auto Show in Detroit. The Chrysler Group of DaimlerChrysler showed off a 2004 model called the Pacifica which will very much be a competitor to the RX300 when it goes on sale next year.

Except that by the 2004 model year, Lexus will have likely launched — or will be very close to introducing – the second-generation, completely remade RX300.

How will Lexus improve upon the crossover idea of blending the attributes of a car, a sport-utility vehicle and a minivan? We can’t know yet. But expect a lot to change, from the current RX300’s shiny chrome grille and projector-beam headlamps (behind clear plastic aero covers) all the way down to the tailgate at the rear.

Of course, the heavy dose of luxurious interior furnishings will continue and likely be improved upon with more high-tech odds and ends. In the meantime, if you’re looking at a slightly used RX300, chances are heavily in your favour that it will prove to be a trouble-free purchase.

Okay, a little background for potential buyers.

The RX300 arrived as a direct, in-your-face response to the then-new Mercedes-Benz ML320 activity vehicle. From price to general dimensions and even in horsepower, these two highly evolved vehicles came out of the same garage-think.

It is a garage where designers and engineers came to realize that a lot of sport-ute owners were then and will continue to move from a boxy, hard-riding truck with mediocre fuel economy, to something more refined and sophisticated.

At the same time, these buyers have never wanted to surrender the best of what a sport utility offers: a commanding seating position, roominess and comfort, all-weather traction, a sense of security and powerful, even daring looks.

Both the ML and RX delivered on those accounts. But of the two, the RX300 has proven clearly to be more car/minivan than sport ute. It has a slightly lower step-in height (and lower ground clearance) for easy entry, the base of the windshield is far off from the driver (just like a minivan) and a softer ride. Both were and remain beautifully appointed.

In terms of off-road abilities, the RX300 has not been equipped with a low-range transfer case and its all-wheel drive system is based on a more traditional centre differential with a viscous limited slip coupling and a limited slip rear differential.

The RX300 was designed to provide reliable traction when the going gets slick. It works fine in the snow, but is not recommended for serious rock-pounding. Do note that the transmission has come with button-operated modes for Economy, Power and Winter.

In terms of cabin comforts, dominating the front of the RX300’s interior is an oval-ish console unit with a full colour information screen. It displays the working details of the climate control and stereo system, while below the screen are redundant hard controls for both systems. It’s a snap to operate and has proven quite reliable in use.

Overall, this vehicle’s shape is swoopy and eye-pleasing, with tastefully chosen materials fitted together precisely. The cabin is roomy. Power from the 3.0 litre V6 has remained at 220 horsepower from day one.

This is a pleasant crossover to drive, with good brakes and a soft ride. And folks, odds are that a slightly used one won’t break in any meaningful way for another eight or 10 years.

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