New Car/Review

1999 Lexus RX300

by Carey Russ

Lexus Full Line factory footage (10:11) 28.8, 56k, or 200k

The Lexus RX300 is the first large, upscale, hybrid sport- utility. Like the smaller hybrids, it is built on a car-like unit- construction platform with fully-independent suspension. It is available with front-wheel or all-wheel drive, but not with dual-range four-wheel drive. On-road comfort is more important in its design specification than off-road prowess. Grizzled four-wheelers may grumble, and call the RX300 a station wagon or minivan in sport-utility disguise, but city folks are snapping them up at a great rate. Welcome to the sport-utility vehicle of the future.

The RX300 is a sport-utility for the suburban real world. Its 200-horsepower 3.0-liter V6 is powerful enough for any use it will be put to, and reasonably fuel-efficient. Available all-wheel drive gives the RX300 all-weather capability, and its step-in height is unintimidating. During a week with an all-wheel drive model, I found it to be as quiet as any other Lexus, quick, and absolutely smooth and civilized. If it's closer in character to being an ES300 wagon than a bone-crushing truck, that is exactly what many modern SUV shoppers are looking for.

APPEARANCE: The RX300 certainly has interesting styling. No boring, slab-sided truck, it has the high, boxy SUV silhouette. But is far more styled than is the norm for SUVs. Every body panel has some styling device to keep it interesting. The trapezoidal Lexus grille has vertical, radially-fanned bars and is flanked by complex, faired headlamp clusters. The grille is set into the front of a prominent hood bulge. A high beltline crease and slight fender flares give interest to the sides. The windshield is more highly raked than is the SUV norm, and the passenger cabin is extremely styled, with oddly-shaped small windows in front of the mirrors. The C-pillar is similar to that of an ES300, with an irregularly-shaped window behind and a sloping backlight. The alloy wheels have an upscale, sporty look, and 7.7 inches of ground clearance and contrast-colored lower cladding adds to sport-utilitarianism. Squint and look just right and the RX300 looks very much like a high ES300 wagon.

COMFORT: Comfort? Hey, this is a Lexus. Comfort is its middle name, and probably first and last names, too. Some of the interior styling features are as unusual as the exterior, but everything is actually very logically placed and well-executed. The futuristically-styled instrument panel has plenty of vents for the excellent climate control system. "Optitronic" electroluminescent instruments are easily read in any light. A liquid crystal screen display for climate control, driving information, and audio systems presents data well. Most unusual is the placement of the shift lever, in a lower projection of the instrument panel. Electronic control makes this work, and the resulting flat floor is used for a useful multi-compartment console box. There are plenty of other convenient storage spaces throughout the cabin. The power- adjustable front bucket seats are supportive and comfortable; the 60/40 split rear bench folds flat easily. The one-piece rear liftgate is easy to use, and cargo liftover is reasonably low. Despite the high amount of pure style, the RX300 is very functional.

SAFETY: The RX300 has front and rear crumple zones and a rigid safety cage around the passenger cabin. It has seat-mounted side airbags as well as front bags, and antilock brakes and daytime running lights are standard.

ROADABILITY: Because of its unibody construction and fully- independent suspension the RX300 is as comfortably smooth and quiet on the road as is expected from a Lexus. The suspension is compliant without being too soft, and gives a ride much like that of an ES300. Body roll is more noticeable as the RX is much higher than an ES, but it is not excessive. The RX's steering and handling are definitely far more car-like than truck-like, and its four-wheel antilock disc brakes stop it quickly and surely. The high driving position affords great visibility, and the odd little windows in front of the mirrors really do help visibility in a very important area. The RX300's off-road capabilities are more car-like than truck-like, but dirt roads pose no problem.

PERFORMANCE: The RX300 has a new version of the Lexus twincam, 3.0-liter, 24-valve V6 with the same continuously-variable valve timing system as was introduced on the LS400 and GS400 V8. The main benefit is improved low-rpm torque for instant acceleration. It also improves fuel economy and decreases emissions. The RX300 meets California passenger-car low-emissions vehicle standards and makes a very healthy 220 horsepower. It is quick, quiet, and matched with a slick new four-speed electronically-controlled automatic transmission. All-wheel drive versions like my test vehicle works unobtrusively and automatically.

CONCLUSIONS: Is it a car? Is it a minivan in disguise? Is it the sport- utility of the future? The Lexus RX300 is a new type of vehicle that combines the benefits of a sport-utility with the comfort and quiet of a luxury car.

SPECIFICATIONS

Base Price               $ 33,205
Price As Tested          $ 37,684
Engine Type              dual overhead cam, 24-valve V6 with
                         continuously-variable valve timing
Engine Size              3.0 liters / 183 cu. in.
Horsepower               220 @ 5800
Torque (lb-ft)           222 @ 4400
Transmission             4-speed electronically-controlled
                         automatic
Wheelbase / Length       103.1 in. / 180.1 in.
Curb Weight              3,900 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower    17.8
Fuel Capacity            17.2 gal.
Fuel Requirement         unleaded premium (92 octane)
                         recommended, regular (87 octane)
                         permissible
Tires                    P225/70 R16 Bridgestone Dueler H/T
Brakes, front/rear       vented disc / solid disc, antilock standard
Suspension, front/rear   independent MacPherson strut /
                         independent MacPherson strut
Ground clearance         7.7 in.
Drivetrain               front engine / all-wheel drive

PERFORMANCE
EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed      19 / 22 / 20
0 to 60 mph                   8.8 sec
1/4 mile (E.T.)               16.6 sec
Towing Capacity               3,500 lbs.
Coefficient of Drag (cd)      0.36

OPTIONS AND CHARGES

Leather trim package with driver's seat memory    $ 1,280
In-dash 6-CD auto-changer                         $ 1,080
Power tilt & slide moonroof                       $ 1,000
Rear limited-slip differential                    $   390
Roof rack                                         $   234
Destination charge                                $   495

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