Review: 2006 Lexus RX 330/400h

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Lexus changed sport/ute form and function forever when it launched the original RX 300 in March 1999, merging car-derived mechanicals with SUV ride height and versatility. Factor in luxury features and aggressive pricing, and the pioneering RX was a game changer that created the so-called "crossover" vehicle.

Introduced as a 2004 model, the second-generation RX has furthered the notion of affordable luxury crossovers, growing incrementally in size and raising the bar on refinement and content. The first Lexus built in North America (with some units also imported from Japan), the current RX launched again as a one-flavor for all vehicle, now with a 3.3L V-6 powerplant, choice of 2WD or AWD, and healthy roster of standard equipment. The options list enable buyers to select from among the most premium SUV features on the market, giving the RX more technical cachet.

For the 2006 model year, the RX became the first vehicle line to offer a luxury hybrid variant. And Lexus used this technology to create not simply a fuel-efficient iteration, but to treat the RX 400h hybrid as the step-up model with more content and performance, just as Honda had done with the Accord Hybrid.

The 186.2-inch RX is wrapped in smooth, cladding-free bodywork. Its decidedly Japanese shape conveys luxury in the delicate attention to detail, with the fine-lined grille, jewel-like headlamps, and tasteful body lines, with the rear evoking both the 2005 IS SportCross and the GX 470. The RX 400h is distinguished from the 330 by a revised grille, front fascia, foglamps, LED taillamps, and 18-inch aluminum wheels, in place of the 17-inch fitment. The coefficient of drag is 0.35 on both models.

With a gentle step up, entering the richly appointed RX cabin is relatively easy for a sport/ute. The instrument panel features three prominent gauge pods, adjacent to a striking center stack. The design focus is the middle of the dash, now with prominent vertical trim elements with integrated silver controls and slick reverse lighting. Front and center is an available seven-inch touch screen for a voice-activated navigation system that can be coupled with a rear back-up camera display -- both standard on the hybrid model. The RX comes with an eight-speaker AM/FM/CD stereo, with an audiophile-grade Mark Levinson system available, with an in-dash CD changer, 11 speakers, and crisp, powerful sound reproduction.

Comfort features abound, with automatic dual-zone climate control, rear HVAC vents, steering wheel with audio controls, HomeLink, and cruise control. The hybrid adds such items as power moonroof, power tilt/telescope steering wheel, and driver memory feature. Both iterations have deep, sumptuous front bucket seats. The driver's right leg does snug up against the center console, having us wish the seats were shifted an inch outboard. The driver benefits from 10-way power adjustment, and the passenger even has eight-way adjustment. Naturally, the interior is upholstered in soft leather, with the RX330 trimmed in wood and the RX400h dressed with aluminum trim.

The split bench seat is comfortable, with variable rake. The sloping roofline does impede on headroom, as does the moonroof, though the second row is hospitable. Legroom is good for outboard passengers, with the middle rider having to straddle the center console and driveline/exhaust hump. An available rear DVD entertainment system stands out for offering a 110V plug to power video components or game consoles. The rear seats fold forward, clicking positively in place, though they do not quite lay flat and some precious leather is exposed to cargo.

The standard power liftgate can be a welcomed convenience in harsh weather, or when your hands are full. The aft cargo floor is relatively high, but it does provide some underfloor storage, convenient for emergency gear. The sloping rear glass limits hauling ability, but the RX still manages 38.4 cu ft of volume with the rear seats up, 84.7 with them folded forward.

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