Del Mar, California
The original car-based luxury SUV (or, in today's parlance, crossover vehicle) is already going in for its first redesign just as a flood of competitors are emerging from the starting gate. First introduced in March 1998were the late '90s really that long ago?the Toyota Camry-derived RX300 immediately became a runaway hit, tripling its maker's conservative sales estimates. It's been the most popular Lexus every year since (and with no incentives).
No surprise, then, that the new model hews to the same lucrative path. Predictably, the new version is larger, stiffer, and heavier. Good thing the V-6 engine has been enlarged from 3.0 liters to 3.3 (hence the name change) and has been imbued with an additional 10 horsepower and 20 pound-feet of torque. That's enough to enable both the front-wheel-drive and the all-wheel-drive RX330 to snap off sub-eight-second 0-to-60-mph times, which, Lexus says, makes the RX330 quicker than the Acura MDX, the BMW X5 3.0i, the Mercedes-Benz ML320, and the Volvo XC90, its major competitors. It also returns a commendable 18 mpg in the city. But although the RX330 steps lively off the line and now packs an additional gear in its automatic transmission, we still wished for greater urgency in passing maneuvers.
Besides the larger engine and the five-speed automatic, another powertrain upgrade is the redesigned (optional) all-wheel-drive system, which has a center differential that splits torque 50/50 front to rear and then uses the Vehicle Skid Control sensors to send torque across an axle in the case of wheelspin. New this year is an available air suspension, which can raise the RX 1.2 inches or lower it by as much as 0.6 inch on the go or 1.2 inches at a stop. The air suspension is also supposed to be firmer than the soft-riding standard setup, but we didn't feel a dramatic difference. Suffice it to say, the RX330 is too dedicated to the plush-riding Lexus idealeven when rolling on its optional eighteen-inch wheelsto mount a serious challenge to the X5. Likewise, the steering is fine for straight ahead, but there's no buildup of effort as you turn the wheel. We were impressed, however, with the RX330's tightened turning circle.
Perhaps our expectations of sportiness were falsely raised by the RX330's new sloped roofline, which is the car's biggest departure from its predecessor. The slant-back profile exacts a minor penalty in cargo space with the rear seats in place (38.3 cubic feet are now on hand), but maximum cargo volume is increased to nearly 85 cubic feet. More important, people space remains generous, albeit only for five as Lexus has resisted the urge to stuff in a third seat. (Lexus SUV shoppers looking for one are ushered over to the GX470.) The front chairs are certainly comfortable, but in the rear, although there is headroom and legroom galore, we would have liked a higher seat cushion.
No complaints, however, about the design or quality of the interior, which is now fully the equal of any car in the Lexus line. The new dash loses the bizarre jutting pod that housed the gearshift; the center console not only scoots backward to make room for a lady's (or, we suppose, a European man's) purse but also boastsyeslighted cup holders. For even greater luxury, buyers are invited to gorge themselves at the options buffet, where new temptations include a huge three-panel glass sunroof, laser-based adaptive cruise control, high-intensity-discharge headlamps that turn with the front wheels, a power liftgate, a rear-view camera, a rear-seat DVD entertainment system, and a Mark Levinson stereo. The amazing part is that despite all this, a hopelessly self-indulgent RX330 buyer won't spend more than $45,000. (The base price is likely to remain close to the outgoing car's $35,000.)
The RX330 delivers everything the original did and adds a good deal more luxury. Despite a herd of imitators, we predict its popularity will be undiminished.