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Expert Reviews 1 of 5
By Richard Truett
July 9, 1998
The rise of the luxury sport-utility vehicle likely will be one of the biggest trends of the 1998 model year.Every automaker that has brought out a rugged-looking but spiffed-up sport-utility vehicle has scored a solid hit this year, even if the
thing can't really go off-road very well.In fact, this week's test vehicle, the stylish new RX 300 from Lexus, is more of a pretender than a contender when it comes to kicking up some serious dust off road.But that's OK -- because the RX 300 was
not really made for that sort of driving. It's what is called a hybrid vehicle. That is, the underpinnings are from a car, but the body is made to look like a sport-utility. The RX 300's foundation is the Lexus ES 300/Toyota Camry, not one of Toyota's
trucks. The RX 300 is really just a luxury station wagon that rides like a car. When ordered with the optional all-wheel drive system, the RX is capable of some light off-roading, not serious trailblazing. But for gadding about town on shopping
excursions, the RX 300 is just the ticket.PERFORMANCE, HANDLINGAs with the Toyota Camry, Avalon and ES 300 sedans, the RX 300 comes with the same smooth and powerful 3.0-liter, V-6, overhead cam engine and four-speed, electronic, automatic
transmission. Horsepower is up slightly from either 194 or 200 in the cars to 220 in the RX 300.For an additional $1,400, the RX 300 can be outfitted with full-time all-wheel drive. Our gorgeous dark green test vehicle didn't have the system, but it
really didn't need it. In Central Florida, most drivers never need all-wheel drive. It would only come in handy infrequently, such as when launching a boat or when driving in very soft sand.Generally, performance is excellent. No matter how hard you
press the accelerator, the engine goes about the business of moving the RX 300 without making much noise or vibration. And the transmission's shifts are practically seamless. A button on the shifter allows the driver to switch into a sport mode, which
delays the shifts slightly and improves acceleration.A traction control system and a switch that enables the vehicle to start in second gear help keep the wheels from spinning on slippery pavement.But the RX 300 does have a flaw that is very
uncharacteristic of a Toyota-made vehicle: Several times I had to hold on tight to the steering wheel as I accelerated quickly.It seems the RX 300 has what engineers call torque steer, which is a tugging to the left or right under hard acceleration.
However, in most normal driving situations, the flaw is not evident.The 3,700-pound vehicle feels light and agile as it builds up speed and rounds corners. For all practical purposes, it drives just like a Lexus sedan. The four-wheel, independent
suspension system provides a quiet, supple ride that does not transmit much shock to the interior when driving over large bumps.The power-assisted steering is light and responsive, making the RX 300 extremely easy
to steer into tight spaces. Four-wheel, power-assisted, anti-lock disc brakes are standard.Fuel mileage came in at about 19 mpg in combined city/highway driving.FIT AND FINISHOne reason Lexus has made such a big impact in the luxury
segment of the market so fast is that its designers have a knack for creating first-class interiors.The warm and cozy inside of the RX 300 is in keeping with the Lexus tradition.There's the usual backlit Lexus analog gauges but also a lighted
screen in the center of the dash that displays the status of the air conditioning system and radio. The screen also displays trip information, and buttons just below the screen change the radio stations.The shifter is not really on the floor. It's
angled slightly and comes out of the lower portion of the dash. I can't recall another interior design quite like this.As you would expect, the RX 300 is loaded with features and accessories. The air-conditioning system ha s rear vent
s, and the power windows go up and down with just one touch of the button. The RX comes with remote-controlled power door locks, power heated outside mirrors, tilt wheel, cruise control and wood trim on the dash and door panels.The power leather seats
are superb. The driver's seat has an inflatable lumbar support. The rear seats fold forward and turn the RX 300 into a good-sized cargo hauler. There's a decent amount of head and leg room in the back for adult passengers.Lexus didn't skimp on safety.
The RX has dual front and side air bags, daytime running lights, side-impact protection, anti-lock brakes and front and rear energy-absorbing crumple zones.Options on our test vehicle included a power sunroof ($1,000), an in-dash, six-disc CD player
($1,050), and the leather trim package, which added $1,240. The sunroof, by the way, has a nasty flaw. Go faster than 45 mph and it makes a terrible roaring sound.In the past, I've criticized Lexus vehicles for being bland and boring in styling and
performance.I can't say that about the RX 300. It has dynamite looks -- I especially like the classy chrome grille and nifty looking taillights. The RX 300 is an excellent vehicle for those who like the image that an off-road vehicle projects but who
would rather not drive a lightly disguised truck.1999 Lexus RX 300Base price: $31,550.Safety: Dual front and side air bags, anti-lock brakes, side-impact protection and traction control.Price as tested: $36,294.EPA rating: 19 mpg city/24 mpg
highway.Incentives: None.Truett's tip: The RX 300 offers the velvety smooth performance of a Lexus sedan but in a tougher-looking, more versatile package. Well-equipped and assembled flawlessly, the RX 300 is an excellent value.