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Expert Reviews 2 of 4
By Matt Nauman
May 9, 2003
You can't credit the Lexus RX 300 with starting the luxury SUV movement since high-priced Range Rovers have been on the market for years and a few trucks-in-tux like Infiniti's QX4 and Mercedes-Benz's ML320 beat the RX to market. But there's no
doubt that it was the 1999 RX 300, which went on sale in March 1998, that took luxury-brand sport-utilities from the country club to the soccer field, from polo matches to the Polo Ralph Lauren factory outlet, from Napa Valley to Silicon Valley. But
even Lexus wasn't prepared for how popular the RX would become. "If you remember back to 1998 when the original RX 300 came out, people didn't quite know what to make of it," said Denny Clements, a Toyota group vice president and general manager of
its Lexus Division. Five years ago, Clements was a Toyota district sales manager in Baltimore. He saw a version of the RX in a Toyota design studio in Japan at the time and, "I thought it was goofy." Lexus predicted it would sell 25,000 a year.
It sold nearly 75,000 in 1999. That year, the RX 300 became the best-selling Lexus model. Luxury SUV sales zoomed from 90,000 in 1997 to 322,000 in 2002. By 2005, Lexus predicts, they'll grow another 75 percent to 580,000. The instant popularity of
the RX 300 seems easy to fathom in retrospect. It offered comfortable seating for five, good cargo room, luxury amenities and an (almost) sedan-like ride -- all in a sport-utility package. Plus, it came with a Lexus badge, had a fairly affordable price
tag and, importantly, had a ride height that made getting in and out easy for women. Now, and this is where a lot of automakers stumble, Lexus has created the second-generation RX. How significant is the new RX? In the 15-year history of Lexus in the
United States, only the original LS 400 sedan and the current LS 430 rank with the second-generation RX in importance, Clements said. Prices for the new model range from $35,025 for the two-wheel-drive version to $36,425 for the all-wheel-drive
model. That first RX sold for $33,500 to $35,100. The new truck gets a new, bigger engine, a 230-horsepower, 3.3-liter V-6, which means that the 2004 RX will be called the 330. The five-speed automatic transmission is new, too. It gets sharper
exterior styling. Clements describes it as "much more athletic." He didn't say more masculine, but that's the implication. It also gets improved fuel economy and a larger cabin, because the RX 330 is 6.1 inches longer, 1.1 inches wider and 0.4 inches
taller than the RX 300. Most notable, however, might be the array of fancy and high-tech items that Lexus added to the RX. Most are options, but they extend features found in very expensive luxury models into a class of vehicles with price tags
starting the mid-$30,000s. The list includes: Air suspension. Drivers can choose from three ride heights, based on road condition
s and terrain. The highest offers 8.3 inches of ground clearance. The lowest, called access mode, drops the RX to around six inches to make getting in and out easier. At speeds above 31 mph, the vehicle automatically moves to its normal ride height of 7.1
inches. Adaptive front lighting. Remember the Tucker, the car (and car maker) that fought Detroit and lost? Well, it had a center front headlight that turned with the steering wheel to improve night-time driving visibility. The RX 330 does
Tucker one better. Available with the air-suspension system, the adaptive front lighting (AFS) system has two swiveling headlights. In a left turn, the left one rotates up to 15 degrees while the right one remains fixed. In a right turn, the right
headlight moves up to five degrees. Rear backup camera. On vehicles equipped with the DVD-based navigation system, a rear backup camera helps assure drivers that no obstacles (like bikes or kids or trash
cans) lurk behind the vehicle. When a driver shifts into reverse, the navigation system's monitor instantly offers a glimpse of what's behind. The camera is mounted near the rear license plate. Rain-sensing wipers and water-repellent glass. The
wipers come on whenever rain hits the front windshield, while the front-door glass keeps rain from impeding a driver's vision. What the new RX doesn't have that some of its competition does are adjustable pedals, a specific roll-over prevention
system like Volvo's XC90 and a third row of seats. Lexus has two other sport-utilities, the GX 470 and the LX 470, with three rows of seats, and because the first-generation RX was such a success without one, "we didn't see the need," Clements said.
Lexus feels it has added enough new stuff to appeal to its already loyal RX owner base. Fully 40 percent of RX 330 buyers will be current or previous RX 300 owners, Clements said. Most buyers will be women, though more men will buy the RX 330
than did the RX 300, he said. Nearly three-quarters of buyers will be married. Many will be 40 to 45 years old with household incomes of $125,000 to $150,000. Surprisingly, only 30 to 35 percent of them will have children under 18 at home.
"They're empty-nesters or they're single," Clements said. While Toyota will continue to build the RX at its Kyushu plant in Japan, production of the SUV will start in Ontario, Canada, in September, making it the first North American-made Lexus.
Starting in 2005, Lexus will offer a hybrid version of RX 330 that promises increased power with compact-car fuel economy. "It is an amazing technology," said Clements, who expressed a concern that it'll be so good that "it will actually make the
non-hybrid maybe even less attractive."