Lexus pioneered the so-called sport-utility vehicle/sedan segment with the introduction of the RX300 in the 1999 model year. While the rest of the industry laughed at a car-based sport-utility, Lexus got the last guffaw. The RX became the best-selling nameplate at Lexus, the luxury division of Toyota, and helped propel it to No. 1 in luxury-car sales in the industry. The RX300 has prompted several imitators, such as the Acura MDX, BMW X5, Mercedes-Benz ML, Volvo XC90, Chrysler Pacifica and later this year the Cadillac SRX, as well as others expected soon, such as from Lincoln. To keep a step ahead of the competition, Lexus has brought out the next-generation RX, a 2004 update of the 1999 model that's at dealerships now. It's assembled in Canada, the first Lexus built in North America rather than Japan. The new version is longer, wider and taller, three dimensions that have made a roomy machine even more comfortable. When viewed in profile, it still looks a lot like its predecessor. But that's not a rap against it because the RX is sufficiently distinctive to be appealing. Wheelbase has been extended by nearly 4 inches, to 106.9 inches; overall length by nearly 6 inches, to 186.2 inches; width by more than 1 inch, to 72.6 inches; and height by just less than an inch, to 66.1 inches. Some will grouse that while the RX330 sports bigger dimensions, it remains a two-row, five-seat vehicle. Lexus responds that's why it brought out the slightly larger GX470 for '03, which offers three rows of seats as an option, but starts at about $9,000 more. The RX330 also has a more potent engine, with a 3.3-liter, 230-horsepower V-6 replacing the 3-liter, 220-h.p. V-6. The change in engines is the reason the designation is the 330 rather than the 300. More significant, the new 3.3-liter V-6 boasts 242 foot-pounds of torque at only 3,600 r.p.m. whereas the 3-liter delivered 222 foot-pounds at 4,400 r.p.m. With more low-end muscle, the RX330 acts far more lively and responds more quickly to pedal pressure than its predecessor. With the boost in torque, there's a little more sport in this sport-utility. What's pleasantly surprising is despite being more potent, the V-6 is also more fuel efficient, gaining 1 m.p.g. in the city and 3 m.p.g. on the highway, thanks in large part to the 5-speed automatic that replaces the former 4-speed automatic. The RX330 comes off the platform of the Camry that was redesigned for '03. What that means is that it looks more like an SUV than a sedan, but acts more like a sedan than an SUV. However, the suspension felt firmer in the 330 than it did in the 300. Not harsh, but just a little more prone to filter some of the roadway irregularities back into the seat cushion than the old model. An air-suspension system with four settings to adjust ride to road conditions is optional and wasn 't on the test vehicle. Too bad, because when you opt for the air suspension, you get Adaptive Front Lighting, in which the low-beam bulb and lens pivot in the lamp assembly based on vehicle speed and steering-wheel angle to help illuminate turns or curves. Those lamps are part of a $5,455 performance package that also includes 18-inch radials, power hatch lid, rain-sensing wipers, manual mode automatic transmission, as well as the premium package with leather seats, tilt and telescoping steering wheel and power moonroof. The test car came with the premium package only. For '04 17-inch radial tires are now standard, 18-inch radials an optional upgrade. For '03 16-inch radials were standard, 17-inch the upgrade option. The larger radials, plus tweaks to the steering system for more precise response to wheel input, provide more sedan than SUV-like handling. As an added benefit, the RX330 comes with vehicle stability control as standard, which senses loss of lateral traction when cornering and reduces engine torque or applies the anti-lock brakes to individual wheels to keep the vehicle under control and headed in the direction you intended. Noteworthy features for '04 include a new air-bag system with larger side-impact cushions, side curtains for front- and rear-seat passengers and a driver's side knee bag to keep from submarining under the steering column. The front air bags now have sensors to detect crash severity, passenger weight and driver's seat position in relation to the steering wheel to determine the deployment speed of the bags. Also new is a DVD entertainment system ($1,840) with drop-from-the-ceiling screen to keep the kids occupied on long trips; conveniently located power plugs front and rear, with the rear a 100-watt outlet for such things as computer or coffeemaker; a slide-back center console that exposes a purse-holder tray; a pair of stowage compartments in the rear cargo floor with push-button lids; an armrest with cup/DVD headphone holders for the second-row seat; and water repellant driver and front passenger door window glass. The test vehicle also came with an optional ($400) power hatchlid similar to that offered in Chrysler minivans. Push a button in the dash or on the key fob and the rear lid opens or closes. If an object stands in the way, the lid bops, stops and retracts. We stood in the path and the lid did as advertised, striking the shoulder, stopping and motoring out of the way. Nice feature to have when the arms are loaded. However, the Chrysler lid seems to spring in action faster. An option missing was the navigation system, which as regular readers know is on our list of favorite features just behind fuzzy dice. But this navi system includes a backup camera to show the area behind you on the dash screen. A much better system than relying on sonar sensors to beep when an object is detected behind when backing up. However, the camera is effective only if you keep the lens that's near the license plate clean. The '04 RX330 is offered in front-wheel- or all-wheel-drive, the version tested. FWD starts at $35,025, or $100 less than in '03; AWD starts at $36,425, or $500 less than '03 despite the remake and all the goodies added for the new model year. Of course, as noted, the RX has lots more rivals now, and nothing will attract lookers faster than a lower price. Such amenities as automatic climate control, power windows/seats/mirrors/door locks, AM/FM/cassette/CD player, cruise control and tool/first-aid kits are standard. Coming a year from this fall is a hybrid version of this vehicle, a gas/electric rendition that promises city/highway mileage in the mid 30 miles per gallon even with AWD. Lexus sold 70,000 RX's last year but expects to sell 75,000 this year. Even with its rivals, the upgrades in room, comfort and performance should ensure it reaches its goal. TEST DRIVE'04 Lexus RX330Wheelbase: 106.9 inchesLength: 186.2 inchesEngine: 3.3 liter, 230 h.p., 24-valve V-6.Transmission: 5-speed automatic.Fuel economy: 18 m.p.g. city/24 m.p.g. highway.Base price: $36,425.Price as tested: $42,173. Includes $1,840 rear seat entertainment system with wireless headphones; $665 for heated front seats/rain sensing wipers/headlamp washer; $2,145 for premium package with leather seats, power tilt/telescoping steering wheel, power moonroof, roof rails/roof rack, illuminated entry system; $400 for power rear hatchlid; $380 for wood/leather steering wheel and shift knob; $92 for cargo net; $66 for wheel locks; $160 for towing package. Add $575 for freight.Pluses: New generation with modest redesign and larger dimensions for more cabin comfort as well as road holding ability. New V-6 adds lots more horsepower and torque for quicker off the line movement. All wheel rive for all season motoring. Power open/close/retract hatchlid. Attention to detail, such as stowage compartments in the floor of the cargo hold. New DVD entertainment system. Hybrid version promising mid-30 m.p.g. mileage coming in a year.Minuses: Ride a bit firmer than expected. Power hatchlid not as quick to open as that on Chrysler mini vans.
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