Just when you think there's nothing new under the sun, the 2004 Lexus RX330 has a unique gadget to impress. It's a rear-view camera that provides a televised fish-eye scene of what's behind you while you're backing up. Using the dashboard screen of the GPS navigation system, it's something that could help you avoid squishing the neighbor's dog or backing into a tree. Necessary? Maybe. As with any sport utility vehicle or crossover, or any pickup truck for that matter, the view immediately behind the vehicle is limited by its height and opaque tailgate. Some manufacturers have responded in recent years with radar systems that warn with beeps and flashing lights if something unseen happens to be in the way. The Lexus goes one better, presenting the first production version of a backup TV camera. Those who drive gigantic motorhomes may be familiar with such systems, but this is a first for an SUV. The RX300 was the original car-based crossover SUV vehicle, and it set the stage for a burgeoning new segment in the auto industry. Revamped for 2004, the RX330 is bigger and more richly equipped, the better to face the throng of high-end competition. As Toyota's luxury division, Lexus shares the reputation for quality and reliability. What it is Here's a sweet new version of the vehicle that started the rush toward car-based crossover SUVs. A continuation of the original, the new styling is more sharp and angular, the interior has a European flare and the driving feel is more substantial. Instead of the rugged image of truck-frame SUVs, the RX330 has a softer feel and more refined look geared toward suburban moms rather than macho truck guys. With the 2004 model, the RX330 becomes the first Lexus built in North America with production at a new plant in Canada. Engine and transmission The 3.3-liter V-6 is small but powerful, putting out 230 horsepower and 242 pound-feet of torque. That's up from last year's 3-liter engine with 220 horsepower and 222 pound-feet. Despite weighing nearly two tons, the RX330 accelerates briskly. The engine never feels harsh, and highway performance is silky-smooth. Engine response is enhanced by variable valve timing with intelligence, which electronically controls valve lift and duration. The engine is also clean, qualifying the RX330 as an Ultra Low Emission Vehicle. The throttle linkage is electronic drive-by-wire and works seamlessly. A smooth five-speed automatic transmission is standard, with the test RX equipped with an optional automatic with sequential shift control. Nice. Watch for a gasoline/electric hybrid version of the RX330 in the future. Toyota already produces the thrifty Prius hybrid sedan. Handling and drivability The Lexus can be had in either front-wheel or all-wheel drive, with a front-drive version tested here. What you give up in traction, you gain in lighter weight, better gas mileage and lower initial cost. The RX330 has a ride that's firm and solid, more so than the last RX. The new version handles sharply, with the rack-and-pinion steering that's precise and better weighted. There's still body sway in turns, though the RX330 never seems too tippy. Electronics help out here as well, with Vehicle Stability Control, which helps control loss of traction in corners. The tester bore a load of options, including self-leveling air suspension with height control. Styling A bit less distinctive but also less fussy looking, the RX330 loses the side-body cladding in favor of a smoother line. It's 6 inches longer, 1 inch wider and with a 4-inch-longer wheelbase than the original. Interior The extra length is immediately evident inside, where there's plenty of space front and rear. There's also lots of room for luggage behind the back seat, though some people will be disappointed there is no third-seat option. The nicely designed dashboard with the shifter built into the lower part of the fascia has an improved look, sophisticated and luxurious. The shift setup eliminates the awkward column shift and allows extra floor space, minivan style. The gauges are crisp and clear. The DVD navigation system also is improved, easier to read and use. Pop RX in reverse, and the screen shows the view to the rear. All power and convenience features are standard equipment, with wood and leather, premium audio system, power seats, trip computer and plenty of pockets and cubbies for stowage. Also standard are side-curtain airbags and a driver's knee airbag. Pricing The RX330 starts off at a reasonable $35,000 but quickly hits the stratosphere as options add up. Among them, a $5,455 performance package with 18-inch alloy wheels and all-terrain tires; air suspension and the optional transmission; power rear door; high-intensity discharge headlamps; leather trim; roof rails; power moon roof and rain-sensing wipers; the combination navigation system with backup camera, $2,350; a rear-seat video entertainment system with DVD and remote headphones, $1,840; adaptive cruise control, which maintains a set distance from the vehicle ahead, $600. The total came to an exclusive $46,477. That's a lot of refinement for a lot of money. Bottom line Quality, performance, luxury and versatility make the RX330 a favorite among high-end crossovers. Those who want a less-expensive RX330 with many of the same qualities should check out Toyota Highlander. Vehicle type: Five-passenger, four-door sport utility crossover, front-wheel drive.Base price: $35,025.Price as tested: $46,477.Engine: 3.3-liter V-6, 230 horsepower at 5,600 rpm, 242 pound-feet of torque at 3,600 rpm.Transmission: Five-speed automatic.Wheelbase: 106.9 inches.Curb weight: 3,860 pounds.EPA mileage: 20 city, 26 highway. Highs:Overall drivability.Stylish looks.Luxury interior.Lows:Expensive options.Soft image.No third seat.
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