Fully redesigned for the 2004 model year, a second generation of the entry-level sport utility vehicle from Toyota’s luxury division was introduced at Detroit’s North American International Auto Show in January 2003. Switching from a 3.0-liter V-6 to a more powerful 3.3-liter engine has transformed the old RX 300 into the new RX 330.
The RX 300 has been Lexus’ top-selling model — the one that led off and continues to dominate the car-based compact-SUV segment. “The success of [the] RX has been nothing short of amazing,” says Danny Clements, Lexus group vice president. It “remains the best-selling luxury utility vehicle there is, with 22 percent of its market.”
For 2004, “the new RX takes the best of the previous model and makes it even better,” Clements says, promising more interior space and luxury features. Lexus offers a number of new options, including an Adaptive Front Lighting System that automatically aims the headlights in the direction of a curve.
The larger, midsize RX 330 went on sale on April 1, 2003, and Lexus plans to market about 75,000 annually. Most RX 330 production will be transferred to the Lexus/Toyota’s Canadian plant in September 2003, making the RX 330 the first Lexus manufactured outside of Japan.
Lexus announced at the North American International Auto Show that an RX 330 with a gasoline/electric hybrid powertrain will be available within the next two years. “The RX with Hybrid Synergy Drive has a V-6 engine with the power and torque of a V-8 and delivers the fuel mileage of a compact car while producing a fraction of the emissions of standard SUVs,” says Fujio Cho, president of Toyota Motor Corp.
Despite increased dimensions, a sleeker, cladding-free look and refined aerodynamic details, the RX 330’s appearance has not changed dramatically, especially up front. The headlights are slightly larger and stretch farther back into the hood than those on the previous iteration. The fog lamps are more integrated into the bumper, and pronounced wheel wells add to the rugged stance.
As viewed from the side and rear, the RX 330’s styling shows greater differences, having turned from a rounded-look SUV into a design that’s closer to a sport wagon. A hexagonal rear window and an integrated spoiler are installed. Three-pod LED taillamps sit behind clear lenses and differ in shape and position from those on the RX 300.
The wheelbase of the new platform is more than 4 inches longer, and the RX 330 is more than an inch wider, 6.1 inches longer and nearly a half-inch taller than the RX 300. The standard tires are now 17 inches in diameter, but 18-inch tires will be offered as an option.
A multipanel moonroof is standard. Options include a powered liftgate and high-intensity-discharge headlights. An available air suspension features automatic leveling and four selectable ride height settings, including an access mode for easier entry and exit.
Five occupants will fit inside the RX 330, and front legroom has grown by 1.8 inches. Cargo volume has also increased from 75 to 84.7 cubic feet. The folding backseat is split in a 40/20/40 configuration.
New standard features include automatic-dimming inside and outside mirrors and a power tilt/telescoping steering wheel with a memory feature. Options include laser-based adaptive cruise control, rain-sensing windshield wipers, a backseat DVD entertainment system and a navigation system that includes a rearview camera that displays an image on the LCD screen when the transmission is in Reverse.
The new 3.3-liter V-6 engine generates 230 horsepower at 5,600 rpm and 242 pounds-feet of torque at 3,600 rpm — that’s 10 hp and 20 pounds-feet of torque more than the RX 300’s V-6 pumped out. A new five-speed-automatic transmission helps improve gas mileage, according to Lexus. Models with the air suspension get a multimode sequential automatic transmission. A drive-by-wire throttle system helps Lexus meet the Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle (ULEV) rating. Lexus claims best-in-class acceleration times from zero to 60 mph in no more than 7.8 seconds, which is a full second faster than what the RX 300 could manage.
Multistage front airbags and a driver’s knee airbag are standard. A large side-impact airbag for front occupants is designed to protect the pelvis, abdomen and torso. Side curtain-type airbags that protect occupants’ heads cover the front and rear side windows in a side-impact collision. All models get Vehicle Stability Control and a tire-pressure monitor.
While the original RX 300 stood apart from the premium SUV pack, its enlarged successor seems less distinctive and more ordinary in driving qualities. Smooth highways yield a beautiful ride, though occupants may be knocked a bit on rough urban pavement. The suspension reacts quickly and appropriately but sometimes stiff-arms its way through holes rather than absorbing them. Even though its body doesn’t lean badly through curves, the RX 330 doesn’t always feel entirely sure of itself, almost suggesting that the driver keep a light foot on the brake pedal.
Acceleration is sometimes brisk and sometimes less so, depending on the starting speed. Automatic-transmission reactions can be abrupt and accompanied by engine blare at times when the gas pedal is floored. Some upshifts take place slowly rather than crisply, making them a bit more noticeable.
The RX 330 stays neatly in its lane on freeways and its steering feels satisfying, with a slightly lighter touch than average. Braking is well modulated with good pedal feel. Bright electronic gauges are easy to read even if they sit in very deep enclosures. The seats are inviting and comfortable, and occupants get plenty of space in the front. A few dashboard controls are somewhat difficult to find. Rear headroom and legroom are abundant, and cargo space is plentiful. The best feature of all is the available rearview video camera, which yields a clear and helpful picture.