Toyota spares no modesty when it describes the RX300 sport-utility vehicle sold by its luxury Lexus division.

"The RX300 sets the direction for future sport-utility vehicles to follow . . . combining the SUV traits most customers want--four-wheel-drive traction for poor weather, commanding visibility and utility--with the luxury, safety and quality of a passenger car."

Mighty big boast in an industry not known for little boasts. But Toyota has backed up its words. The RX300 is the benchmark for others to copy--and improve upon.

The RX300 is what's meant by a hybrid, a vehicle that combines the best traits of car and SUV with a little mini-van cargo capacity thrown in for good measure.

The RX300 is what all the other automakers are chasing, and those who attended the Chicago Auto Show had ample evidence of that by the number of similar car/van/SUV concepts on display.

In fact, the Buick Rendezvous unveiled at the auto show not only combines the all-wheel-drive traits of a sport-ute with the luxury of a sedan from the RX300, it looks like it popped out of the same designer's mold and stole its sheet metal.

If you doubt how popular hybrids have become or question how popular they will be, consider that the RX300 was introduced in the 1999 model year and immediately became the top-selling nameplate at Lexus.

Lexus can't build 'em fast enough to meet demand. More than 73,000 RX300s were sold last year, making it more than coincidence that Buick plans to build about 70,000 Rendezvous hybrids for 2002.

And if 73,000 people are willing to buy a $35,000 sport-ute carrying the Lexus name, how many would purchase a slightly less luxurious but equally functional vehicle that bore the Toyota name and was priced at about $30,000 or less?

The answer to that will come about a year from now, when Toyota gets a rendition of the RX300 that reportedly will be called Highlander. It will be unveiled at the Detroit Auto Show in January.

Rather dramatic success for an SUV hybrid derived from the Toyota Camry sedan platform. Little wonder Buick will have the Rendezvous ready for market a year from now as a 2002 model to try to take advantage of the demand for hybrids. If that's the type of vehicle people want, and 73,000 have clearly said so, better give it to them.

After the unveiling of the Rendezvous, we grabbed a Lexus to determine what it is that has folks standing in line and how it differs from the soon-to-arrive Buick.

The RX300 comes in front-wheel-drive or full-time AWD versions. Traction control is optional for those purchasing the FWD version. We tested the AWD 2000 model, the version of choice for those in the Snow Belt.

The hybrid is a more genteel sport-ute, a more stylish mini-van, a more spacious car, a less cumbersome truck. The RX300 defines not only hybrid, but multipurpose as well.

Rendezvous also will offer FWD with optional traction control or full-time AWD, a system called Versatrak that Buick says allows for packaging the AWD hardware underneath while still providing the room needed for a third seat that folds flat without having to be removed for added cargo room. The RX300 offers no third seat.

Rendezvous, by the w ay, offers safety belts for third-seat occupants, but the belts are in a bulging compartment in the roof. Good idea, unsightly execution.

Even with AWD the step-in/step-out height is low enough so you can slip in--in slacks or skirt--without needing an assist in RX300 or Rendezvous, which we had the chance to examine, but not drive.

The RX300 looks smaller on the outside than it is on the inside where leg, arm and especially head room are most spacious. Ditto Rendezvous.

The RX300 is built on a 103.1-inch wheelbase and is 180.1 inches long overall, dimensions that come from its Camry heritage. Rendezvous is built on a 112-inch wheelbase and is 186.6 inches long overall, a larger vehicle built off the same platform as General Motors mini-vans.

The RX300 is powered by a 3-liter, 220-horsepower, 24-valve V-6 with 4-speed automatic.

The V-6 is peppy enough to move you from the line without pausing for breath, but don't expect to leap from the line the same as you would if the 220-h.p. engine was powering a smaller, lighter Camry than this sedan/SUV hybrid.

The Rendezvous will be powered by a 3.4-liter, 185-h.p. V-6 with 4-speed automatic. While Rendezvous won't go on sale for almost a year, Buick said another engine is possible in the future, obviously something with more than 185 h.p.

The mileage rating for the RX300 with FWD is 19 m.p.g. city/24 m.p.g. highway, and with AWD is 18 m.p.g. city/22 m.p.g. highway. Rendezvous is rated at 19 m.p.g. city/24 m.p.g. highway with FWD, 17/22 with AWD. A standoff with FWD, advantage to RX300 with AWD.

Where the RX300 needs improvement is in handling. The suspension is tuned for a pleasant, sit-back-and-relax ride at the expense of precise, go-where-you-point-it-quickly handling.

You sit a little higher in an RX300 than you do in a sedan, which means a slightly raised center of gravity that you will feel in sharp corners and turns.

Best to ease off the gas on those turns. Even so, whether a sharp or normal turn, you'll experience body lean. Perhaps wider tracking if not a longer wheelbase and retuned suspension would give the RX300 better handling and stability.

While offering AWD, the RX300 is meant more to haul the family through the snow on the highways than it is to venture off-road. With the RX300, off-road means pulling onto the shoulder to reach the mail box.

Buick says it will focus on reducing unnecessary vehicle motion by offering a firmer ride, more sure-footed handling and more alert steering response from Rendezvous. Only time will tell.

Its 9-inch longer wheelbase should help, as should a choice of ride or handling tires, as well as the fact the RX300 has been around long enough for Buick to put it under a microscope to nitpick its shortcomings and upgrade those systems for its own vehicle.

Noteworthy items in the RX300 include dual front and side-impact air bags (Rendezvo us too), standard four-wheel anti-lock brakes (Rendezvous too), a multilevel center console with lots of storage, as well as a tray to hide a purse (compartment to hide a purse in Rendezvous in case you didn't believe the line about the nitpicking), front and rear cupholders, big mirrors for more-than-adequate side and rear vision and first-aid and tool kits in the cargo hold, where golf clubs or luggage will fit easily.

The RX300 and Rendezvous have a hatchback lid. Don't be surprised, however, if Rendezvous soon adds a two-piece lid, the top a regular hatch, the bottom a tailgate that folds down like on a pickup to hold heavy items while loading or unloading.

That feature was prominent in many of its concept vehicles at the auto show.

Rendezvous also will offer a feature the RX300 doesn't for now: a park-assist system in which sensors detect objects behind you when backing up.

Audible and visual warnings will alert the motorist of poten tial cont act with an object, from a child to a misplaced bike. Ford offers the same system in a variety of its vehicles, including the Windstar mini-van.

Base price of the AWD RX300 we tested is $33,905. Buick insists Rendezvous will slip in under that.

Standard equipment in the RX300 includes automatic climate control, AM/FM stereo with cassette, 10-way power driver's/four-way power passenger's seats, cruise control, tilt steering, power (one-touch) windows/door locks, tinted windows and rear privacy glass, power and heated dual outside mirrors, full-size spare, rear-window washer/wiper, carpeted floor mats, remote entry, ventilation/audio/trip computer/outside temperature display/clock controls and readings in an LCD screen in the dash and two power outlets.

Lots of standard equipment, but one gripe with the RX300 is the high cost of some of the popular options, especially $1,080 for an in-dash CD changer and $1,000 for a power moonroof.

>> 2000 Lexus RX300 SUV Wheelbase: 103.1 inches Length: 180.1 inches Engine: 3-liter, 220-h.p., 24-valve V-6 Transmission: 4-speed automatic Fuel economy: 18 m.p.g. city/22 m.p.g. highway Base price: $33,905 Price as tested: $38,745. Includes $1,080 for an in-dash CD changer; $1,000 for power tilt/open moonroof with shade; $1,920 for leather trim with driver's memory seat, Homelink universal transceiver, air filtration system and electrochromic (automatic dimming) inside/outside mirrors; $440 for heated front seats; $280 for rear spoiler; $76 for cargo mat; and $44 for wheel locks. Add $495 for freight. Pluses: Much better looks than van or wagon. Lots of room for people and possessions inside. Full-time all-wheel-drive for the same all-season motoring benefits as a sport-utility but with better mileage. Side-impact air bags and ABS standard. Minuses: Suspension system. Hefty option prices. No third seat. >>