Lexus RX 330 remains a luxury SUV benchmark

January 27, 2006|by DAN LYONS / Motor Matters

Lexus caught on early. Years before many manufacturers realized where the sport-utility market was heading, Lexus was already there. "There" was more car and less truck; more on-road and less off-road; more station wagon and less SUV.

Lexus arrived in 1998 with its first luxury sport-utility, the RX 300. The timing was perfect. The RX 300 quickly became the best-seller in the luxury maker's lineup - and the best-selling luxury SUV, period. With success came a successor; the RX 330, which made its debut in 2003. Fast forward to 2006 and it is year three of generation two for the Lexus RX. It's still the company's best-seller, still tops the charts for luxury sport-utility vehicles. The secret of its success is really no secret.

Many luxury cars are bought from the inside out; so too for luxury SUVs. The RX cabin - already long on luxury features - adds a few more for 2006. Most notably: the passenger seat joins the driver's seat with 10-way, power adjustable controls. One reason for the popularity of the RX 330 is that it blurs the line between luxury car and SUV.


Slip into the front seats and you'll find all of the comfort and convenience features that you'd expect in a luxury sedan. Seating is quite accommodating of the tall and the small. Controls and switchgear are easy to reach and operate. Lexus blends fine wood trim (walnut or bird's-eye maple) with fit and finish that are world class.

Standard features include heated, power adjustable, auto-dimming outside mirrors, an electroluminescent instrument panel, power windows, a sliding center console, a stellar eight-speaker sound system with CD player, an anti-theft system, keyless entry, reclining/sliding rear seats, redundant controls on the steering wheel and Vehicle Stability Control. Even with this high level of standard equipment, options abound. Choices on the menu include both the traditional and the cutting edge. Buyers can add leather seating surfaces, a choice of two moon roofs, adaptive cruise control, adaptive front lighting with HID headlamps, premium sound system, air suspension and DVD rear entertainment system, to name most (but not all) of the choices.

The navigation system option ($2,350) has a 7-inch screen, voice activation and easy-to-use interface. The screen also displays a wide-angle picture of what's directly behind when you slip the transmission into reverse. Bluetooth compatibility allows the system to work with your Bluetooth-equipped phone, allowing hands-free calls through the touch screen control panel.

The interior holds four to five comfortably, and a good deal of cargo as well. Storage space runs the gamut from generous (38.3 cubic feet with rear seats up) to cavernous (84.7 cubic feet with rear seats folded), and the one-piece, swing-up hatch door can be operated manually or by remote control. You can program the standard, power rear liftgate to open with the touch of a button - convenient, when you've got your arms full. Liftover height in back is low, and a tonneau cover provides cover for cargo and automatically retracts when the hatch is opened.

The RX 330 is offered in front-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive versions, and both are equipped with a Vehicle Stability Control system. For my test driver, I chose an AWD model, as do 60 percent of RX 330 buyers. The Lexus AWD and VSC systems are transparent to the driver, requiring no input. When the systems detect wheel slip, they channel power from front to back wheels or side to side as needed, to maximize grip. VSC also steps in during cornering, applying throttle or braking individual wheels as necessary to combat a slide. In sloppy winter weather, the Lexus is surefooted and easy to maneuver.

One drivetrain is offered: a 3.3-liter, 223-hp V-6, linked to a five-speed automatic transmission. It's a really smooth engine; comfortably quick off the line (0-60 mph in 7.8 seconds) and it cruises easily at highway speeds. Gas mileage is in the ballpark for the breed. The Environmental Protection Agency says an AWD model will get 18 mpg city; 24 highway.

The RX 330 is refined and comfortable and offers a boatload of high-tech electronics. Any luxury SUV that's been developed in the past eight years has benchmarked it, and for good reason.

Copyright, Motor Matters, 2006

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