Lexus RX 300 forges new hybrid combining sedan and SUV wagon
Date Posted: 5/10/2005
PEMBERTON, B.C. -- With a quick whip-whip-whip motion, front tires of a new type of sport-utility vehicle claw pavement in a series of twisty right-left-right turns as Route 99 follows the wiggly course of Canada's Lillooet River, which etches a deep channel through Pacific Ranges of the Coast Mountains in British Columbia.
The nimble maneuver, effected at moderate speed due to the severity of each bend in the road, reveals surprising performance traits for a machine which applies power not to rear wheels like the conventional truck-based sport-utility wagon, but to wheels up front -- the ones that also steer.
This ability to both steer and pull puts the luxurious new Lexus RX 300 sport-ute wagon in a class by itself, which is the way product planners at Toyota, parent company for the elite Lexus line, envisioned it.
Front-wheel-drive orientation for one of two versions of RX 300 isn't the only reason this marks a unique vehicle.
Even a quick glance at the stunning shape and form indicates it's not just another sport-utility wagon entering what has become an increasingly crowded field now accounting for a quarter of all automobiles sold in the United States.
Although RX 300 has the extended roofline and enclosed rear quarters of a 4-door wagon, windswept lines with raked front hood and windshield and forceful forward-canted C pillars extending upwards from rear doors de-emphasize that back bay and make it look more like a sedan than a wagon.
A concise structure with squatty stance creates a people-friendly environment that's as easy to enter as a passenger car, meaning you don't have to hike yourself aboard like you would in a truck-based wagon.
Now drive it, like this writer did in a series of Canadian winter tests using pre-production prototypes, and you'll discover that RX 300 doesn't behave like a truck.
Actually, it acts like a plush sedan.
What's happening here?
Lexus, it seems, has produced a new compact-class SUV with unibody structure and car-like components which eliminate hassles associated with conventional wagons.
In surveys of SUV owners and intenders, product planners at Lexus discovered these drivers appreciate many attributes of wagons -- such as the roominess and practicality of the design, an elevated vantage from driver's seat, the rugged appearance and a general feeling of security while aboard.
However, truckish attributes of SUVs do not please those who use this type of vehicle primarily in town. They criticize nuisance factors like the brutish ride quality, a tall floor which requires climbing aboard, or muscle needed to maneuver easily in crowded parking lots.
The chief design engineer for RX 300, Tsuneo Uchimoto, explained during our drive up the Lillooet River Valley how the wagon addresses SUV hassles by forging a new type of product: "It combines Lexus quality and performance with versatility of a sport-utility and refinement of a sedan."
Uchimoto cited as potential buyers young professionals with active lifestyles and busy schedules who have yet to find the ideal car.
"Neither traditional SUVs nor passenger sedans are quite right for these people," he said. "And while they may need a roomy vehicle, station wagons seem too old-fashioned and minivans, too family-oriented."
The RX 300 amounts to a hybrid between rugged sport-ute and refined sedan. It wraps the luxurious ride quality and deluxe comforts of a Lexus passenger car in the context of a cutting-edge design with layout of a wagon and convenience of a minivan.
The new wagon adapts many mechanical components from Lexus and Toyota cars, but its unique unibody pares weight and eliminates the high step-in arrangement of SUVs where cabin structure typically mounts atop a truck's chassis.
This package still offers ground clearance and off-road approach/departure angles of SUVs, but lower floor height that permits comfortable lateral step-in for riders.
Many components of RX 300 are new, such as the underbody and exterior body stampings, interior fittings and a sophisticated electronic transmission.
Elements like the aluminum engine block, steering column and front subframe come from the Lexus ES 300 sedan and a similar made-in-America Toyota Camry, while workings of an optional all-wheel-drive system compare to the Toyota Celica All-Trac turbo coupe marketed in Europe.
A 4-wheel independent suspension with cradle subframes produces the agile behavior of RX 300 but also blocks road harshness from intruding on the passenger compartment. Power rack and pinion steering guides it, and to stop it four disc brakes link to computerized anti-lock system.
The 3.0-liter V6 engine produces an exuberant 220 hp, plus as much as 222 lbs/ft of torque.
Variable valve timing for intake and exhaust enables this engine to muster healthy low-end torque for quick acceleration and still earn high fuel economy rates.
The intelligent 4-speed automatic transmission has electronic throttle control for starting off in snow.
To increase the traction advantage, RX 300 provides an optional 4-wheel-drive system with viscous center differential coupling which disperses engine torque to the wheels that maintain the best grip.
Foot-deep snow on pavement winding through Brandywine Falls Provincial Park set up slippery driving conditions in recent British Columbia road tests, but a RX 300 rigged with 4-wheel-drive plowed that route, quickly demonstrating that this new Lexus can perform with sure-footed confidence on a slippery surface.
Inside, driver and passenger ride in stunning comfort, surrounded by luxurious appointments which include electroluminscent instruments, automatic climate controls, 10-way power driver's seat and 4-way passenger seat, plus rear seats that slide and recline and split and fold.
So much gear appears on the wagon that options are confined to premium and leather packages, power moonroof, limited-slip rear differential, seat heaters and deluxe audio system plus in-dash CD changer for six discs.
Despite plush fittings and sophisticated mechanics, Lexus dazzles with a keenly competitive chart of prices for RX 300. The base model, packed with features and rigged with front-wheel-drive system, lists for $31,550, while a 4x4 edition starts at $32,950.
1999 LEXUS RX 300 WAGON
| Vehicle Specifications:
| 1999 LEXUS RX300 Specs
||Compact luxury SUV wagon
| Model Options:
||Compact luxury SUV wagon
| Overall Length:
| Engine Size:
||QOHC 3.0-L V6
||2 (front) + 2 (side)
| Gas Mileage:
||FWD: 19/24 mpg, AWD: 19/22 mpg
||$ 31,550 to $ 37,000