For years the biggest selling Lexus in the US was the RX300 - the mid-size four-wheel drive that we tested (in grey market import form) at New Car Test - Toyota Harrier/Lexus RX300. In fact, Lexus sales in the US increased by 60 per cent a year after its introduction. The RX300 was a car that would also have suited the Australian new car market - but the local arm of Lexus couldn't get it. So when the new model RX330 was on the drawing board they put in a word early - and now we have available a car that is likely to prove very important to Lexus and also a heavyweight in the field of softroaders.
The RX330 is in the BMW X5 and Honda MDX mould - suitable for families and a size up over the Honda CRV and Rav4 class. However, it's not a 'serious' off-roader in the way of its larger brother Landcruiser-based RX470 - instead it's built largely around the mechanicals of the Toyota Kluger but clothed in a more stylish body and boasting a far higher equipment level. Pricing starts at $69,990, with the as-tested Sports Luxury model coming in at $78,500. We loved the Kluger (see New Car Test -Toyota Kluger CVX) but the RX330 is over half as expensive again...
The RX330 is powered by an all-alloy, 172kW, 3.3-litre V6. A technically advanced engine with variable valve timing, the engine boasts Ultra Low Emission status in the US and has a handy 328Nm of torque at 3600 rpm. It works with a 5-speed Tiptronic style auto and an active-control centre diff that distributes the torque to all four wheels. Contact with the ground is through Michelin Energy 225/65 LX4 tyres on alloy wheels.
Think '172kW' and you might also think scintillating performance but - at least in the car we had - performance was average. We struggled to beat 100 km/h in anything better than the high nine-second bracket - a long way short of the acceleration we achieved in the competitor Honda MDX and also much slower than the claimed time of 8.4 seconds. However, the driveline is sweet and smooth, with sufficient power and response for most driving situations. At 12-15 litres/100 km, fuel consumption is competent in this class.
Once Lexus prided themselves on the handling of their vehicles but the RX330 represents the same philosophical direction that we've seen in many recent Lexus models. On the road it's fine up to a certain point and then, whammo!, you've stepped past what the engineers regarded as sufficient grip. In the case of the RX330, nothing then startling happens: the stability control system simply beeps a lot and the car is electronically settled. However, it needs to be noted that the stability control comes in awfully early - if you're the sort of driver who at times pedals even semi-sportingly, you're sure to meet the electronics around a bend.
Start to really throw the RX330 around and the system almost completely shuts the car down, with electronic throttle retard and braking both occurring in major doses.
However, the corollary of all that is that the RX330 is a very hard car to have an accident in; especially in wet conditions it shows excellent stability and predictability in behaviour. Just don't look at its attractively sporty shape, read it 'sports luxury' tag, think of 172kW and all-wheel drive - and expect it to drive like any kind of sporting car. It doesn't.
The ride is excellent, well-controlled and capable of absorbing rough surfaces with only minimal unpleasantness to the occupants. Together with the high equipment level, excellent NVH (noise vibration harshness) suppression, good steering and 'command' driving position, the RX330 is a comfortable car in which to cover both long and short distances.
One of the highlights of the Lexus is the vast array of equipment - and how well it all works. Unlike some luxury four-wheel drives - where the climate control can blow hot and cold and the cruise control is jerky - the equipment operates in a seamlessly excellent way. Boasting a large centre-of-dash LCD touchscreen which is used interactively for personalising settings and also for displaying data from the DVD-based navigation and trip computer, the car is also equipped with a colour reversing camera (the view appears on the LCD), leather, sunroof, a Mark Levinson in-dash multi-CD sound system (good - but the treble could be better), power front seats (driver's has memories) and a powered tail-gate. A what? Well, by pressing a button on the dash or the remote, the rear door can be lifted automatically. When your arms are full of groceries, it works very well.
Downers? Well, if you're in the habit of manually adjusting air con fan speed and other climate control details, you'll have to use the touch screen - only the temp and on/off status of the complete climate control system can be quickly accessed by normal pushbutton controls.
Numerous airbags are fitted - try intelligent multi-stage driver and passenger SRS airbags, TAP (Thorax-Abdomen-Pelvis) front seat side airbags, full-length side curtain shield airbags and an 18-litre driver's knee airbag! A first aid kit and warning triangle are also provided.
The interior of the cabin has been designed with a close eye to practicality: the door pockets open for easy access, the centre console slides forward and backwards to allow (albeit tight) walk-through access to the rear, there are lots of cupholders and the rear fold-down seat splits in a 40/20/40 ratio and can be slid forward for more load space. When folded, the rear seat locks into a flat position. Back seat passengers have adequate (although not generous) space - move the front seats forward a little and it's fine.
The RX330 in a superbly built, highly-equipped car. What you see in the showroom is largely what you get on the road - quiet, smooth and comfortable. Whether it's worth so much more than the Kluger depends rather on how much buying weight you put in the extra equipment; however, the RX330 does come together as an integrated luxury car, rather than a tarted-up lower-spec model. We were a touch disappointed with the driving dynamics but for most buyers it'll be just fine: we're sure that the RX330 will be a local sales success.
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