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First drive: Lexus RX330 is no push-over

Lexus Luxury: The RX330 is weighed down with high technology and luxury.

We missed out on the first RX, but this time we've beaten the Yanks to the RX330

18 Apr 2003

WHEN a classy rock-hopper is as successful in the land of the Sports Utility Vehicle as the mid-sized Lexus RX nameplate has been in the US, you know its chances of hitting Australian shores are pretty good.

With luxury off-roaders being Australia's fastest growing vehicle segment (to the point they now comprise an official market segment of their own), it was never a question of if Lexus would enter the medium off-roader market, but rather when.

Indeed, Lexus admits it missed the boat to import the original RX300 that took the luxury SUV world by storm in the US and Japan in 1998, many examples of which have since been privately imported.

"There has been substantial RX demand in Australia for some time," said Lexus senior executive vice-president John Conomos.

"Although RX is not the first on the market here, as it was in the USA, it is still expected to quickly establish a presence in the luxury SUV vehicle market. Customer response - especially from existing Lexus owners - tells us the launch of the RX in Australia is long overdue." Enter the thoroughly revised RX330, which this time goes on sale here about a week before its official US release.

Like its popular BMW X5 and Mercedes-Benz M-class stablemates, the five-door, five-seat RX330 is said to combine the refinement of a luxury car with a high driving position, versatility and four-wheel drive technology.

All but matching Volvo's revised XC70, the Mercedes-Benz ML270/320 and Australia's newest luxury SUV - Honda's mid-sized, seven-seat MDX, launched only two weeks ago - the entry level RX330 Sport will be priced at $69,990.

Understandably, Lexus makes much of the five-seat RX330's build quality and extensive standard equipment list. On the passive safety front, there are multi-stage driver and passenger front airbags, twin side airbags up front, full-length side curtain airbags and a revolutionary 18-litre driver's knee airbag, bringing the airbag count to seven.

Active safety includes the four-wheel drivetrain, ABS with Electronic Brake-force Distribution and Brake Assist, Vehicle Swerve Control, active traction control, auto-levelling high-intensity discharge headlights and front/rear foglights.

There's also a power-operated tailgate and versatile 40/20/40-split, slideable rear seating. Even the centre console slides fore/aft.

Other standard RX330 Sport equipment includes climate control air-conditioning, 17-inch alloy wheels, roof rails, moonroof, leather trim, power front seats, multi-info display and an eight-speaker, three-in-one audio system.

According to Lexus, this represents up to 25 per cent better value than its competitors on a specification-adjusted basis.


RX330 is said to combine the refinement of a luxury car with a high driving position, versatility and four-wheel drive technology

For an extra $8510 ($78,500, undercutting the BMW X5 and Audi Allroad), the Sports Luxury model, which is expected to account for 40 per cent of RX sales locally, adds satellite navigation, a 240-watt, 11-speaker Mark Levinson sound system, electro multi-vision touch-screen display and the first use of a rear-vision camera, which displays a wide-angle rear view via the in-dash monitor.

Measuring 4740mm long, 1845mm wide and 1720mm high, RX330 is slightly smaller than MDX in every dimension, but employs a longer 2715mm wheelbase.

Powered by an all-alloy 3.3-litre DOHC V6 producing 172kW at 5600rpm and 328Nm of torque at 3600rpm, RX330 falls short of the MDX's 191kW peak power output, but at 1875kg is just over 100kg lighter.

The new Toyota-built V6, in its first appearance Down Under, features VVT-i intelligent variable valve timing, an electronic throttle and excellent 12.3 litres per 100km average fuel economy.

Mated to a full-time four-wheel drive system via a five-speed multi-mode transmission with sequential manual shift function, the engine qualifies as an Ultra-Low Emission Vehicle in the US.

The centre differential in the RX's electronically-controlled all-wheel drive system provides for a 50/50 torque split front to rear and employs the TRC traction control system - not a viscous coupling - to direct drive away from slipping wheels. There is no low-range gearing and the traction control system is not switchable.

Lexus says vehicles now known as luxury SUVs have increased in popularity Down Under by a massive 61 per cent since 1996, a period in which general industry growth has been a substantial 27 per cent.

Just 2390 luxury SUVs were sold in 1996, compared to 7850 in 2002, comprising 12 per cent of the luxury car market. Lexus predicts this figure could grow to 20 per cent and says about 9000 Australians are this year expected to buy luxury SUVs from 11 manufacturers (including new arrivals from Porsche, Volkswagen and Volvo), with most activity occurring in the $50,000-$99,000 bracket.

Lexus Australia has projected it will sell about 1500 RX330s in its first full year of sales, equating to an average monthly sales rate of around 122 units.

This falls well short of Honda's 160-per-month sales forecast for the identically priced MDX, although Lexus says the Japanese-built RX330 will be supply constrained until RX production becomes available from a new Canadian factory in around 12 months.

Just for the record, Lexus sold 72,963 RX300s in the US last year, comprising almost 50 per cent of America's massive luxury sport vehicle market.

DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:

BMW coined the term Sports Activity Vehicle for its X5 and now Lexus is describing its RX330 as a Luxury Sports Vehicle. Anything to avoid terms like "utility" or "off-roader", it seems.

Which stands to reason, because first impressions of the RX330 is that it strikes an excellent balance between versatility and luxury. Yes, the RX is as luxurious as any German sedan and behaves exceptionally well on the road, offering an acceptable level of bodyroll despite the confidence-inspiring high seating position.

And, yes, this is a four-wheel drive wagon but its low ride height, lack of low range gearing and under-body protection, and absence of switchable traction control shows just how serious the RX330's ambitions are off-road.

While the LX470, according to Lexus, is in fact a true luxury off-road vehicle, the company has no qualms in describing the Prado's new little brother as a soft-roader.

Though the luxury four-wheel drive concept is not new - in fact the Range Rover pioneered it more than 30 years ago - a host of car-makers have since produced a raft of iterations, each attempting to reinvent the concept with varying levels of either tarmac or dirt orientation.

Now widely considered the benchmark, X5 has struck possibly the best compromise between on-road dynamics and off-road ability, at least until the likes of Porsche's Cayenne and the Volkswagen Touareg arrive later this year.

It is this feat the RX330 attempts to emulate. And one look at the interior of the newest Lexus shows the luxury side of the equation has received plenty of attention. The full leather seating is beautifully crafted and, unlike Honda's MDX, the BMW-like upper dash material both looks and feels soft and classy, and the multitude of woodgrain trim inserts don't look out of place.

Quality is the overriding theme within the RX cabin, with well laid-out and designed controls and a number of convenient features creating a welcoming ambience with a high level of occupant comfort.


RX330 is more than pretty and clever inside, however. On the road, it maintains a high level of composure and body control, revealing refreshingly low levels of bodyroll even during spirited cornering

There's eight-way adjustment for the power front seats - each featuring armrests - the centre console (featuring rear air-conditioning outlets) slides fore and aft, the rear seats (including the centre position, which doubles as a multi-function armrest/storage compartment), slide backwards for greater rear legroom, and all four windows feature auto up and down functions.

The rounded rear roof section might not deliver the luggage space of the longer MDX, there are only five seats instead of seven and the second row seats don't fold completely flat like all the MDX's rear seats do to provide a completely flat load space.

However, RX offers flip-up oddment compartments in the rear cargo floor at the press of a button, which are softly-sprung like everything else that opens and shuts inside the 330. The twin lidded centre console compartment is particularly impressive.

Yet again, Lexus proves its fit and finish is as good as any German maker with the RX, which also provides a number of unique features its rivals do not.

While the entry level Sport model is line-ball for price with the MDX, it does offer extra equipment like a full-size spare wheel, seven airbags (including a driver's knee bag), power steering wheel adjustment and a sequential manual shift function for the excellent five-speed auto.

Like the optional, upper-spec MDX, the similarly priced Sports Luxury RX330 offers even more equipment, but the Lexus scores points for a number of unique features, such as satellite-navigation, a handy rear-vision camera that operates when reverse is selected and the power tailgate, which opens at the push of a button in seven seconds and closes in ten seconds.

RX330 is more than pretty and clever inside, however. On the road, it maintains a high level of composure and body control, revealing refreshingly low levels of bodyroll even during spirited cornering.

Despite the firm feel and confidence-inspiring handling, ride comfort remains excellent and the compliant suspension is whisper-quiet even over deep pot holes. In fact, wind, road and engine noise suppression is remarkably good, ensuring the RX330 cabin is always super-quiet.

Though better than the MDX's, the steering might not be as sporting as the X5's. RX330 is substantially lighter than its German competitors, however, meaning it feels slightly more nimble and even more sure-footed, though the 3.3-litre V6 still struggles at low revs and delivers its best only when pressed.

RX330 may not be revolutionary in concept, but it does offer a number of unique features, contemporary exterior design, impeccable build quality and fit/finish, high comfort levels, good passive safety and safe, accomplished driving dynamics with a level of solidity and refinement previously found only in German SUVs.

No, it won't match the likes of Range Rover or even M-class off-road, nor does it offer the MDX's seating capacity. But RX330 offers enormous practicality in most situations, is more fun to drive than any of these SUVs on the bitumen and is just as luxurious as the benchmark X5.

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