Saturday, August 30, 2003

Family-friendly meets luxury

Lexus RX 330 keeps the kids quiet - sometimes

By Carol Traeger
Enquirer contributor

Lexus RX 330

Wheels rating: (out of 5)
4 wheels
The quintessential family vehicle

Vital statistics

What I drove: 2004 Lexus RX 330, five-passenger SUV

Base price: $35,025

Price as tested: $45,848

Options on test vehicle: Adaptive cruise control, rear-seat DVD player with wireless headphones, 18-inch aluminum alloy wheels, heated front seats, rain-sensing wipers and headlamp washers, navigation system, rear back-up camera, power rear door, power tilt/telescoping steering wheel, leather trim interior, roof rails with racks, wood and leather steering wheel and wood shift knob, moon roof, cargo mat and wheel locks.

Drivetrain layout: Front engine, front-wheel drive (standard) or all-wheel drive (optional)

Engine: 3.3-liter V6 producing 230 hp and 242 lb-ft of torque

Transmission: 5-speed automatic

Wheelbase: 106.9 inches

Length: 186.2 inches

Width: 72.6 inches

Height: 66.1 inches

Weight: 3,860 pounds (2WD), 4,065 pounds (AWD)

EPA mpg, city/highway: 20/26 (2WD), 18/24 (AWD)

Warranty: Basic: 4 years/ 50,000 miles; drivetrain: 6 years/70,000 miles; roadside assist: 4 years/unlimited miles.

Safety stuff: Dual front airbags, front side-impact airbags, front and rear side-curtain airbags, driver-side knee airbag, front seatbelt pretensioners, anti-lock brakes, vehicle stability control, LATCH child seat system.

Cool: Smooth ride, parkable size, automatic rear liftgate.

Uncool: Automatic locking doors, high cost of options.

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Car Talk
When it was first introduced in 1998, the RX 300 became an instant runaway hit.

In its first year, the Camry-based RX 300 tripled Lexus sales estimates, created the "luxury crossover" segment, and established itself as the quintessential family vehicle.

Here was an SUV with all the attributes of a Camry wagon - soft, quiet and comfortable - but greater ground clearance, better driver visibility and a more upright seating position. The RX 300 was a family vehicle with a fashion statement: leather seats, state-of-the-art sound system and "look at me" exterior styling.

The phenomenal success of the RX 300 (Lexus' best-selling model for four years straight) opened the floodgates to a rash of imitators, including the Acura MDX, BMW X5 and Volvo XC90. Despite the competitive heat, the RX 300 has maintained its No. 1 position in the crossover luxury segment. So why redesign it now? Why mess with success?

To stay ahead of the pack.

Evolutionary design

Introduced last April, the 2004 RX 330 isn't so much revolutionary as it is evolutionary. It still looks, rides and handles like an RX 300, only better. Whereas the RX 300 looked like the victim of an overzealous band of parts-bin raiders, the new RX 330 looks more restrained and elegant, less busy. The rear windshield is more steeply raked, and the rear spoiler looks more integrated, less bolted on.

To update its best seller, Lexus increased the RX's length, wheelbase, and width, stiffened the frame, poured in more luxuries, and replaced the 3.0-liter V6 with a 3.3-liter V6 (hence the name change). The new power plant puts out 10 more horsepower and 20 more pound-feet of torque than its predecessor.

For my test drive of the ultimate family vehicle, I chose our family trip from my home in San Jose, Calif., to Cambria, Calif. Each year, my extended family gathers in this cozy coastal burg (about six miles south of Hearst Castle) for a weeklong reunion - involving trips to the beach, farmer's markets, San Luis Obispo, and, of course, the big house on the hill that William Randolph Hearst built at San Simeon.

Our first assignment for the RX 330 was to collect my brother and his disassembled and boxed bicycle from the airport. The box, which never would have fit in a car, fit neatly into the RX with the split rear seat folded flat.

The next morning, we filled every iota of the 38.3 cubic feet behind the rear seats with an ice chest, two pairs of in-line skates, three suitcases, the world's largest duffle bag, two gym bags and a box of food.

We tied our trunk-mounted bike rack to the RX's roof rack (the clamps wouldn't attach to the plastic rear spoiler) and hung my brother's bike on it.

In the rear seats, we packed two 8-year-olds girls - my daughter and niece - and six DVD movies (borrowed from the library). My brother wisely chose to ride in my sister's car.

Then we were off.

Headsets from heaven

You don't have to have kids to appreciate the Lexus RX 330. But it helps.

About one hour into the four-hour drive, my husband, Greg, said, "This is heaven."

"What?" I asked.

"The silence," he said. "Those wireless headsets are worth the $1,800 price of the DVD system."

I looked back. Sure enough, the girls were so entranced by Chicken Run, the only sounds they emitted were laughs. They were so quiet, I could hear the wind whistling over the roof and the tires rolling along the macadam, which surprised me. I expected the Lexus to have more sound dampening than this. The noise wasn't obnoxious, just apparent.

The RX 330 comes standard with front-wheel drive, but is available with all-wheel drive for improved wet-road performance. With no rain or off-road adventures forecast, our front-wheel-drive tester more than met our needs. We had plenty of power to pass loping trucks on two-lane country roads. In keeping with the RX's luxurious intent, handling felt a little soft. The car leaned in corners, but never floated out of control. (A performance package is offered for those who want tighter handling and flatter cornering.)

This RX's interior is as plush as any Lexus. Standard luxuries include handsome wood grain, dual-zone climate controls, expandable front door pockets, reclining and sliding 40/20/40-split rear seats, one-touch window controls on all four doors, even lighted cup holders.

The RX 330 is available with a smorgasbord of options, many of which appeared in our tester. Each of us had our favorites. The kids were crazy about the DVD system. My husband liked the Mark Levinson sound system. I liked the rear-view back-up camera, which displays what's behind you on the navigation screen whenever the car's in reverse. This feature came in handy when we had a Beverly Hillbillies amount of stuff in the back blocking the rear window.

Upon further review ...

The navigation system earned mixed reviews. When Greg punched in the address of Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, the lady's voice and map directed him right to the university entrance. But when offered up the address of a downtown bookstore, the lady went silent for about 10 minutes ("She's powdering her nose," my sister said), and the map pointed us the wrong way down a one-way street. Yikes! Several minutes later, the lady came back, acting as if nothing had happened.

The remote-controlled liftgate was a nice little luxury; opening to greet us as we slogged up from the beach lugging soggy towels and treasure-filled beach bags.

Our one petty complaint was with the RX's automatic locking doors. Every time we arrived somewhere, we front-seaters had to monkey with the lock buttons to liberate back-seat passengers.

On departure day, we loaded everything, now a bit dirtier, into the Lexus and headed home. My brother rode in back with our daughter, who entertained him with a Rugrats DVD until he could take it no more.

Once home, showered and refreshed, we gave the RX 330 a unanimous thumbs up.

The RX 330 isn't exciting to drive - in fact, it's about a quart low in the sportiness department - but then the RX 330 isn't about sport. It's about coddling families with luxury, comfort, and road-trip utility. And in that regard, the RX 330 hits its mark.

The new RX delivers everything the original did and adds a dose more luxury. Despite a horde of imitators, I predict it will remain at the head of its class.

Contact Carol Traeger by e-mail at

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