And it offers the latest in technology: headlamps that swivel to help the driver see around corners, a rear-mounted camera that displays what's behind you on the dash-mounted navigation screen, a voice-activated hands-free telephone system that wirelessly links to your Bluetooth compatible cell phone, a cruise control system that can adjust for changes in traffic, and a giant sunroof. Even more important, it's equipped with the latest in passive safety features, including seven airbags.
With the RX series, Lexus pioneered the crossover style of SUV, based on a unibody car platform rather than a heavy-duty truck frame; and in the process set new standards for the modern luxury utility. Crossover utility vehicles offer better ride and handling than truck-based SUVs, but with more cargo room than a car, a better view over traffic and a sense of security from an elevated driving position. Granted, crossover vehicles offer neither the big towing capacity nor the off-road capability of a true truck. But the RX 330 handles gravel roads just fine and can tow up to 3500 pounds with the optional trailer package.
Redesigned for the 2004 model year, the RX 330 has been refined for 2006 with two-way power lumbar support for the front passenger seat, an LED glovebox lamp, and anti-theft headlamps.
Lexus RX 330 FWD ($36,370); AWD ($37,770)
A beefy front bumper and pronounced fender flares are designed to suggest the RX is capable of venturing off the pavement. Door handles are of the reach-through type, more hand-friendly than the fingertip-grip variety and offering less opportunity to break long fingernails or snap away from your fingers when you're in a hurry.
The Adaptive Front Lighting System (AFS) uses an on-board processor that calculates the optimum angle to illuminate a turn, then swivels the headlamp closest to the turn accordingly, allowing the driver to see around corners better. AFS comes on all RX 330s with high-intensity discharge (HID) headlamps. For 2006, Lexus has made these pricey headlamps harder to steal.
The rear view of the RX 330 reveals a visor-like spoiler over the top edge of the rear window, a short radio antenna at the right rear corner of the roof (promising better reception in marginal areas than the also-included imbedded-in-glass type), and clear-lens taillamps.
Like the Toyota Highlander, the RX 330 is built on the same platform (with modifications) as the Toyota Camry and Lexus ES 330 sedans.
Getting in is easy, with no need to climb up or duck down. The front seats are positioned off the floor at a comfortable chair height and are snug and supportive. The seats are relatively flat, making it easy to get in and out. They adjust every which way, though not all of us can seem to get completely comfortable. Foldable armrests on both front seats provide additional comfort on longer trips. The center console slides forward and back, allowing room for a purse or whatever else you might stow between the front seats.
The instrument panel has three large round gauges trimmed in silver. The center dash area is framed in metallic-looking plastic topped with a pair of air vents. The center stack is dominated by the available seven-inch display. This screen is used for climate control and trip computer functions, as well as displaying the outside temperature and clock (with alarm). It's also used by the optional navigation system and rear-view camera. The camera is automatically activated when the transmission is shifted into reverse. You can't drive backward by watching the screen, but it's very useful for checking for obstacles (and people) that would otherwise be difficult to see from the driver's seat.
Audio controls are at the bottom of the center stack. The radio has big knobs for volume and tuning that are easy to use. The Lexus premium audio is a 132-watt, eight-speaker system with AM/FM/cassette/CD. The optional Mark Levinson audio system features 11 speakers, 210 watts and an in-dash, 6-disc CD changer.
The shifter for the automatic transmission is located on the center dash. This was novel when the RX series first appeared, and has been copied since. The shift lever follows a mechanical zigzag pattern to make sure you only move it one gear position at a time. We found this made shifting between reverse, drive, and the lower gears ponderous, particularly when we were in a hurry.
The rear seat is contoured for two, though it has belts for three. Indeed, the RX is comfortable for four people, crowded with five. There's a folding center armrest with cupholders, storage, and its own wood trim. The rear seats fold forward 40/20/40, the center section providing a long, narrow space for skis, shovels, or fly rods, while still allowing four people to ride in comfort. This is a better solution than the typical 60/40 folding seats, which force one of four passengers to travel in the less-comfortable center-rear seat when carrying the aforementioned long items.
Folding the rear seats down reveals 84.7 cubic feet of cargo space, more than a BMW X5, Mercedes ML350, or Infiniti FX. The rear seats don't fold completely flat, however. Cleverly hidden under the cargo floor are compartments for additional storage. The cargo cover automatically retracts when the rear hatch is opened, useful when your arms are full and you don't want to put things down on the wet pavement.
The RX 330 bucks the SUV trend by offering no third-row seat. Lexus says buyers wanting more passenger space can buy one of the larger Lexus SUVs, the GX 470 or LX 470.
The RX 330 is smooth and quite responsive, particularly around town. Its 3.3-liter V6 engine rated at 223 horsepower at 5600 rpm and 238 pound-feet of torque at 3600 rpm. (That's a little less than last year's ratings because the Society of Automotive Engineers, or SAE, revised its testing standards for horsepower and torque. The 2006 is just as powerful as the 2005 engine. It's just that the numbers are calculated differently.)
The five-speed automatic transmission offers better response and efficiency than a traditional four-speed automatic. Its low first gear offers quicker response off the line, useful when you need to merge into traffic from a standing start. We found throttle tip-in overly sensitive at times, but quickly adapted for smooth take-offs. Lexus says the all-wheel drive RX 330 can sprint from 0 to 60 mph in 7.8 seconds and run a standing-start quarter-mile in 16.0. Fifth gear, meanwhile, provides lower engine speeds when cruising, which translates into quieter running with less engine noise and better gas mileage.
The front-wheel-drive model's EPA ratings of 19/25 mpg City/Highway are among the best in the class. The AWD versions get an EPA-estimated 18/24 mpg.
The RX is relatively immune to road noise, and there's very little wind noise. Lexus engineers took the time to aerodynamically shape the RX 330's roof rack for quieter running.
The brakes are smooth and respond with good pedal feel. The brakes feature large discs front and rear and electronic brake-force distribution (EBD), which directs braking effort in proportion to weight bias and brake loading for improved stability under hard braking. The RX 330 benefits from four-sensor/four-channel anti-lock brakes (ABS), which can help the driver maintain steering control in an emergency stopping situation. Brake Assist is also provided, which is designed to sense panic braking and to maintain full braking pressure, even if the driver makes the common mistake of relaxing pressure on the brake pedal.
The all-wheel-drive system automatically routes power to the wheels with the best grip and works with the ABS to slow any wheel that slips and spins.
The Performance Package features an air suspension with four driver-selectable settings. The air suspension automatically lowers the RX 330 by 0.3 inches at speeds higher than 62 mph, to reduce air drag for better handling and fuel economy. Drivers can select a mode that lowers the car by 0.6 inches for better cornering and a smoother ride. Rough roads and unpaved trails requiring greater ground clearance can be accommodated by the High position, which raises the ride height by 1.2 inches at speeds up to 30 mph. An Access mode lowers the RX 330 for easier entry and exit when in Park; the Access mode can be programmed to lower the RX automatically when the ignition is turned off, a nice feature.
The Lexus RX 330 provides a smooth ride, a plush and innovative interior, and responsive power. It rides like a car but offers a lot more room. All-wheel drive is an option for drivers who need winter weather traction. The Lexus reputation for quality and reliability and responsive dealers add to its appeal.
New Car Test Drive correspondent John Matras is based in Pennsylvania.