by Dan Carney
2002 Toyota Highlander by John Pearley Huffman (4/8/2002)
It may be that no vehicle embodies the inherent contradictions of a “luxury SUV” better than the Lexus RX300. It was one of the earliest SUVs to be based on a car’s unibody platform (in this case, the Camry), instead of on a truck-like ladder frame design.
Lexus has successfully cultivated an image of building cars that emphasize interior tranquility above all else. Let the others be sporty and aggressive, Lexus seemed to say — we’ll stick with smooth and quiet. But smooth-riding luxury SUVs are a rare commodity because the features that improve off-road capability detract from ride and handling. That is why Jeep and Land Rover products, while highly esteemed for their off-road prowess, do not depict their cars with a jeweler performing delicate diamond cuts while riding in the back seat (as Lincoln did in television commercials decades ago).
On the road again
Lexus has largely succeeded in merging these two disparate requirements, probably by reducing the RX300’s absolute off-road capability. We haven’t had the chance to torture an RX300 in deep snow to test this theory, but we suppose few owners will test its limits either.
On-road ride is very good, but handling is somewhat compromised by the tall ride height. This is probably due to a desire to preserve some off-road capability, but most drivers would probably prefer a less top-heavy feeling vehicle in everyday use. Lexus could consider a lower standard ride height, with an off-road package available for people who actually live in the country. Or, it could offer variable height settings, so users can raise the RX300 when extra ground clearance is needed.
The jumbo-sized mud and snow tires on the RX300 are probably just the thing for the Crocodile Hunter wannabes who plan to equip their luxury vehicle with brush guards and other paraphernalia, but they are unnecessary for the kind of use this vehicle actually sees. Let the dealer make a few dollars putting on tires with the rest of the fantasy package for customers who are so inclined, but let the rest of us enjoy the braking, ride, and economy benefits of street tires.