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.
2002 Lexus RX 300
Recognizing its role as a family car, Lexus has bolstered the RX300 with a noteworthy array of safety gear aimed at keeping occupants safe. The standard anti-lock brakes feature Brake Assist, which senses an emergency stop and sends more pressure to the brakes right away. This shortens emergency braking distances for most drivers, because they tend to begin braking tentatively, when there is no time to waste.
The Vehicle Skid Control system helps prevent the RX300 from sliding out of control by selectively applying the brakes and cutting engine power. These active safety systems are extremely useful for preventing crashes from ever occurring. Neither system ever made its presence noticeable in normal driving.
But Lexus hasn’t neglected passive safety; the features employed to protect occupants in the event of a crash. Front-seat occupants enjoy front and side airbags and seatbelts that pre-tension in the event of a crash, and then ease the strain during the course of impact. I’d like to see these features added to the back seat positions too, but that is about the only chink in the RX300’s safety armor.
Power and amenities
Under a hood that is supported by gas struts – no cheap prop rod here – is a 220-horsepower, DOHC 3.0-liter V-6 engine that is as smooth as we expect from Lexus. It moves the RX300 with all the passing power one could expect from a utility vehicle, even when fully loaded. The engine might be a touch small for towing, but this is clearly not intended as a heavy towing vehicle, so that is fine. The tow package, however, is an excellent value because it adds a larger radiator and a transmission cooler, which are great to have regardless of plans for towing.
The spacious comfortable interior includes every expected detail, such as leather seats, Nakamichi sound with a six-disk in-dash CD changer (it’s in the glove box), automatic climate control and a navigation system. Like other Lexus nav systems, this one employs an inverted, light-on-dark screen when the headlights are on, so the screen isn’t too bright at night.
2002 Lexus RX 300
Light outside at night is superb, thanks to high-intensity discharge low beams that illuminate the road noticeably better than halogen lights. The dashboard looks expensive, with electro-luminescent instruments (Lexus calls it “Optitron” instrumentation) that light up adding a high-tech appearance.
The rear seat provides plenty of room for adult passengers to ride comfortably. Lexus treats them like adults, with windows in the rear doors that go all the way down. The power windows and sunroof have one-touch open and close, which is an extremely helpful amenity, especially when venting a hot car in the summer. The RX300 will even open all the windows and the sunroof remotely, if the unlock button is held down on the key.
In mostly highway driving, with a full load, the RX300 returned 20 mpg, splitting its EPA city and highway ratings of 18 and 22 mpg. For a roomy family wagon that has all-wheel drive, that is very good fuel economy, despite the current anti-SUV mood in some of society. The larger-for-2001 19.8-gallon gas tank extends the RX300’s range, saving trips to the gas station.
Despite the trend away from SUVs, car-like SUV wagons are clearly the wave of the future because of their blend of practicality and efficiency in a package that is acceptable to buyers unwilling to consider a van. The RX300 is one of the best examples of this type of vehicle.
2002 Lexus RX300
Base price: $35,705; as tested: $42,184
Engine: 3.0-liter V-6, 220 hp
Transmission: four-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 103.0 in
Length: 180.3 in
Width: 71.5 in
Height: 65.7 in
Weight: 3924 lb
Fuel economy: 18 city/ 22 hwy
Standard safety equipment: Dual front and side airbags, anti-lock brakes, Vehicle Stability Control, Brake Assist
Major standard equipment: Fog lamps, 16-inch alloy wheels, power windows and door locks, automatic climate control, seven-speaker stereo
Warranty: Four years/60,000 miles