Prescription for Success

LA JOLLA, CA Toyota Motor Corp. created the luxury cross/utility (CUV) segment in 1998 with the Camry-based Lexus RX 300. Now, even though the market niche is overrun with top-flight competitors such as the Acura MDX, BMW X5, and Volvo XC90, the aging RX still is holding its own, selling strongly even while Lexus gets set to introduce its successor, the RX 330, this spring. If only we all could age

Drew Winter, Contributing Editor

January 1, 2003

4 Min Read
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LA JOLLA, CA — Toyota Motor Corp. created the luxury cross/utility (CUV) segment in 1998 with the Camry-based Lexus RX 300.

Now, even though the market niche is overrun with top-flight competitors such as the Acura MDX, BMW X5, and Volvo XC90, the aging RX still is holding its own, selling strongly even while Lexus gets set to introduce its successor, the RX 330, this spring. If only we all could age so gracefully.

“I actually had second thoughts about introducing this new RX right now,” says Denny Clements, Lexus Group vice president and general manager. “Part of me was tempted to put the new RX 330 in my back pocket and keep selling the current model until people got tired of it. But I couldn't do that.”

Instead, Lexus is introducing exactly the kind of product you would expect: evolutionary, but heavily refined. The new RX is longer, taller and wider, with a wheelbase that's increased by almost 4 ins. (10 cm), yet it looks smaller from the outside.

It's faster and more powerful, with 0-60 mph (97 km/h) times about 1 second faster (7.7 and 7.8 seconds for front-drive and all-wheel drive models respectively). Yet fuel economy has been improved 1 mpg (0.04 L/100 km) on both the city and highway cycles to a respectable 18-mpg city/24 mpg highway (13/10 L/100km).

Designers also zeroed in on a couple of the current model's weaknesses, mainly the rear, which has been criticized for looking boxy and unfinished — like it was pulled off a minivan. The new version has a steeply raked and tapered tail artfully integrated into the overall design.

Fenders and other exterior body panels also have been flared and sculpted. Combined with bigger standard 17-in. (and optional 18-in.) wheels, they give the RX 330 a more macho look than its predecessor, which has been criticized for screaming “soccer mom.”

And of course there is the usual retinue of “surprise and delight” features to make customers ooh and ahh in the showroom, including a power rear liftgate; a rear backup color video camera display that uses the navigation system screen and an adaptive front lighting system that swivels to follow the curve of the road when you turn the car. An elaborate air suspension system that raises and lowers ride height according to driving conditions also is available.

The only glaring omission on the option list is a third-row rear seat. Lexus officials say they deliberately left it out because customers looking for it gravitate to its other SUVs.

“We don't think it needs one,” says Clements. “Keep in mind that many of our competitors only have one SUV, so they need to squeeze in a third-row seat so they can be all things to all people,” he says.

On the expressway, the ride is that of a plush luxury car. One of the most noticeable features is how quiet it is for such a tall vehicle. Engineers refined the luggage rack crossbars, upgraded the door seals and repositioned the windshield wiper arms below the main airstream coming off the hood to significantly reduce wind noise. Lexus says the new CUV now is about as quiet as its ES 300 sedan.

Off road is a bit of a surprise. It's far more proficient at climbing steep grades and crawling over ruts and boulders than its cushy highway ride suggests. We only bottomed out the suspension once or twice driving on an off-road course, and that took some trying.

On twisty two-lanes, though, the RX 330 shows its new suspension has given up a good amount of body control for that cushy ride. There's more body roll and understeer than we like — even for a CUV. The engine also is a bit of a disappointment. Horsepower and torque have been increased 4.5% and 9% respectively to 230 and 242 lb.-ft. (328 Nm), but it still lacks mid-range oomph, a complaint we have for many vehicles in this segment, probably because they're all too heavy.

The RX 330 will be the first Lexus built in North America. Job One is sometime “in September,” says Kent Rice, manager-Quality Control Engineering at Toyota Motor Mfg. Canada, (TMMC) in Cambridge, Ont. The plant has been gearing up for the new product since April 2000, he says.

The celebration lasted all of five minutes, says Rice. “We went from: ‘What a mandate! What a challenge!’ To wow — ‘What a mandate, what a challenge, and what are we gonna do now?’”

Fortunately for Rice, Toyota's Kyushu plant in Japan will pave the way first. Job One begins there in February.

Base price of the RX 330 is expected to be about $35,000, the same as the RX 300. Annual sales are predicted to be 75,000 units. Sales of the current model were 77,426 in 2001, 89,864 in 2000 and are on pace for about 70,000 this year.

SPECIFICATIONS

2004 Lexus RX 330

Vehicle type:

Front-engine, front- or all-wheel drive; 5-passenger CUV

Engine:

3.3L (3300cc) DOHC V-6 aluminum block/heads

Power (SAE net):

230 hp @ 5,600 rpm

Torque:

242 lb.-ft. (328 Nm) @ 3,600 rpm

Compression ratio:

10.8:1

Bore X stroke (mm):

92 × 83

Transmission:

5-speed automatic

Wheelbase:

106.9 ins. (272 cm)

Overall length:

186.2 ins. (473 cm)

Overall width:

72.6 ins. (184 cm)

Overall height:

66.1 ins. (168 cm)

Curb weight:

4,065 lbs. (1845 kg)

Market competition:

Acura MDX; BMW X5 3.0i; Mercedes-Benz ML320; Volvo XC90.

About the Author(s)

Drew Winter

Contributing Editor, WardsAuto

Drew Winter is a former longtime editor and analyst for Wards. He writes about a wide range of topics including emerging cockpit technology, new materials and supply chain business strategies. He also serves as a judge in both the Wards 10 Best Engines and Propulsion Systems awards and the Wards 10 Best Interiors & UX awards and as a juror for the North American Car, Utility and Truck of the Year awards.

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