Tackle unpaved roads with confidence and panache.

by Mitch McCullough

Base Price $32,045
As Tested $37,355

This may be the ultimate luxury car/SUV hybrid. The 1999 Lexus RX300 launched this spring offers a seemingly perfect compromise between a luxury sedan and a truck-based sport-utility vehicle.

It offers sure traction in foul weather, responsive handling on paved and unpaved roads, a smooth ride, maneuverability in crowded parking lots, and easy access to a luxurious interior. The RX300 is not the ultimate off-road vehicle, but it handles corners almost as well as a sedan and easily tackles unpaved roads and heavy snowfall. A low floor height makes sliding in and out easy, yet there's plenty of ground clearance for light off-highway driving. Four people can sit comfortably or the seats can be folded down for hauling a load a wood.

Walkaround

Modern, sporty and rugged, the unique styling of the RX300 fits in well in upscale urban settings. Individual round headlamp reflectors are housed under aerodynamic clear covers, while projector-beam foglamps add to the sports appeal. Taillamp lenses designed along a similar theme complement the headlamps. The RX300 is as aerodynamic as it looks with a low 0.36 coefficient of drag, which helps reduce wind noise.

In size, the RX300 is slightly longer and wider than a Jeep Grand Cherokee. Like a car, it employs a unibody chassis instead of the inherently heavier body-on-frame design used on most trucks and sport-utilities. Though a few bits come from the Lexus ES300 sedans, the RX300 is built on a unique and totally new platform.

A 3.0-liter, all-aluminum V-6 delivers 220 horsepower and 222 foot-pounds of torque. It's a sophisticated unit with four cams, 24 valves, continuously variable valve timing, a three-stage variable intake system and a two-way bypass exhaust system. Tuned to deliver good low-rpm torque, it provides brisk launches from standing starts and healthy propulsion up steep hills.

Front-wheel-drive and four-wheel-drive models are available. The four-wheel-drive system operates full time and requires no action from the driver. It splits engine torque equally between the front and rear wheels on the highway, but when things get slippery a viscous limited-slip center differential directs torque to the wheels with the most traction. An optional limited-slip rear differential aids traction further and enhances control. Lexus developed a completely new four-speed electronically controlled automatic transmission with an integrated transfer case to work with the system. No low-range gearset is available. Four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes (ABS) are standard. Front and side airbags are standard, along with shoulder belts with pretensioners and force limiters.

Prices for a front-wheel-drive model start at $32,045, while the four-wheel-drive model begins at $33,445. (All prices include $495 destination charge.) Our well-equipped 4X4 with leather, the six-CD in-dash changer and all the goodies topped out at $37,355.

The Inside Story

While most sport-utilities require a step up and sports cars require ducking down, the RX300 allows you to slide straight in. Once in, drivers are treated to comfortable seats and a beautiful interior. Ours came in an elegant light beige leather.

We thought the U-shaped piece of wood trim capped by a pair of vents on the center looked a bit odd, but our colleagues disagree, saying it nicely complements the RX300's interior and exterior design.

Regardless, everything works magnificently. All the switchgear operates flawlessly and all controls are positioned exactly as one would expect. One thing that isn't positioned exactly as you'd expect is the shift lever, which is mounted in the center instrument panel. This design frees some floor space between the front seats for small packages, purses or a brace of Big Macs. It also makes it easier to slide to the other side.

Rear seats slide forward and aft to create legroom or increase cargo space. They also recline individually. Underway, the RX300 is supremely smooth and whisper quiet, though the little sunroof spoiler generates quite a bit of wind noise when the sunroof is open.

Ride & Drive

We spent a rainy day driving a four-wheel-drive RX300 on a gravel West Virginia road covered with patches of light snow and mud, and a week on interstates, winding rural roads and city streets around Annapolis, Maryland.

While the interior is superb, ride quality and handling prowess are among the RX300's best features. Supremely stable in high-speed sweeping turns, the RX300 also seems at home on winding mountain roads, dispatching them as deftly as a sedan. There's none of the wallowing and turn-in stability compromises found on truck-based SUVs.

With 7.7 inches of ground clearance, the RX300 easily forded a roadside ditch and berm. But its crisp, predictable handling on loose surfaces won our hearts. The RX300 can be driven quite quickly over gravel and dirt roads and bumps do not upset it when driving hard through loose corners. Pushed beyond its limit, the front tires wash out predictably -- the rear end never, ever steps out. All of this instills confidence while driving on loose surfaces. It's also a major benefit when rounding a slippery corner that tightens up just before a deer darts out onto the road. This happened to us and the RX300 performed precisely and predictably. The front-drive model is well worth considering for those who live in the Sunbelt because it handles beat-up city streets and potholes better than a sedan. Being lighter, it is a bit quicker than the four-wheel-drive model and electronic traction control is available to aid control on slippery surfaces. Still, it seems a shame to pass on the RX300's four-wheel-drive system because it increases stability in the rain and improves driver control in emergency maneuvers -- even on dry, sunny days.

Ride quality on paved roads is silky and controlled. Big bumps on unpaved roads are well damped. The RX300 does not ride quite as well on rough roads as the larger, more expensive, more off-road-oriented Lexus LX470. Washboard surfaces generated some vibration.

Steering is precise and direct, allowing smooth cornering lines and stable high-speed cruising. Bridgestone Dueler H/T tires are quiet on the highway and provide good grip on and off road. Stiff, light-truck sidewalls give them good protection for light off-pavement use. Overall, they are a good choice. Slightly more aggressive tires would be beneficial for anyone who frequently drives on unpaved roads by reducing braking distances and providing better grip in slippery corners.

The V-6 engine is silky smooth and offers excellent around-town and highway performance. It accelerates briskly from a standstill. Passing performance at higher speeds is not its strongest suit, however, and it bogs a bit when upshifting from second to third gear. Overall, it's a wonderful engine.

Braking is smooth and consistent, though we found the pedal a bit soft. Anti-lock brakes enhance control by allowing the driver to brake and steer away from hazards without losing control. Come around a corner, panic, slam on the brakes, and the RX300 steers and stops without unwanted drama. But ABS can increase stopping distances on muddy, unpaved roads or in the snow and we wish we could switch it off under certain conditions; the RX300 is by no means unique in this regard.

Final Word

We give an enthusiastic thumbs up to the Lexus RX300. Its excellent handling and exceptional traction on slippery surfaces make it a perfect luxury vehicle for people who drive on snow-covered or unpaved roads. The RX300 provides almost as much cargo space as a Jeep Grand Cherokee, but boasts vastly superior ride and handling. Inside it looks, feels and drives like a luxury sport sedan.

However, the RX300 may not be the ultimate off-road vehicle, nor the brawniest in towing capability. But most people don't drive off road anyway. For that reason, the RX300 heralds one of the directions SUVs are headed.

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