Face it. For most owners, sport-utility vehicles are more a lifestyle statement than an answer to adverse road conditions. Sure, some people need a sport-ute to tow an Airstream or navigate rutted trails on the way to a campsite. But the rest of us are just looking for cargo space to stow Little League gear or the extra confidence of four-wheel drive in winter.
Now, Lexus has an SUV for the rest of us: the RX 300. Unlike traditional SUVs such as the Jeep Grand Cherokee, Ford Explorer, or Land Rover Discovery, the RX 300 isn't up to such off-road tasks as climbing mountains. But Lexus didn't build a traditional SUV. It designed a luxury car that looks like an SUV.
Engineers at Lexus parent Toyota stripped away attributes SUV drivers don't like: the truck-like ride and handling, the steep climb to the seat, the abysmal fuel economy. But they kept the features most buyers want in an SUV, such as the high ride height, interior roominess, and ample cargo capacity. Then they built the new vehicle on a car platform instead of that of a pickup. They threw in all the luxury features that befit a Lexus and priced it starting at $32,045, including destination charges, for a two-wheel drive version, or $33,445 for the all-wheel drive model. That's $1,100 less than its most direct rival, the Mercedes ML320.
From the outside, the Lexus is more stylish than most SUVs, with jewel-like, multilens headlights and taillights that would look at home on a family sedan. It's slightly longer and wider than a Grand Cherokee, and it sits 7.7 inches off the ground, offering more clearance than an Explorer. But it's on the road where the real differences show. The ultrasmooth V6 engine, a new version of the power plant inside the ES 300 sedan, delivers 220 horsepower, more than most SUVs. Its acceleration is among the best in its class, going from 0 to 60 mph in less than nine seconds. The engine meets the stringent California low-emission standards and gets decent fuel mileage of 19 mpg in city driving and 22 mpg on the highway.
Inside the cabin, the feel is more minivan than SUV. Climbing in is easier, with no need for running boards or grab handles. But, like a minivan, the RX 300 has high seats and a steeply raked windshield. And the center console doesn't extend into the cabin, dividing the driver and passenger space. Instead, there's a flat floor with a plastic tray to keep a purse or personal planner from sliding around. Between the seats, a storage unit has an ashtray, two roomy drawers, and four cupholders.
The instrument panel has the trademark Lexus illuminated gauges. Audio and air-conditioning controls are in the center console, along with the shifter, in a U-shaped pod surrounded by walnut. The pod also holds the one thing about the controls I didn't like: a 5-inch blue-and-white LCD display that shows temperature, time, audio choices, and continuous trip information, such as time elapsed and average fuel economy. It looks like a big TV tube in the middle of an otherwise uncluttered dash.
Every luxury amenity is available. An $1,860 premium package adds leather seats; heated, self-dimming mirrors for bright lights behind you; programmable garage-door opener, and an air filtration system. A tilt-and-slide moonroof is $1,000. A six-CD changer in the glovebox costs $1,050. Side air bags are standard.
SNIPING. Rear legroom is especially generous, and the rear seats can move forward and back nearly five inches, allowing a trade-off between legroom and cargo space. In the forward position, they also recline, or the seat backs can be folded down for a level cargo surface that opens up 75 cubic feet of storage.
Still, rivals will snipe that it's not a "real" SUV, that it can't climb mountains or do other Marlboro Country stuff. I'm betting Lexus will sell every one of the 20,000 it makes this year, because more of us are looking for a family car than a he-man truck.