Lexus RX 330 (2004)

"If you don't mind showing off your 'jewelry' and you can live without sports car handling, this is a hell of a nice vehicle."
Good: luxurious, quiet, reverse camera
Bad: jumpy gear shift, expensive

When you think of Lexus, you think of Japanese luxury -- that is, real comfort. But there is also the luxury of knowing that not only does the thing run well, but it's not going to break, either. Now that's luxury. And the RX330 fits right into Lexus's lineup.

The predecessor to the RX330, the RX300, was the first SUV that was truly car-like. It set the standard when it came out. Like most reviewers, we raved about how un-truck-like the ride was. Why, we didn't lose a single filling on the test drive! That was in 1999. Since then, lots of other manufacturers have come out with car-like SUVs. Good ones at that. So Lexus has updated the RX300, making everything a bit larger, including the engine. And if you liked the RX300, you'll love the RX330.

The RX330 is longer, wider, taller, and more powerful than the car it replaces. But it retains the luxury-oriented ride that the Lexus is known for. The front-wheel drive, base version has a list price of $35,025. The model we drove, with all-wheel drive, premium interior, a navigation system, reverse camera, and an assortment of other bells and whistles, has a list price of $41,800. All dressed up, and out the door, figure 45 large.

The wheelbase of the RX330 has been extended nearly four inches, and overall length is up by six inches. Width and height are up by about an inch each. That means the RX330 feels bigger inside than the old RX300. It's not a dramatic difference, but it eliminates any sense that the RX is small or cramped in any way. It's a genuine, mid-sized SUV now. And like the old RX, the new emphasizes comfort rather than handling. Not that the handling is badit's just that when decisions were made, Lexus engineers erred on the side of comfort rather than sportiness. Hey, that's what Lexus does. Beautiful ride quality. You want flat-in-corners handling? Get a BMW. You want quiet and soft? We've got your vehicle. Because of this, the RX330 was very comfortable on the highway, a little tippy on the curves.

The gear shifts are a little jumpy in the lower gears, which was surprising, since Lexi (plural of Lexus) usually shift indetectably. Perhaps this one needed an adjustment. But after going from second to third we didn't notice it in the higher shifts. The RX330 is very quiet, especially for an SUV-which usually suffer from, at the very least, wind noise. But it wasn't LS400, or even ES300 quiet. So don't expect a bank vault.

It's very pretty on the inside of the RX330. The interior is laid out nicely and features black, wood and some aluminum-like material on the dashboard. The message is clear: Expensive. Luxurious. Stylish. It's right out of the Lexus handbook of taste. Controls and switches are of high quality. The instruments are backlit, in that space-age Lexus style we've come to enjoy.

The rear seats are also quite nice. They're high quality leather, softer than you'll find in the European SUVs. In fact, the back seats even have forward and backward adjustment, so you can recline in the rear seat if you like. It's a nice touch for the rear passengers, or your dog, if he can figure out how to operate the levers. The RX330 seats four comfortably, five when you need to.

Like the vast majority of Toyota Motor Company products, all of the switches and controls are where you'd expect them to be on the RX330. The model we drove had an optional camera out back, and when you put the car in reverse, a view of what's behind you pops up on the navigations screen. We found the camera to be particularly useful in this car because the rear visibility is not terribly good, particularly down low. Plus, the belt line-the demarcation between windows and car body-- rises towards the back, so it's difficult to see to your side- and particularly the passenger side--when you're backing up. The reverse camera is available only when you get the optional, and expensive, navigation system, which puts the screen on top of the center console.

Speaking of the console, the radio is simple to use. In fact, there's even a big, beautiful tuning knob that you can use without taking your eyes off the road. It's so rare these days that it seemed like a luxury in and of itself. Great work, Lexus! (Other manufacturers, are you listening?)

One of the first things you'll notice about the RX330 is the, um, distinctive taillight treatment. It's got taillights that bring to mind disco balls of the 1970s. Apparently this is "in" these days. Lexus calls it "jewelry." Some of us called it weird. Other's called it cool. You decide. In terms of exterior styling, the RX330 has been slightly elongated from the RX300. There's a greater rake to the back end now. It's not a radical departure from the old RX, and if you liked the old one, you'll be happy with this one.

Like all Lexi, you would expect the RX330 to be extremely reliable.

Under its skin, the LX 330 is fundamentally still a Toyota. For this reason, it'll be relatively easy to find someone to service this car. Most independent shops should be able to handle routine maintenance and service on the LX330.

With a list price over $40,000, this is an expensive car. But if you're looking for an all-wheel drive that doesn't drive like an SUV, your choices are limited. There are a bunch of "crossover" vehicles these days, and a number of them fall into this price category: the Volvo XC-70, Infiniti FX45, Acura MDX, Volkswagen Touregand more on the way. But if you want the one with the most comfortable ride, and the one least likely to give you mechanical trouble, this is it. If you don't mind showing off your "jewelry" and you can live without sports car handling, this is a hell of a nice vehicle.

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