1998 Lexus RX 300
If you take a sedan and pull the base of the rear window back so it's flush with the back bumper, you get a station wagon, right?
If you jack that wagon up a few centimetres and stick a four-wheel drive system under it, what would you call that?
In 1980, we called it an American Motors Eagle Sportabout. In 1996, it was a Subaru Legacy Outback. In 1998, Toyota is calling its variant a Lexus RX 300.
Marketing geniuses have decided that people won't buy anything called a station wagon anymore. That's why Toyota's calling the Camry-based RX 300 a "sport luxury vehicle" to make a truck-like association with sport utility vehicle. (Remember when calling someone's car truck-like would have been considered an insult?)
This vehicle is sold in Japan as a Toyota Harrier, a more colourful name than the meaningless alphanumeric designation it bears here. The Lexus badge is there because not even Toyota
could get away with charging $46,000 for a Camry station wagon.
Whatever you want to call it, the RX 300 is designed to deliver the high seating position and four-wheel drive traction of a sportute without the traditional larger SUV drawbacks of woeful ride and handling, ravenous appetite for fuel, flagrant consumption of other resources and the fear and loathing of other road users.
The bodywork offers more visual interest than is usual for Toyotas.
One RX 300 owner told me the circular lamps underneath the tail light lenses were the first thing that really caught his eye. These mimic the projectorlens headlights at the front.
In profile, the tall wagon body with its wide C pillar (the one behind the rear side door) looks quite similar to the Mercedes Benz M Class (great minds thinking alike?) but more
compact and less macho looking.
Getting in, the moderate step-up height is a boon for older and shorter drivers, but I never failed to whack my knee on the steering wheel hub.
The view forward isn't unlike several minivans, with a deep dash top and tiny triangular side windows a la Ford Aerostar.
Inside, the RX 300's dashboard gives the RX 300 some visual distinction. Instead of a centre console growing up from the floor, the RX 300's flows down from the dash. This leaves a bit
of unencumbered floor space, but not enough to provide a walk through to the rear.
Instead, there are a couple of storage bins down there, plus another between the seats. A dual cupholder is too far back to be handy for frontseat riders, too far forward for steerage
The shift lever for the four-speed automatic sprouts from this console, rather like the Fiat/Citroen/Peugeot minivan we don't get over here. It looks unusual, but works fine.
At the top of this centre stack is a video display for a variety of heater/air conditioner, trip computer and sound system information. Six piano key buttons on the display's sill
handle a variety of functions, depending on which mode you've selected e.g., they work either the CD or the radio, whichever you're listening to.
Unfortunately, there are also some hard-wired buttons below this panel for certain operations, which cause some confusion.
For example, the CD disc and track selection buttons, which you'd likely use together, are not positioned together. And the round knob on the right, which for time immemorial has been the
radio tuning knob, isn't on this car.
It all takes more getting used to than it should, just like Buick's failed attempt at a similar concept did in the mid '80s Riviera.
The Pioneer audio system's sound, by the way, won't enhance Lexus's incar entertainment reputation. The sound quality isn't bad, but if you like your music loud, you may find it doesn't
deliver a great deal of volume, despite its advertised 190 watts of output. An optional Nakamichi 230 watt package is available.
The instrumentation features Lexus typical electro-luminescent needles and dials that light up when you switch on the ignition.
The front seats, cloth-covered in my base level tester, are reasonably comfortable, if a bit short in cushion length.
The rear cabin is enormous, although the seat cushions are quite flat, probably a result of them being designed to be flat foldable in 60/40 proportion if additional storage space is
The cargo area isn't terribly deep, but the vehicle's overall length seems to have been logically subdivided between rear seat room and luggage.
The 3.0 L four-cam four-valve aluminum engine is the hottest version of the Camry V6, with variable valve timing on both intake and exhaust cams designed to overcome the low torque
bugaboo of most multivalve mills.
It's not entirely successful. The torque peak of 222 lb.;ft. occurs at 4400 r.p.m., and the car needs a few revs to get rolling.
The transmission shifts smoothly under most conditions, but if you lift off the throttle in the middle of a shift, it thumps alarmingly.
The four-wheel drive system is a full-time deal, with a viscous coupled centre differential (shades once more of the AMC Eagle). A TorSen (torque sensing) diff is fitted in the rear
axle, which should give anyone all the traction they'd likely need, for any circumstance they'd likely put this vehicle into.
There is no two-speed transfer case, nor sufficient ground clearance for serious offroading, but that's not the RX 300's appointed position in life.
The MacStrut front and rear suspension is quite soft, with good ride quality.
The steering is a bit vague, as if it's attached to a heavy vehicle. That's no lie at 1770 kg (3902 lb.) the RX 300 is no light weight.
However, possibly as a result of its avoir dupois, it does feel substantial throughout.
The trim bits are screwed on tight, the armrests feel strong, the car sits well planted on the road. It is decently if not funereally quiet; the bit of wind noise from the massive
sideview mirrors can be pardoned for the rearward view they supply.
As noted, the base RX 300 lists at $46,000.
You can only check a couple of boxes on the order form: one gets you a sunroof, pollen filter, leather trimmed and heated front seats with memory for the driver and a couple of other
toys, which adds $5,465.
The Nakamichi tubes, offered only with the other package, are another grand.
I'm not as convinced that buyers are as conscious of what labels car makers attach to their vehicles as the marketing types seem to think they are. If it looks like a duck, walks
like a duck, quacks like a duck . . .
The RX 300. I'm speaking metaphorically, as everybody but Toyota is sure to be aware; looks, walks and quacks like a four-wheel drive station wagon.
But if you're looking for a well-equipped vehicle with four-wheel drive, decent luggage space, room for at least two growing kids and a higher seating position than a typical
minivan provides, do you care what they call it?
The RX 300 also gives long-time American Motors fans (who, me?) comfort that yes, AMC had it right all along.
Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie prepared this report based on driving experiences with an RX 300 supplied by a Lexus dealer.
You can catch Kenzie each Saturday on Talk 640 Radio at noon.