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Lexus RX300 vs. Toyota Highlander Same chassis, different prices

Canadians have well over 30 brands of autos from which to choose, from Aston Martins to Volvos.<br><br>The number of models among those brands is almost countless, and there are more every year.<br><br>In the explosion of new vehicle offerings, many are sport-utility vehicles, or at least SUV wanna-bes.<br><br>Some are simply too big. They are ridiculed in a TV ad where a proud new owner is boasting he has just purchased the biggest SUV in the world. "Yup. It's eight and a half feet wide. Seats 84." It is a school bus with oversized tires, front brush bar and an array of headlights.<br><br>Others are too small. The term "sport-cute" was coined for them. Yet it's a fact, the Canadian market overwhelmingly favours V6-powered four-door vehicles with automatic transmissions.<br><br>Some are just right.<br><br>Many recently introduced SUVs have addressed the fact that they are principally passenger cars. So, like a car they have a single unitized body-and-frame structure. Presto-chango — you have a strong-yet-lightweight vehicle that rides and handles more like a modern car.<br><br>Toyota's line of vehicles has expanded, too, especially in trucks. Its SUVs now cover the full range, from large and luxurious (Lexus LX470) to small and affordable (Toyota Rav4).<br><br>In between is the popular Lexus RX300 (with some subtle updates this year) and new-for-2001 Toyota Highlander — two mid-size SUVs that are, for many drivers, just right.<br><br>That would make them both uni-body vehicles. Even more right is the automatic all-wheel drive system, standard on the RX300 and included with the 4WD version of the Highlander.<br><br>Despite their unique appearances inside and out, they share the same platform. With very different price points for each, they make an interesting comparison.<br><br>First the commonalities. The Lexus is straightforward — the RX300 is a fully-loaded model with just a few options. The Highlander is offered in three models: a base front-wheel drive four-cylinder model (called FWD), a deluxe all-wheel drive model (named 4WD V6) and the luxury-trim 4WD V6 Limited.<br><br>Like the Lexus, the Limited includes a full complement of equipment including wood & leather interior, heated front seats, alloy wheels, automatic climate control, power moonroof, CD player, security alarm system and more.<br><br>The Highlander is the odd-ball. It provides a modern SUV look, with its practical wagon body-style, at a more affordable price.<br><br>The engine is Toyota's 2.4-L, producing 155 hp.<br><br>Both engines have the company's latest technology, including Variable Valve Timing (VVTi), four valves per cylinder and dual-overhead camshafts. In both cases, the engines are coupled to a four-speed automatic transmission.<br><br>The 3.0 L V6 makes 220 hp. Combined with a full-time, all-wheel drive system, the grip is strong and sure. A viscous coupling centre differential that normally splits the power and torque 50-50 front-rear, reacts to slip by changing that distribution automatically. The operation is quick and quiet, requiring no effort from the driver. There is no low range for slow off-road driving; the upside to that is reduced weight and complexity.<br><br>The smooth, refined operation of this drive system is confidence inspiring — the driver feels invincible and ready to tackle a drive in any weather.<br><br>Tested in snow this past winter, a few cold climate shortcomings were noted on the Lexus. The optional rear spoiler makes it difficult to clear the rear window with a squeegee. It also binds against the snow and ice on the roof as the tailgate is opened. The rear window does not open separately as in most other SUVs, so the whole gate has to be opened even to just drop in a camera bag.<br><br>The automatic transmission exhibited some balkiness in the cold, and the transmission-brake interlock seemed to interfere with moving the lever out of Park. In the depths of one cold winter morning, the transmission was reluctant to shift into the top, overdrive gear until it warmed fully.<br><br>Electrically-heated seats warm the lower back as well as the bottom with low- and high-temperature settings.<br><br>The transmission's shift lever is located in the centre console that flows out from the centre stack. In the Highlander, this frees up some extra space between the front seats. The Lexus RX300 has a full centre console there. Storage spots are plentiful; Rear seat room seems even more than generous due to the flat floor.<br><br>The interior of the Lexus has a luxuriously upscale look about it; the Highlander has a definite downscale, plain appearance, although the quality of controls and trim is impeccable.<br><br>The Highlander FWD is $31,900. The 4WD V6 $36,100. The Limited is $45,300. No other competitors with this level of refinement come easily to mind.<br><br>At $48,000, the RX300's most competitive foe is the new seven-passenger Acura MDX.<br><br>Neither the Toyota nor this Lexus offer any third-row seating.<br><br>It detracts little from the overall package.<br><br>While my sophisticated spouse says, "The Lexus would be nice," the male Scot in me says, "Highlander, ma boy!" With four models between the two brands, there is a full range of selection.<br><br>The Highlander 4WD V6 and RX300 are the true stand-outs.<br><br>Paul Fleet can be reached by e-mail at: pfleet @

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