The Lexus RX330

Review Notes: Lexus RX330 with Luxury Package
PersonalityInside, luxurious wagon; outside, big SUV
QuirksDoor locking behavior, some control placement
Unusual featuresIt's a Lexus
Gas mileage18 city, 24 highway (EPA)
Above Average: Resale value, interior appearance, stereo, features
Needs Work In: Gas mileage, minor ergonomic changes

The Lexus RX330 combines a serious SUV exterior with a luxury-car interior to provide a comfortable package which will appeal to those who find cars too low to the ground or not sufficiently macho. At the same time, it has better economy and handling than full-size SUVs, and lots of standard gadgetry.

The imposing exterior includes the popular clear tail-light lenses, covering red and amber bulbs, and seems styled to make the RX330 look larger than it is. Inside, there is comfortable room for four, sufficient seating for five, and a moderately sized cargo area, all with very good headroom.

The 3.3 liter engine from which the RX330 presumably takes its name is fast in sprints, but since it makes most of its power only in at higher speeds, there can be a fairly long lag before acceleration, since the transmission has to downshift. Given the transmission's preference for staying in higher gears as often as possible, and the delay between hitting the gas and downshifting, this means that the RX330 often does not feel responsive on the highway. It does well in sprints, despite delays at each shift as the engine falls back to lower speeds. Staying in high gears is good for gas mileage, which is a Navigator-killing 20 mpg or so, but which is fairly poor compared to cars of similar size and speed.

Shifts can be very smooth if acceleration is light, but they can also make themselves clearly known under harder acceleration. Both the engine and transmission are very quiet, but the drivetrain in our test vehicle tended to make a sort of rattly noise when we let off the gas in city driving. This might have merely been a loose exhaust mounting, though. The gearshift is gated in a pattern which unfortunately makes inadvertant slips from drive to fourth gear too easy, and has a button for snow mode (starting in second and such). There is no manumatic, so you use the gears the car chooses for you.

Handling feels sure and confident, but the tires tend to squeal at the slightest provocation, a noise heard more outside than inside thanks to excellent sound insulation. Some of the handling acumen may come from the standard active suspension, a feature being seen more and more on high-end SUVs, partly to avoid the rollovers which plagued Ford vans and SUVs. The active suspension should be especially helpful in bad weather, though drivers should never rely on technology to save them. All wheel drive also helps to avoid prolonged squeals and loss of control when accelerating hard around a turn.

Visibility is generally good, though the usual SUV rear pillar blind spot exists (smaller than in many competitors). The front passenger-side wiper has an interesting cam system which allows it greater reach than usual, and there is also a rear wiper-washer.

The Lexus abounds with safety features, including antilock brakes, traction control, driver's knee airbag, side curtain airbags, and a first aid kit. Luxury features include an excellent stereo with digital imaging (it lets you choose which seats get the best sound, with a setting for all passengers) and steering wheel controls, integrated garage door opener, dual zone automatic climate control with rear vents, moving center console, power front seats, and heated outside mirrors. The RX330 takes a normal "standard option" and goes one better - not only do all four power windows have an express down mode, requiring a single touch to move each window down all the way (something normally reserved for the driver's window), but they also all have an express up feature, requiring a single touch to go all the way up. There is also an anti-pinch feature for safety, but it requires a lot of pressure to stop the window. The back door takes a nod from the Dodge Caravan by opening and closing at the touch of a button, on the key fob, the door itself, or the dashboard. This door seems very safe, stopping and reversing itself at a very slight blockage.

While most of the controls are sensible and well placed, particularly the cruise (which has its own stalk), others are not quite as well thought out. The mirror controls and rear door button are hidden by a sliding cover most of the time, and by the steering wheel the rest of the time. The power rear door lockout switch is hidden in the glove compartment, very hard to find even after seeing the picture in the owner's manual. The stereo's audio controls are all accessed by repeatedly pushing the same button, going through the speaker optimization (which seats, then on/off), bass, midrange, treble, balance, and fade, which means that the driver can't really adjust any of them without losing sight of the road, and some of the other stereo controls only show up on the LCD display. Generally, the audio system requires more attention than it really should. The climate control system also tends to require too much attention, particularly the keep-pressing mode button (which controls which vents the air goes through). In both cases, knobs would be simpler, easier to use, and less distracting. Some other controls are busy (for example, both front and rear wipers and washers are on the same stalk), while others are in odd places (the seat warmer are next to the headlight washers by the transmission, while the trip odometer button and panel brightness are hidden by the steering wheel underneath the lights stalk, and the gas cap release is practically out of sight underneath the mirror and power door controls). We do like the instrument panel-mounted ignition switch, which is easier to locate and reduces key jangling than column-mounted switches.

The interior is very nicely designed, with a modern yet luxurious look. Some of the wood trim on our model is part of a $3,440 option package, which includes leather trim, power tilt-telescoping steering (tied into the memory system), moonroof, power rear door, high-intensity headlamps, roof rails, wood and leather steering wheel and shift knob, and illuminated entry. We were actually surprised to see that the illuminated entry system is optional, since it's standard on many lesser cars. This goes along with the mystery of the power locks, which lock when you get into gear, but do not automatically unlock; and to shut them off, you need to visit a Lexus dealer, even though Jeep, General Motors, and others let the driver set locking preferences. We do suggest getting the luxury package, which greatly adds to the "Lexus feel" of the RX330. The power steering wheel is an easy design to use, and helps to quickly and effortlessly put the wheel exactly where it's needed. The moonroof is unusually easy to use, with express opening (press the button once and it opens all the way), express closing, and a separate tilt up/close control. The high-intensity headlights are well focused, so they provide an excellent view of the road, without blinding all the other drivers, and they are augmented by standard halogens when the high beams are on.

The rain-sensing windshield wipers are surprisingly well designed and convenient, working exactly as they should without any intervention, with a frequency control to meet driver preferences. This is probably one of the most handy automatic features we've seen, and it works better than, say, the automatic headlights, which tend to come on repeatedly as you pass under clouds, trees, and bridges. There is also an automatic climate control with a driver and front passenger zone (there are also rear vents, but no separate rear controls), which also has its quirks, notably guessing that it should start with the air in recirculating mode each time, or sometimes guessing incorrectly that the defroster is needed. Like the stereo, the system has some buttons in the black part of the center stack, and some in the chrome part.

Gauges are well labelled and sharp-looking, though the speedometer goes up to a rather excessive 140 mph, which compresses the rest of the scale. The tachometer is the same size as the speedometer, and the temperature and fuel gauge are half-sized and in their own pod, with the gear indicator.. The display is easy to read in any light. A central LCD display provides information on outside temperature and other details, and also provides a trip computer (average gas mileage, average speed, etc.); the backlighting brightness has several settings to keep visibility high in all types of light, but, oddly, the stereo display's brightness appears to be unchangeable, though it's also a backlit LCD screen. A compass is included in the rear view mirror as well.

The interior is also filled with many interior storage spaces, some of which are particularly clever or well implemented. The ample door pockets are hinged to make looking inside easier; the center console has pushbuttons for opening and closing, but will stay open for larger objects; the center front cupholders have a woodgrain cover and flip-up rubber stays to accommodate differently sized cups, and another cupholder is integrated in the dashboard; and rear passengers have a fold-down compartment (along with their own map pockets) which contains a covered center bin as well as their own cupholders. Underneath the cargo bay floor are a variety of compartments for smaller items, all well designed and seemingly of high quality materials. Oddly, there seems to be no coin holder, though sunglasses can be placed in an overhead bin.

Overall, the Lexus RX330 has a lot going for it, beyond the excellent reputation of the manufacturer. The interior is quiet, comfortable, and well designed, the active suspension and other safety features inspire confidence, gas mileage is better than most large SUVs, all wheel drive is standard, acceleration is good on sprints, the floor is just at the right height (perhaps a little on the high side) to make it easy to enter and exit, and the general feel is of quality and luxury. Lexus' reliability makes a mockery of Mercedes', Lincoln's, and BMW's claims to quality, and resale values reflect this. However, a car will make sense for most buyers, since the RX330 is no larger than many cars; $37,000 (or in our case, $41,478, thanks to $21 for alloy wheels, $665 for heated front seats with rainsensing wipers and headlamp washers, $3,440 for the premium plus package, $66 for wheel locks, and $92 for a cargo mat) will buy a lot of car.

While the Lexus RX330 has good amounts of luxury, the Lexus ES has more, in a more practical package. Those seeking an SUV because they want the space may do better with the Chrysler Pacifica, which has a classy looking interior, far more space, similar gas mileage, greater responsiveness, five star safety ratings all around, airbags for all three rows of seats, and a considerably lower price. The Kia Sorrento actually manages to capture most of the luxury cues and feel, with an engine that feels more punchy, at a price $10,000 lower. Those in the mood for greater performance may prefer the BMW X5 or Volvo sportwagons. The Subaru Outback, which started the "car-SUV hybrid" trend, is also worth a good, long look, with its bevy of bad-weather features and comfortable, attractive interior. To be fair, none of these are a Lexus, and that's a distinction worth noting.