Lexus RX 330 Review: The Best of Both Worlds

By The Car Family

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We own a Lexus RX 330 and are biased toward this product. That being said, this is perhaps the best SUV in its price range for handling, acceleration, and attention to detail. Being a crossover it uses the best features of the Lexus 330 sedan it is based on and the higher stance and utlity of a SUV. It makes our 1998 model appear almost ancient since the new model is improved in the three areas the earlier Lexus lacked and that was handling, acceleration, and cargo room. On the other hand, the earlier model has better front seat storage. Both get the same gas mileage, about 20 mpg in mixed driving and both offer pleasant and versatile driving experiences. Notable new standard features include a 40/20/40 split rear seat with slide and recline adjustments, a tire-pressure monitor, and 17-inch wheels. All of these are welcome additions and certainly worth the base price for the front wheel drive model and more for the all wheel drive set-up. We have never needed the all wheel drive option and question its value to those who don’t live in areas with notable inclement weather.

The new model’s major changes are the 3.3 liters engine, a smooth 5-speed automatic and about six inches of length mostly in the rear cargo area. You also get 140 more pounds to haul around. The options include front headlights that turn with the wheel and a multipanel sunroof with a larger opening than the regular sunroof that gives the RX a dinosaur like image. In addition, you can order 18-inch wheels, xenon headlamps, self-leveling air suspension with driver-selected height settings, laser cruise control designed to maintain a set following distance, a handy power liftgate, power tilt/telescopic steering column, rear DVD entertainment, rearview TV camera, voice-control navigation, and Lexus Link.Mom’s view: Always a pleasure to drive a product that feels so solid and responsive. I liked the range of safety features that included front side airbags, head-protecting curtain side airbags and a driver knee airbag. Strangely, this model doesn’t seem to give the tipsy feeling the early models did when cornering. This may be attributed to the larger tires or, more likely, a tighter suspension setting. Regardless, the RX 330 is a better driving SUV.

That important issue out of the way, I would say that the new RX’s only notable competition is from the Honda MDX, and the Mercedes-Benz M-Class. The Lexus is nicer to drive than these models, but is not as off-roadable. We also liked the fact that Lexus has stated that they are going to bringing a hybrid version out in 2005 making this the first available luxury vehicle with this option. We compliment Lexus on this decision especially if it is as good as the Toyota Prius.

Although the RX is based on a Camry platform, it is definitely off-roadable. However, who would want to take one of these into the bash and bruise outback is beyond me as the Lexus has some of the best paint I have ever seen on any vehicle.

I also want to compliment Lexus on not placing its RX options into large and expensive packages as they did on the LS. On the RX you get more modest priced choices, abeit some have a strange combination of options. You can order the Premium Package that includes leather, power tilt/telescope steering wheel, roof rack, and moonroof. The Premium Plus Package adds a power liftgate, HID headlamps and a wood and leather steering wheel. The Performance Package includes all of the items in the Premium Package, plus 18-inch plated aluminum alloy wheels, air suspension, sequential shifting transmission, power rear door, HID headlamps that turn, and rain-sensing wipers. There’s also a multi-panel moonroof available that’s larger than the standard moonroof that is part of a option package and a navigation system that includes a rear-view camera. There is also optionals like laser cruise control and a rear-seat entertainment system. You can easily take your base model RX 330 and drive it’s price high up.Although our test car was far from loaded, I can recommend the laser cruise control if you travel the highways a great deal and appreciated the power lift gate and the great headlights. They made daily life with this Lexus much easier as did the tight turning radius that was a major problem with the older model.

The cabin is full of wonderful things to touch. The optional leather and wood steering wheel is easy to hold, the cruise control, light, and windshield stalks don’t require you to lift your hand and the dashboard lighting is the best. The GPS is easy to understand, although we had a problem when we just wanted directions to a city and didn’t have a specific address. This is one of the easiest systems to use and worth considering. There are a lot of look alike buttons in the center of the dash that must be learned because reading them is difficult in bright sunlight.

Of all the lovely things in this RX, perhaps the most appealing was the small touches that made you feel special. At night, the Lexus name on the doorstep plate lights up and the door panel storage areas have covers that pull out making it easy to get the smallest of items. The only item I found out of place was a gas warning light that was way too small to spot, especially at night.

Dad’s view: Lexus claims the RX 330 can get to 60 mph in 7.7 seconds from the 230 horsepower, 242 foot pounds of torque, 3.3 liter V6. Whatever, it is still a fairly fast vehicle for its class while still getting over 22 mpg on premium during highway cruising, The engine should be good for over 200,000 miles if the past record is any indication.

Basically, I am not a huge fan of SUVs because of their handling, gas hoggish nature, and limited side and back visibility. I am proud to say that the RX 330 has none of these traits. In fact, it rides as well as some luxury sedans over highways. Be warned, though, that this is not a nimble vehicle and the steering can feel slow to react when the road requires your frequent corrections. Visibility to the side is excellent with the best mirrors in the SUV business. The rear view is okay, but the small window hinders your vision immediately in back of the Lexus. It is clear that the Lexus engineers designed this for more cruising than bruising.
Braking is quite impressive with very little front dip, but we would strongly recommend you don’t overestimate the stopping distance because this is a two-ton vehicle when loaded. The RX we own gets about 20,000 miles between brake pad replacements due to the freewheeling nature of the transmission. We anticipate the new model to get close to that figure, although the new five speed automatic let us feel like we had more control over the RX 330.
College going male: Finally got a part-time job. I am working in public relations building up a client list for a famous brand of women’s wear. Sure beats pushing audio books for $6.50 an hour. Anyway, I really liked this Lexus. It rode very well and my only complaint was the noise level when you put the rear windows down at speed. It boomed and so the only way to cool the cab was by opening the huge optional large moon roof or turning on the air conditioning.

The back seats were very comfortable with handy cupholders, ample room, and ample headroom and foot space. Make sure you adjust the rear backrests before you get into the RX because they are really hard to adjust when you are sitting in them. You can fold the rear seats down in three sections, but they don’t fold flat. You also have extra storage space in the rear cargo area on both sides and under the cover. And, there is a standard 115-volt 2-prong outlet behind rear seat. The rear tailgate is easy to open, but I recommend the power option because it is so cool to watch and so handy. I wish Lexus would include a standard cargo net, though.

Young working woman’s view: An excellent buy, but why not get the Toyota Prado instead? It has the same engine, the possibility of seating for more, and costs less. To me, the answer isn’t one of practicality. I love the Lexus service, the Lexus extras, and the pride it brings. Does it make financial success? Not really, even through the resale is slightly higher for the Lexus.Driving it is without fuss. It never bores you or bothers you with problems. It has a smooth, quiet, ride and has an excellent cruising range of over 300 miles, something that our older model couldn’t do because of a gas tank that was about two gallons smaller.

If you are into SUVs, and I am not, this is about as good as it gets for the price. But, be warned, if Lexus does bring out a hybrid model and my job remains secure, I am sorely tempted to abandon my sports car phase and go directly to the SUV stage.

Family conference: Call it a tall station wagon, try to humiliate it by claiming its an overpriced Toyota, make fun of its turtle shell appearance, or just point out you can get an SUV the same size and power for less money and you still are not going to convince buyers that this isn’t the cat’s meow of luxury SUVs. While the Honda MDX handles a bit better, the BMW is faster, and Mercedes more off roadable, and the Infiniti more sporty, the Lexus is all alone when it comes to providing buyers with what the majority want, and that is a luxury vehicle that is both practical an elegant. For a list of all vehicle websites go to and click on business.