BY ANDY ENRIGHT
History has not been kind to the Lexus RX300. For precisely one month it was top of the tree, THE luxury 4x4 to have if on-road styling was more important than getting down and dirty in a slurry pit. Then BMW's X5 arrived and the Lexus has been a car that rarely gets a mention. What often gets forgotten is that X5 notwithstanding, the RX300 didn't become a bad car overnight, indeed Lexus seem incapable of turning out such a thing. What the X5 did was render the RX300 obsolete. The goalposts moved, the rules changed, call it what you will, but suddenly Lexus found itself playing in the B team. Used prices reflect this, and if you're not prepared to fork out serious money that used X5s, late Mercedes MLs and Range Rovers fetch, the RX300 is the best bet by far.
Models Covered: 3.0 6cy 4x4 [standard, SE, SE-L]
Arriving here in October 2000, the Lexus RX300 was something of an instant hit, snapped up by those who'd waited a long time for a luxury 4x4 with a healthy dose of pragmatism. Here was a vehicle that recognised that buyers in this market generally didn't care a fig how accomplished their vehicle was off road as long as it was big, well equipped, looked the part and was smoother than butter when on the blacktop. The RX300 satisfied those requirements to a T and looked set for big things until BMW revealed another level of all-round competence with the X5. In truth the RX300 wasn't state of the art when it was first launched, having been around since 1997 as the Toyota Harrier in Japan. If Toyota had spotted the opportunity earlier, they could have made some serious money in the UK with the Harrier/RX300. In 2003 the RX300 was relaunched with sleeker lines, more space, a more powerful engine and better safety features.
What You Get
Not that the sleek shape is unappealing - or particularly slab-sided. In fact, it gives the car a rather dynamic, futuristic look that appears a little smaller than the class norm. Despite this, the plush cabin is pretty spacious, with plenty of room for two adults to spread out in the back on rear seats that can be slid back and forth to improve either legroom or the space on offer from the large boot. At the wheel, the driving position is peerless, spoiled only by the great three-spoke sports steering wheel's lack of reach adjustment. Not everyone will like the centre console-mounted auto shift lever (there's no manual option of course) but it frees up enough floor space for front passengers to walk through to the rear, should they need to separate warring back seat occupants. You also get a full house stereo system, a trip computer, electric everything and those wonderful instruments that light up when you twist the key in the ignition. Only the shiny 'wood' detracts from the cabin's quality feel. You can understand why the RX300 has been such a hit across the Atlantic in the market it was obviously designed for. It delivers, quite simply, what the shape and the badge promise: a Lexus luxury experience for those who want occasionally to venture slightly off the beaten track and need a more versatile alternative to a smart saloon. To criticise it for not handling like a fast four-door or not being able to chase buffalo across the Serengeti is to miss the point. You don't usually buy a car like this to do either of those things.
What You Pay
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What to Look For
There's one rule above all else you should observe when buying a used RX300. Make sure it is what it purports to be. There have been numerous sorry stories of buyers paying 2000 model year Lexus money for what later turned out to be rebadged 1997 model year Toyota Harriers. Worse still, there is a lucrative trade in stolen Japanese import 4x4s that are shipped in from the Arab states. It pays to do a full check on the VIN number to get a clear picture of the vehicle's provenance. Buy from a Lexus main agent and this should be taken care for you. Just remember to check the vehicle logbook. Mechanically sound, the RX300 only really comes a cropper if it has been treated to enthusiastic off roading which can damage the underbody, wheelarch liners, suspension and exhaust.
(Based on a 2000 RX300) A new exhaust, excluding the catalytic converter will be just over £850. Brake pads are roughly £60 each and a headlamp is around £175.
On the Road
You wouldn't take a Lexus off road - or would you? This one claims to be able to cope - as long as you're not planning to visit any jungles, deserts or indeed any place where serious mud-plugging ability might be required. The RX300 has been developed for luxury car customers who need something a little more versatile. 'Versatile' in Lexus language means five doors, a high driving position and enough four-wheel drive ability to make it across a ploughed field or tow a trailer out of a boggy car park. Under the bonnet lies a six-cylinder, 3.0-litre, twin-cam, 24-valve unit putting out some 201bhp - a little less than the obvious opposition. Still, it's enough to take this heavy 1820kg machine to sixty in just over nine seconds, with Toyota's clever VVT-i system on hand to generate the necessary mid-range pulling power. As a result, over 80% of the available torque is on offer from just 1,600rpm. The 112mph top speed is not so impressive: nor is the Combined fuel figure of just 21.7mpg. At the wheel, the driving position is peerless, spoiled only by the great three-spoke sports steering wheel's lack of reach adjustment. Not everyone will like the centre console-mounted auto shift lever (there's no manual option of course) but it frees up enough floor space for front passengers to walk through to the rear, should they need to separate warring back seat occupants. While we're on the autoshift, it's as well to point out that it operates with only four speeds, rather than the five boasted by most rivals although there is a switchable overdrive. There's no 'Tiptronic'-style option to shift up and down yourself, nor is there a 'Sports' setting to encourage the 'box to change up early for more enthusiastic motoring. What it does have, however, is a 'snow mode' where the box uses high gears and changes up early to maximise traction. All of which should be enough to discourage customers considering this 4x4 as any kind of sports saloon alternative. Throwing the car into a corner will only remind you that the carefully weighted power steering is still too light and encourage some frantic bleepings from the traction control and electronic stability systems (which you can't turn off). Not that it would ever occur to a typical Lexus customer to turn any kind of electronic safety programme off. BMW might be trying to market their X5 as a 4x4 sportscar but with the RX300, Lexus wants customers who would really prefer just to waft along in ultimate comfort. Like its saloon stalemates, this model is very good at ultimate comfort - which is why the Americans have bought it in such prodigious numbers. As in an LS430, the engine is so quiet at idling speeds that you have to look twice at the rev counter to remind yourself that you really switched it on. Refinement from the outside world is almost as good - and would be even better were it not for those huge great door mirrors. There's not much else to criticise however, with even the door seals carefully designed for silence at high motorway speeds. Complaints about ride quality should also be few and far between: the RX300 is arguably class leading in this respect. Ironically, this particular attribute makes the RX300 the ideal tool for what off roading it can manage. It simply sails over rutted fields and bumpy beaches, though as already mentioned, the lack of serious essentials like a low ratio gearbox and a separate ladder frame chassis will prevent you from going too much further. That's why the standard specification doesn't include such irrelevancies as grab handles, compasses and tilt meters.
As the best of the sub-premium luxury 4x4s the Lexus RX300 is worth a look. It's certainly a good deal more civilised on road than a Land Rover Discovery or a Jeep Grand Cherokee. As time goes by market forces dictate that the price difference between a used RX300 and its nemesis, the BMW X5, will be maintained meaning the Lexus will mirror the X5's depreciation curve. If you can't stretch to the Beemer, you're certainly not going to lose your shirt or any kudos by opting for the RX300.