Smartly dressed, ready for most any occasion, but not too macho, the 1999 RX 300 was the first "metrosexual" SUV. Lexus aimed this crossover at luxury sport/utility drivers--many of whom had already taken a turn in larger truck-based SUVs but weren't reupping for another tour. They liked the high perch, feeling of safety, and cargo room of those big, brawny sport/utes, but took a pass on the high step-in, rough ride, and thirst for fuel. The RX struck the right balance, became the best-selling Lexus, and won Motor Trend's 1999 Sport/Utility of the Year award.
Bowing in early 1998 as a 1999 model, the RX 300 came in front- and all-wheel-drive versions. A 3.0-liter V-6 from the ES 300 sedan, modified with variable valve timing (VVT-i), made great low-end urban power while returning respectable fuel economy. Ivory cloth was the entry-level upholstery, but many luxury spiffs were standard: genuine walnut trim, climate control, auto headlamps, cruise, power seats, seven-speaker sound, and alloy wheels. Options included leather in ivory or gray, heated seats, moonroof, and a CD changer.
For 2000, a new Mineral Green Opalescent exterior color was introduced and a rear spoiler became optional. The 2001 models were distinguished by revisions to the grille, head- and taillamps, and a larger fuel tank adding about 60 miles to the highway range. Vehicle skid control, traction control, and brake assist became standard equipment, and chrome wheels, HID headlamps, ivory or black leather seating, and touch-screen navigation were the latest options. In mid-2001, a special-edition RX 300 Silversport offered sport suspension, aluminum interior trim, black perforated leather, and a distinctive grille. The 2002s were essentially unchanged, except for a faster-processing DVD-based navigation system and the addition of a Coach Edition (with perforated leather, Bird's-Eye Maple trim, honeycomb grille, and unique wheels). Every 2003 model got the one-touch open-and-close moonroof at no extra charge.
Early RX 300s had some teething problems. Two safety recalls were issued for the 1999 models, and quality-control issues led to a smattering of service bulletins for un-Lexus-like squeaks, rattles, and brake squeals. But the numbers of those problems dropped significantly by 2001, and Lexus was back at the top in customer satisfaction.
While the 2004 RX 330 is slightly larger, more powerful, and offers the latest electronic wizardry, it hasn't moved the envelope so far as to make the original RX a target for the fashion police. And options can push the cost of a new RX close to $50 grand, $15,000 to $20,000 more than a 2003 RX 300 with warranty remaining. The first-generation RX can still provide all the sport/utility most drivers need: the all-weather confidence of optional AWD, safety, and flexible cargo capacity. What it gives up in ruggedness it makes up in comfort, attention to detail, and panache.