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Lexus RX 300 SE

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      24.10.2005 23:28
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      Set your mind free and leave your body in the car!

      ’05 model Lexus RX300 SE – extended test drive (2005)

      Ask 100 people what they want from a car and you’ll almost certainly get 100 different answers. Good looks and performance are usually near the top of the list, closely followed by things like image, reliability, fuel economy and safety. Strange then that given how many hours a year we spend behind the wheel, comfort seems to be languishing some way down the list, and I’m talking about real comfort here, not just “it’s ok if it doesn’t give me back ache after 5 minutes”. Well the RX300 was judged most comfortable car of the year in 2004 by What Car? magazine, and not without good reason – this is your favourite comfy chair… with wheels! So, in keeping with how I usually start the proceedings, let’s deal with the looks first. Look at the individual parts of the RX in isolation and you might be expecting something akin to Plug of the Beano’s Bash Street Kids to emerge, but you’d be wrong. Aesthetically this car is greater than the sum of its parts, particularly in how the designers overcame the boxy van-like side profile that dogs cars like the BMW X5, Mercedes ML Class and virtually every other Shogun-style land-cruiser box to come out of Japan. The roof is sloped towards the rear and with rear windows that come to a point, the overall look is more car-like than SUV-like. Most of the flourishes are typical Lexus and while it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, I happen to like it. Even so, I always figure that looks shouldn’t top the list, after all you’re buying a car to sit inside it and drive it, not look at it all day long or take it out to dinner! With that out of the way, we’ll step inside to where your armchair awaits.

      The drivers seat is the most comfortable car seat I’ve had the pleasure of parking my posterior in, and this is after driving Lexus’ flagship LS430! The soft leather of the RX seat is beautifully padded yet supportive and can be tweaked into virtually any position you like via its multi-way electronic adjustment. Add to that the adjustable steering wheel that makes you feel more in control of a car than a wheelbarrow, I’d challenge anyone to not be able to get the perfect setup for them. Once installed, just look around and take it all in while asking yourself, how can they make a car that has this much space inside without it feeling like a barge? Rear accommodation will allow two adults to travel in the utmost comfort, while you could easily fit in a third person without upsetting things. Then there’s the Lexus refinements; polished wood veneers, leather inlays, tinted rear windows, armrests for everyone, it’s all there. Back in the drivers seat, the controls are all logically laid out and have that quality feel about them. The brushed aluminium effect of the centre console is again a styling touch that may not please everyone, but given the amount of functionality this centre sections delivers, it’s all achieved without looking busy or ‘gadgety’. The touch-screen display caters for satellite navigation, Bluetooth phone connection, your diary & maintenance information, trip computer and climate control. Below that is the stereo system (radio, CD and tape) with its own LCD display of black characters on a soft white background. Moving across to the speedo etc., these use what Lexus call ‘optitronics’ but for us laymen this simply means the clearest dials you’ll see bar none. They somehow manage to present a black dial with the digits and intervals illuminated from behind with white LEDs. It might sound garish but far from it, the contrast is just spot on and has a very refined look to it. Anyway, enough of waxing lyrical about speedo’s, there’s the view from the rear. Visibility all round is excellent, and if that’s not enough, the sat nav screen changes to a rear view camera when reverse is engaged. This view has overlays on it that help with parking, such that it’s easily possible to park this car in any space without even having to turn your head… how’s that for lazy!

      Time to twist the ignition key and get your 3.0 litre V6 started. This car is the antithesis of the V12 rumble enjoyed by so many Ferrari drivers, basically the sound proofing sees to it that the engine is hushed unless you’re right at the top of the rev range, so all that’s needed is to release the foot operated parking-brake, engage Drive and you’re away, and as soon as you’re moving you realize what this car is about. It’s not about going fast – although the 3.0 litre petrol unit will pull you up to 60mph in 9 seconds, if you want speed (and a brash image to boot) buy an X5. It’s not about chucking it around country lanes – the suspension is soft, and while there is some body roll when pressing on along twisty roads, cats eyes, manhole covers, potholes and rumble-strips are all quietly despatched with a fuss. It’s not about mud and slippery slopes – well, 95% of off-roaders barely run over a kerb stone let alone go trekking across fields. That said, I have driven the RX around a fairly demanding off-road course at a couple of Lexus Open Road events, and while not in the class of offerings from Land Rover, it does a respectable job in the rough. No, this car is about getting from A to B with serenity and the absolute minimum of effort. If you want to drive for 2 or 3 hours and arrive feeling as relaxed as when you started, then this car offers just that. Add in a sound system that lets you tweak and twiddle all sorts of settings (like giving a speaker bias for the driver, front, rear, all, etc), climate control and ventilation that is easy to get just right, and a sat nav system that has got to be amongst the clearest and most efficient available, you can happily adopt the phrase “Have RX, will travel”. If I wanted a car to take me long distances in the utmost comfort, in all weathers with thesurefooted-ness of 4-wheel drive, and which doesn’t shout “hey look at me” every time you pull up at the lights, then this is it.

      Looking in more detail at the driving experience, the car is choc-full of technology that works behind the scenes to make your drive safe and enjoyable, with a list of acronyms as long as your arm (BAS, TRC, EBD, VDIM, EPS, VSC, etc.). Ok performance is maybe a tad sluggish for a 3.0 litre V6, but then if 0-60 in 9s isn’t quick enough for you then you’re probably in the wrong car. Gear changes are silky smooth and the engine is quiet and refined, even up to the redline to a degree, so getting to 60 and beyond won’t see you trailing behind all the other traffic. With they high riding position of off-roaders, you’ll see parts of the countryside that ordinary saloon drivers only ever see as hedges, and it’s reassuring that as we get yet more rain, floods and debris on the road (courtesy of global warming?) you’ll not have to worry that the RX won’t see you safely to your destination. On the move the car does its best to insulate you from the outside, so while some may criticise the soft suspension which gives rise to body roll in the corners, and steering that is perhaps a little over-assisted, if it’s comfort by the bucket-load that you’re after then this car is spot on. Besides, I always wonder at these journalist type motoring hacks, who plough into corners and power-slide their cars around, complaining of a ‘hint of understeer’. They seem to universally hate the RX for its very ‘raison d’etre’ – it’s the ideal companion for people who aren’t actually obsessed with driving. That may sound odd but it’s true, because there are plenty of people out there who have had it with racing away from the lights, who don’t want to get tired in the endless queues of traffic, who would rather not take every country lane as a point-to-point speed trial, and for whom being comfortable actually has some meaning. Besides, it’s that little bit different from the ubiquitous X5 that graces so many footballers wives driveways, or the ML Class Mercs that just have to be parked as near to the supermarket entrance as possible, despite the ‘Disabled Parking Only’ signs. Yes, if I won the lottery tomorrow, the RX400h (that’s the petrol-electric hybrid version) would be top of my list, ahead of supercars like the Aston Martin DB9. Heck, if I won the Euro-lottery, then I’d buy all my family and friends a fleet of RX’s – they really are that good.

      Ok, all this refinement and comfort comes at a price, for example the base model RX is a shade over £30k, and while I think that’s reasonable for such a well built and accomplished car, it’s still a lot of money. Opt for the SE version and you’ll not see much change out of £35k, while the range topping RX400h (and what a car that is!) can set you back nearer £45k depending on the options you want. Likewise fuel economy isn’t likely to top 23mpg unless you’re on a long run, although insurance comes in at group 15E. Being a Lexus it’s beautifully built and superbly reliable, so servicing will be down to the usual consumables and stuff, and although Lexus dealers are probably the best in the country, they aren’t renowned for having budget hourly rates. When all is said and done though, the whole Lexus experience is supposed to be one of effortless ease so your investment should see you enjoying everything that is part of being a Lexus owner. Even choosing your RX is as easy as anything as most things come as standard, with just sat nav, metallic paint and a premium sound system as factory options, so you won’t be presented with a catalogue of hundreds of extras and confusing combinations of options.

      So there you have it - a car that will take you under its arm and see you right, rather like a wealthy loving auntie – how’s that for an analogy?! In these days when the roads are more congested than ever, in a worse state of repair than ever, and with every white van driver, wannabe executive and boy racer out to get you, the RX will free your mind from the chore of driving if nothing else.

      Did you know?
      • The sat nav covers the whole of the UK and most of Europe on a single DVD, and can talk to you in any one of eight languages!
      • The SE comes with a powered tailgate that will open, and close at the touch of a button.
      • HID lights are standard and on the SE have an ‘adaptive’ feature meaning they can point in the direction the steering wheel is pointing.
      • The auto box has a more sport orientated ‘sequential’ mode, but hey… why bother?
      • You can upload you mobile phone numbers into the car via Bluetooth and enjoy all sorts of hands free voice activated trickery.
      • The centre cup holder, ashtray, stowage unit between the front seats can be slid backwards so the rear seat passengers can use it.
      • In the RX400h you have to be really careful in car parks because the car is silent and pedestrians won’t hear it, and that’s from a car that can propel you to 60mph from rest in just 7.5 seconds!
      • With air suspension, the car will lower itself at motorway speeds to improve stability and fuel economy.
      • As an option, the sat nav costs over £2,200… but it is a beautiful system. You can also add a Mark Levinson sound system for £2,600 and this is probably one of the few cars that’s quiet enough for you to appreciate it.

      My Recommendation?

      The RX300-SE with satellite navigation. Ok, if you’ve £45k to spare, the RX400h (again with sat nav).

      The Competition?

      BMW X5, Mercedes ML Class, hmmm not a lot else really if it’s luxury you’re after.

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