Lexus claims that the original RX300 launched the luxury sports utility vehicle segment in 1998, although you would not really know it in the UK. About 4,000 models have been sold here since 2000 and the likes of the BMW X5 and Volvo XC90 have since eclipsed it.
But in the spiritual home of the SUV, America, they love it and it is this market which has been the major force in powering the outgoing RX300 to sales of more than 500,000 worldwide.
Lexus is confident this new RX300 will sell better in the UK, expecting 2,300 sales in 2003, hitting 3,000 in 2004 (its first full year), which is a 75% increase on annual sales of the previous model. Of those registrations, fleets are reckoned to account for about 20%.
And with prices starting at £28,950, the RX300 undercuts Volvo, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Land Rover in the premium SUV sector.
The RX300 has become a lot more sharky, with sharp headlights and plenty of dynamic converging triangles around the rear. The blacked-out windows from the B I pillars back add to the overall mean look of the car which, while not to everybody's taste, certainly gives it plenty of attitude.
The sparkly slatted grille is a rather gaudy adornment beloved in the Japanese and American markets, and served the previous version well. Even in a sector where understatement is a long forgotten principle, the Lexus positively craves attention – and gets it.
The interior is everything you would come to expect from a Lexus. A mixture of bold Toyota switchgear and premium sector flash ensures very high build quality and refinement. The three Alfa-Romeo-like pods for the dials are large and clumsy but otherwise the cabin is nicely laid out and the seats are extremely comfortable.
There is little likelihood of there being a diesel in this car for a couple of reasons. For one the Americans would not be interested, but Lexus claims there is not a large diesel lump in the Toyota family that would be refined enough, and its direction will be with the petrol/electric hybrid technology, currently showcasing in the Prius.
As a result, the RX300 in purely petrol guise is not a car that British fleets will place many orders for. With its 201bhp 3.0-litre VVT-i V6 engine expelling carbon dioxide at a rate of 288g/km it is no surprise the RX300 falls into the maximum 35% benefit-in-kind tax banding. And that means £336 a month for a 40% taxpayer.
The more aerodynamic body has resulted in a fuel economy improvement of more than 6% over the outgoing model to a still not very parsimonious 23.2mpg combined, but Lexus claims this is still a best-in-class figure for a six-cylinder SUV. The RX300 is 160mm longer than the previous model and every one of those millimetres has been used to good effect.
There is a massive amount of space for rear passengers, which combined with a decent ride and no interruptions from the engine or wind noise means that as an environment for wafty motorway cruising, front or rear, the RX300 is hard to beat in its class.
There are three models: the RX300, RX300 SE and RX300 SE-L, but as with all Lexus cars, even the cheapest model comes laden with equipment. There are electrically-adjustable seats, cruise control, in-dash six CD changer, multi-zone automatic air conditioning and a package of stability and safety features to counter the height and weight of the car in emergency situations.
And should the situation get too much even for the ABS, EBD, brake assist, traction control and vehicle stability control electronic aids, the RX300 comes with a veritable blimp's worth of airbags, including extra-large side airbags and knee airbags, which are a first in this sector.
The SE adds heated leather seats, rain-sensing wipers, automatic lights, sunroof and an automatically operating tailgate which also retracts the luggage load cover electrically when opened.
Although the first two models get a standard coil suspension system, on the SE-L, Lexus has added air suspension which will squat at speeds and can be raised in the unlikely event the car ends up going into rough territory.
It also has the excellent Lexus Navigator satellite navigation system as standard, which is the best on the market at the moment.
The SE-L also has an 11- speaker audio system designed by gurus at top end hi-fi maker Mark Levinson, although as a phonic philistine the difference between the systems did not seem much to me. Somebody with a more honed musical taste may disagree.
So luxury a-plenty for the RX300, which combined with its distinctive looks, reputation for reliability and relative scarcity is seeing CAP predict three-year/60,000 mile residual values at 44%/£14,350 for the 3.0 SE auto. This puts it nearly on a par with the equivalent BMW X5, which means it is at the top-end of the scale for SUV secondhand values.
Behind the wheel
COMFORT is a big factor in cars like this and the RX300 delivers. The large seats and steering wheel adjust in enough directions to ensure a high, supportive driving position and the view forward is uncluttered. As always with Lexus and Toyota, all the controls have clarity and simplicity.
Lexus engineers reckon they have surpassed even themselves when it comes to levels of NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) with the RX300 and at tickover everything is eerily silent.
On the move, the engine is still reluctant to make itself heard, although it can be felt: the 3.0-litre unit does a decent if not spectacular job of hauling this nearly two-tonne vehicle along.
As this is a car for the streets and motorways, refined top end power rather than chuggy torque for mud-plugging is what is needed. It is quick enough for the role and acceleration through the five-speed automatic gearbox is silky smooth and unfussy. Ride quality is generally very good, although both suspension set-ups – air and coil – tend to float the car after long motorway crests. Body control through bends is not too bad, although not in the BMW X5's league, and the steering is not too light or too vague either.
That means you can hustle the car along, but get too excited and the traction control takes over in a 'sledgehammer cracking a walnut' fashion. First comes a rather annoying beep followed by around five seconds of ugly-sounding whirring as all power is cut dead. So strong is the intervention that it continues long after the corner.
The brakes are superb. Although the pedal feels a little wooden, the brakes come on and off very smoothly and progressively and stop the car powerfully. During the launch event I even went off-road in the RX300, although it was no more than a glorified dirt track, but the full- time four-wheel drive coped with the conditions easily.
The RX300 is an excellent sports utility vehicle, if you like that sort of thing, and there are plenty that do and plenty that don't. It doesn't drive as well as an X5 but is refined, stylish – if a little gaudy for some tastes – is ultra comfortable and will be utterly reliable. It also manages to be good value, relatively speaking, for a premium SUV.
Model: Lexus RX300
Engine (cc): 2,995
Max power (bhp/rpm): 201/5,600
Max torque (lb-ft/rpm): 283/4,500
Max speed (mph): 124
0-62mph (sec): 9.0
Comb fuel consumption (mpg): 23.2
CO2 emissions (g/km): 288
Transmission: 5-sp auto
Fuel tank capacity (l/gal): 72/16
On sale: Now.
Prices (OTR): £28,950, £32,995 (SE), £37,700 (SE-L)