How often is it that we get the chance to drive the same car (or in this case, a mechanically identical one) as the very first one we owned? To answer my own question, it’s generally a rare treat, and one that gets rarer as the years go by. Yet recently this event was such the case for me, courtesy of my job where I had to drive a 2005 Lexus RX 330 back from Rhode Island.
First cars, no matter the make, model, or condition, always hold a special place in our hearts. As many of you know, my first car was a 2004 Toyota Highlander, handed down to me from my mom shortly after I obtained my driver’s license. Essentially the “luxury version” of the Highlander, the Lexus RX was more or less the same car in different, somewhat more feminine clothes.
Sharing the Highlander’s Camry-based K-platform, general dimensions, interior layout, and powertrain, the driving experience between the RX 330 and Highlander was identical, and nostalgically familiar.
In this case, I drove the buyer’s new Deep Blue Cooper 2-door hardtop manual down to the Cranston DMV where I registered it, slapped the new RI plates on, and met her at a nearby Whole Foods, where I went over the car with her and we performed the swap. The Lexus was still registered in Florida, where the client used to live, which meant that I didn’t have to take the plates off to turn in at the RI DMV.
Normally, I still would’ve taken them off and put my dealer plate on, for liability reasons, but removing the screw caps revealed two rusty, stripped screws that began disintegrating the moment I touched them. In any event, I had a copy of the still valid Florida registration for the car in the unlikely event that I got pulled over on the ride back – a highly unlikely event I figured, since I was driving a Lexus CUV, neutral-colored, and with Florida plates for a trifecta of invisibility.
Sliding into the high, minivan-like bucket seat was like stepping back in time to my high school days when I was among the first of my friends to get my license and then a car. I quickly found a comfortable driving position, tuned the radio (which I’ve rarely used since my Highlander thanks to Bluetooth audio in my Acura) to Hot 96.9 for “today’s hottest music and [appropriately] all the best throwbacks” and set off back to Massachusetts.
As I said, the driving experience of the RX was identical to the Highlander in every aspect, as one would expect from two cars that are identical underneath the skin. The RX 330’s same 3.3L 3MZ-FE V6, with its same 230 horsepower and 242 pound-feet of torque, delivered a familiar quick start off the line, followed by rather leisurely mid-range acceleration.
Just as I rather un-fondly remembered, this two-tone crossover is no speed demon at highway speeds. With the engine revving at just over 4,000 rpm, a very firm footing was required on the highly resistant gas pedal to get and keep the RX into the 70 miles per hour range – the bare minimum on I-95 if you don’t want to get killed.
Otherwise, the RX 330 was a pleasant, if not merely an unexciting car to drive. Steering was nicely weighted, without the over-assisted feel of many newer cars, particularly newer Lexus crossovers I’ve driven. Much like the gas pedal (and similar to my Highlander), braking did require a slightly uncertain hard press on the brake pedal to really begin slowing the car down. I have a feeling that many automakers, especially Toyota, have made their brake pedals more sensitive in response to the late-2000s unintended acceleration debacle.
My favorite quality about these Toyota-built crossovers is their commanding seating position and overall ride quality. Providing an excellent view of the road, as well as maximum comfort, there is merit to the claim that crossovers (as well as minivans) offer some of the best comfort for the long haul. Having both my thighs firmly supported by the seat cushion while having my knees bent at a firm 135-degree angle is something I truly miss now that I drive a sedan.
In terms of actual differences between it and the Highlander, besides the obvious exterior styling (which on the Lexus I personally find far more elegant and memorable), drastic differences are far and few between. The Lexus naturally boasts a more luxurious looking interior, with genuine birds eye maple trim (as opposed to the fake stuff in the Toyota) scattered liberally on the dash, door panels, center console, storage lid compartments, and steering wheel. Leather was of a different, gathered appearance instead of the Highlander’s perforated trim, though I really wouldn’t say it was of any higher grade. Unlike the Highlander, the RX never had a third-row option.
The Lexus did boast a few extra goodies my Highlander Limited didn’t have, such as a power tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, two-position memory drivers seat, multi-level heated front seats (instead of one single on-off setting), Xenon headlights, and headlight washers (which I have no idea why a Florida car would need), but otherwise, in terms of features, the RX 330 and Highlander Limited were very comparable. The main reason to get the Lexus over the Toyota version was for the badge, and if found more attractive, the styling.
The funny thing is that with essentially every option box sans navigation ticked as it was when my mom originally purchased the Highlander Limited all-wheel drive new, the Highlander was more or less the same price as a base Lexus RX 330. I doubt that Lexus ever crossed her mind back in late-’03 when she was trading in her modestly equipped ’99 Grand Cherokee with cloth seats, and to be honest, I can’t picture my mom as a Lexus owner, even though she’s the target age and gender demographic of this car. Particularly as she was a hard-working school teacher to many of their children, my mom has never liked to be seen as one of the well-to-do suburban moms whom the Lexus RX always seems to be driven by. She would never, ever live in Florida either, so maybe these are both parts of the equation.
Regardless, this 2005 Lexus RX 330 is a perfectly competent mid-sized luxury CUV, offering plenty of comfort, space, and easy maneuverability. They still hold their value after all these years, so finding a good-condition, low-mileage one will cost you. The flip side is that you can be almost guaranteed that beyond basic maintenance, you shouldn’t need to invest an arm and a leg to keep the car running in tip-top shape for another decade.
I can personally attest that the all-wheel drive models are great in the snow, making them a great winter car in the snowy northeast. Likewise, the RX is a perfectly competent “Florida car” for those who prefer to spend their winter months down south, yet still drive a classy CUV. Above all, I would personally recommend either Toyota’s mid-sized CUVs to anyone looking for a safe, easy-to-drive car for their teenager; it certainly worked well for me when I was in that boat not too long ago. In any case, it was fun to sort of re-live my first car for an afternoon, and an experience I never thought I’d get again.
2004 Toyota Highlander (COAL)
Lexus ES (Automotive History)