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)
These RX models are ubiquitous in SoCal, particularly around the more upscale San Diego neighborhoods near me. So, these cars never did anything for me, either from a desirability aspect or styling one. Like most Toyota/Lexus products, they’re long running nature is why it’s so popular. But, what kills these cars for me, is the drivers. Much like how I can never imagine modern BMWs without having to make a “the turn signals are optional” crack whenever they merge on over without using them, these Lexus RX drivers tend to be some of the most inattentive and careless driver’s I’ve seen. Never paying attention to the rules of the road, always driving either super carelessly or super aggressively, and just generally being unpleasant. I’ve often made a joke that the stereotypical RX driver always has two things when driving, a cell phone in one hand, and a cup of Starbucks in the other. But leaving aside the stereotypes, these just don’t appeal to me, I’ve never been a fan of crossovers, rather preferring full size SUVs for the most part, and the styling just isn’t to my tastes. I understand they’re popularity, but like most Toyota/Lexus products, I can respect their mechanical capabilities, but it’s not something I find desirable or interesting.
Tell me about it. Got forced off the road by a rather new BMW 750L today on the commute to work. Guess he/she (couldn’t tell, the windows were too well tinted) couldn’t stand the thought of having to follow a toaster, and just take his/her turn when the lane went down the two lanes to one.
My immediate thought was, “Enjoying your lease, asshole?”
Ya gotta be Zen on the road nowdays or it will drive you nuts. It seems like the number of cars on the road has doubled since I started driving, hence double the asses and the same amount of road. Let it go, be extra courteous and if you let an opportunity to be passive aggressive slip by, reward yourself with some Dutch Brothers.
Brendan Saur wrote: “Steering was nicely weighted, without the over-assisted feel
of many newer cars, particularly newer Lexus crossovers I’ve driven. ”
Great to hear. But good steering feel can also be
experienced in mid-line and economy models. It’s
all mfg choices of power assist level and alignment
My theory on the overweighted steering is the shift to electric power steering that a lot of recent cars have. It’s like driving a simulator as you have zero road feel.
Lokki wrote: “My theory on the overweighted steering is the shift to electric power steering that a lot of recent cars have. It’s like driving a simulator as you have zero road feel.”
No way! The electric PS-equipped cars I’ve
driven are *less* weighted than those
equipped with conventional steering. Very
soft, no buildup side-to-side of center, no
“on rails” effect. The last 20 years, both
conventional and electrical PS have
overpowered any decent alignment geometry
built into vehicles. Little feedback, hard to
tell how much to turn the steering wheel
going into specific types of turns, etc.
But – easy as pie to PARK!
(palming my own forehead…)
I wonder how hard it would be to hack a simple on-off toggle switch into an EPS system, since the nature of the beast is that with the electric boost gone there’s next to none of the drag of a dead hydraulic pump.
I’m guessing he meant to say “overboosted”.
Yes, the hydraulic PS of yore was better, but it’s not coming back, so we better get used to it. And it is getting better with time.
I guess I’m never going to get to find out
how much “better” electric steering gets
as I will seek out older vehicles to drive.
Steering and safety both begin with “S”,
and electric doesn’t, and there’s
probably a reason for that. 😉
I think it’s worth keeping in mind that early hydraulic power steering drew exactly the same complaints now applied to electric racks. It took quite a bit of development (and some shifts in manufacturer priority) to engineer a reasonable amount of steering feel with hydraulic power steering. Some never bothered.
By the same token, the feel of the better electric power steering systems has been improving; I have read that the latest Porsche systems (which I can’t claim to have driven) are excellent, for example, and the Toyota/Subaru 86/FR-S is supposed to be superb as well.
So, I don’t think the rise of electric steering assist is by any means a death knell for steering feel. It’s more a question, as always, of what manufacturers think they’re selling.
Most magazine road tests of Toyotas and Lexuses mention the lack of steering feel and the too light steering is even drawing repeated criticism from Consumers Reports. It’s been like that LONG before the switch to electric assistance for steering.
Well, the electric power steering isn’t going
to reverse that pattern at Toyota.
Toyota Siennas have the numbest steering I’ve felt in anything post 1980s. Awful.
So do 2007-2015 Camry’s.
Remember, Camrys are marketed toward
the masses of automotive mediocrity, not
to those of us who actually know great handling.
The Lexus sure looks to be in nice shape. We read the other day about a long term owner of a manual Integra moving on to an RX. Here we have a long term RX owner moving to a manual Mini. People live a long time now and life has many stages.
What happens to the RX now. Over 10 years old so off to auction I suppose but do you think the next owner is a kid or just another less well off family.
A friend and neighbor of mine who has just retired and has always driven modest and practical cars decided that she now deserved a “treat” that was nice to be in and good in the snow. She traded in her 10 year old SantaFe and got a lightly used dealer certified RX350; she loves it.
I must admit it is a beautiful vehicle. I recognize some dash switches that are similar to those in my 13 Tacoma, but they are light years apart and the whole effect of the RX is really nice.
Luxurious, comfortable, good in snow, and Lexus dealer service. She is happy and she deserves it.
No wonder these are ubiquitous here in northeast NJ. And Lots of other places.
Interesting comparison with the Toyota, and further affirmation of why I always think of Lexus as today’s Buick. Very nice, very boring, expensive without being over the top, perfect for non-car people who want a luxury car. I’d imagine that most RX drivers have absolutely no idea that their car is a Highlander underneath–don’t know, don’t care, they just know they have a Lexus.
Make this a bit more tan and it would be identical to the ride of the last real estate agent I fired. For whatever reason the headlights on hers had some serious yellowing going on.
I suspect GN is correct; few will realize it’s a Highlander going on underneath. Lexus deserves credit for so successfully camouflaging the similarities.
I agree Toyota did a really good job hiding its Highlander bones. I had no idea the two cars were based on each other. One of the more successful rebadge jobs.
The ES on the other hand really looks like a Camry.
Here in the Midwest (Des Moines), these appear to be standard issue for women realtors.
Yellowed headlight lenses are very common on these year Toyota products. Headlight brightness at night must be terrible.
OK, you just delivered a Mini Cooper to a customer at Whole Foods and picked up a Lexus RX330 in trade?
Can we get any more cliched?
Originality in social style is obviously not this lady’s forte’. Indulging myself on overly judgmental behavior on little information, from the way you describe your mother, I’d probably find her company a lot more enjoyable than the customer’s.
My first thought was “Did you ask her how her youngest is getting on in college?”
Haha it is very cliche.
But in the defense of the customer, she actually suggested we meet at a nearby Burger King, but I didn’t know where it was. I was the one who suggested Whole Foods 🙂
Here in status-conscious suburban California, especially among certain appearance-conscious ethnosocial populations, these Lexus (Lexi?) were bought as much for the sake of visible status as anything else, to the point where they became a cliché.
The ultimate (older)chick car.
These literally grace every other McMansion in the suburbs, and they match those stupid looking houses perfectly.
“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?”
Well, in my case, I would like to drive a 1952 Chevy Deluxe again, though it’s only been 48 years!
Last week while out on a motorcycle ride with the wife, we stopped by the local airport where a guy had a collection of late 30’s Fords in storage. In the middle of the pile was an older restoration ’49 Chevrolet DeLuxe 2-door sedan in nice condition. Which he offered to me at a reasonable price.
Unfortunately the only garage I have on the property is filled with motorcycles and my bicycle shop.
Zackman, Same here. I’d love to drive a 1950 Buick or 1953 Packard, or really any car from that era.
Unfortunately, cars from those years that still run well and look good have been priced up to 5, maybe even 6 figures by Mecum and Barrett-Jackson.
IIRC, A 1957 Desoto Adventurer went for $225K at B-J not too long ago.
Well, it was a convertible. There is that.
“Unlike the Highlander, the RX never had a third-row option until the 2016 model year.”
The Lexus RX still doesn’t offer a 3rd row option.
My mistake. I remember before the 2016 model came out, there was talk of the possibility of the third row. I guess I just haven’t followed the new RX since the production model debuted.
Why are they trying to emulate Suburbans
with these pip-squeak SUVs? And where
is that third row going to fit?
The third row on mid-size CUVs is more for extra passenger space in a pinch than for dedicated use. The Toyota RAV4 (compact CUV) actually had an available third row for several years, essentially a two-person rumble seat behind the second row.
And with the SRA, it’s not like Suburbans have all that much to brag about in their third row. Legroom they’ve got, yes, but your knees will be at eye level if you’re over 5′ tall.
“SRA”?? Sorry, acronyms are lost on me. 😉
Still, At least a Suburban has actual room
for a third row. Remember, I’m an
automotive “conservative” on what’s a
SUV and what’s not.
Solid rear axle, as opposed to an independent rear suspension (IRS). Every truck-based SUV had one until recently; now the Suburban/Tahoe and its siblings are some of the few left. The advantages are better off-road capabilities (usually) and better towing (except when it’s not better: see the tow ratings of the SRA Suburban vs. the IRS Expedition).
The biggest disadvantage, besides a harsher ride, is that third-row passengers lose a lot of vertical legroom, to where the seat is practically mounted on the floor. See this image of the third row in the SRA Suburban…
I know this is the 21st century and everyone is always
in a mad rush, but how difficult is it to t y p e o u t
those terms?? Nothing personal, but, seriously…
…vs. the IRS Expedition EL. The Expedition also has more cargo space than the Tahoe/Burb without the axle eating up so much interior room (42.6 cu. ft. vs 39.3 cu. ft.).
At any rate, I think it’s an unfair comparison between a vehicle that was purpose-built to have a third row vs. one that has a third row only meant for short-term use, and it’s as much a disservice to refer to it as a “pip-squeak” vehicle as it is to refer to a full-size SUV like a Suburban as a “pig” or “tank.” They’re meant to fulfill different roles.
Also, if I may ask,
Oh.. I do that for the folks who might
be viewing this blog site on a phone
held portrait style.
Didn’t mean to offend with my “pip-
squeak” Lexus reference, but as I said
before, I have strict standards by what
I consider a SUV. The only vehicles
left that I consider SUVs are the
Suburbans, Excursion(not sure if Ford
actually cancelled them as they said
they would over a decade ago), Tahoe,
Expedition, and maybe the Explorer
and Sequoia. All the others are just
car-based status symbols, as far as
Classic SUV examples: GM’s Blazer
(from the ’70s and ’80s), Ford’s
Bronco, and Dodge’s RamCharger.
Truck-based, and practically
That’s good thinking for mobile users.
Yes, the Excursion was discontinued in 2005. High gas prices just made it look bad when the average buyer was a suburbanite instead of a commercial user. And now it commands a high price on the used market, especially with the Powerstroke. You can even have a “new” one made by putting an Excursion rear on a new Super Duty pickup, if you have $100K sitting around.
The Explorer was one of the first SUVs, if not the first, to move from a SRA to an IRS setup in 2003, when it went to a unique mid-size platform (though the Sport and and Sport Trac models were still compact Ranger-based through 2003 and 2005, respectively). The current Explorer has been a FWD, unibody crossover since 2011.
My personal criteria for SUV vs. crossover are that an SUV has RWD-based 4×4 or AWD and a longitudinally-mounted engine. Originally, I also included body-on-frame in those criteria, but that meant the Cherokee XJ was not an SUV, and it definitely was, even though it was unibody. The unibody Grand Cherokee and 2011+ Durango are definitely not crossovers either.
I sold Lexus cars for several months in 2006. I sold more of these than all the other Lexus models combined.
The change in 2006 to the 3.5L V6 and 6-speed automatic in the RX350 fixed the biggest drawback of the RX330 – a the somewhat course, underpowered engine and five-speed auto.
The 270 hp made the 350 a bit of a speedster, for its time. I was never a CUV fan, but Lexus of this era all looked very rich inside. I’d gladly take an LS430 from this time period.
Those 3.3L V6s also are subject to the oil sludge issues, IIRC.
We used to see many a 3.0 or 3.3 V6 getting swapped out at our Toyota/Lexus dealers during this time with the infamous sludging issue. Some of the 4 cylinder engines were affected too. A sure fire sign was lifter noise or smoke coming from the tailpipe. And then bad news at the dealer and thousands of greenbacks to replace said engine.
I thought sludge was an issue with the 1MZ-FE (3L), not the larger 3MZ-FE in that Lexus, which gave us no trouble in our 2004 Sienna other than its binary throttle response, noted by reviewers.
If idling exacerbates the sludge problem, then someone ought to tell all those strange folks idling their parked cars.
I think what bothers me about these RXs is that the style has evolved at a near glacial pace. (That is, the very 1st one off the production line looks very similar to the ones currently rolling off the production line.) They are basically a fancy Camry hatchback, but you will never convince their owners of that. And finally, FWD or AWD, they look like they are sitting about a foot higher off the ground than they need to.
Howard: When the current “glacial” style debuted over
10 years ago, my immediate reaction was… Japanese
That said, I’ve included a picture of my favorite
generation of Lexus RX-class:
I abhor this class of vehicle but I agree with you the first gen RX looked the part at least, a better M class essentially. The next generation looked terrible, from the pointy nose to the ricer taillights.
It wasn’t until I saw the picture of the old RX that I realized Toyota’s styling dept has really gone downhill. The old RX was so much classier and better looking than the chintzy and tacky new ones.
Don: “….chintzy and tacky new ones”
You mean like this ’17? LMAO!!
Seriously, there must be some ex-
NISSAN people working in the
Lexus design department. I mean,
that’s horrible. And what’s with that
tiny slit of window added to the C-
pillar area?? And that grille which
has been widening and lowering
since the 2014s.. Looks like it’s
about to devour an 18-wheeler!
Oh, and that grille is migrating down-
scale, onto the latest Corollas and
Camry. Yoy Eeshtenem…
That slit of a window isn’t even a window, just like the Prii one discussed a few topics ago, it’s just a result of horribly overindulgant stylists emulating the hideous BMW i3 greenhouse.
Here’s how it really looks from the inside… These designs give the interiors the visibility substance of a parade float
Thanks, XR7. And those things already have
rear quarter visibility problems. I have no need
to impress anyone, so I’m not in a hurry to drive
one. Although… I wouldn’t mind feeling how they
After the Highlander came out, I saw it merely as a higher-riding replacement for the Camry Wagon (which we had). Unsure if it has any more useful space inside.
This was for sure the better looking of the Lexus CUV’s. The current one looks just plain odd and sci-fi overdone. It was also nice to have real wood on the interiors, light colors inside. windows you could see out of, steering that wasn’t electric, bodyside moldings that dressed up the plain sides and protected from door dings and stray shopping cart damage, normal sized grilles and tires that didn’t look like rubber bands and didn’t cost 300 bucks a piece to replace. It’s amazing how in 10 short years vehicles have got so much more complex, heavier, bloated, expensive, poor in inclement weather unless you invest in snow tires or smaller wheels and the interiors have go so drab and dark and cave like.
+1 on all of these points. The original was the perfect urban vehicle for a heavily congested area such as the west side of LA and the coastal cities. Compact, good visibility, easy to park, and sufficient low end torque to move about reasonably well. The lack of real grunt on the freeway was not a big issue most of the time around here given the jammed traffic. An iconic design like the VW Beetle that met needs and served folks well. My cousin has decided to hang onto her second RX, a 2012, until Toyota dials back the weirdness.
Joe Yoman wrote: “…. inside. windows you could see out of, steering that wasn’t electric, bodyside moldings that dressed up the plain sides and protected from door dings and stray shopping cart damage, normal sized grilles and tires that didn’t look like rubber bands and didn’t cost 300 bucks a piece to replace. It’s amazing how in 10 short years vehicles have got so much more complex, heavier, bloated, expensive, poor in inclement weather unless you invest in snow tires or smaller wheels and the interiors have go so drab and dark and cave like.”
How about discussing what might be driving these
trends in auto design – customers? Or the marketing
dept at the carmakers?
Are those adjustable rear seats I see?
Running 4000RPM at 70MPH – I hope that was a lower gear while pulling a hill or something.
+1 my CTS cruises (uphill) @2000 RPMs@68MPH – 4000 would be 135+.
Not even my Mazda has it that bad at 70. With a 4-speed, best cruising speed is about 60-65 (1900-2300 RPM), but I can still get decent highway MPG at 72 provided there aren’t too many hills.
My CTS’s fuel consumption is greatly increased by strong (30 MPH) headwinds. Generally with light winds I can get near 30 MPG, but a windy day will reduce that to lower 20’s.
Crenshaw Blvd. south of Los Angeles connects the Torrance Costco to the wealthy suburb of Palos Verdes, “The Hill” to some of us older locals. Driving up Crenshaw in the Fit to visit my dad I was often surrounded on all sides by RX’s. All the drivers were female and middle aged.
True. We just traded my wife’s frequently-in-need-of-repair Ford Edge for a ’15 RX in December – the restyled ’16 is just plain hideous. My M-I-L is on her 2nd RX – the first went 180k no sweat. They’re well-made cars with strong reliability and resale. Bank vault quiet, too..but quite a yawn to drive.