Lexus RX300: A Classic Car

04/10/2015 01:24 pm ET | Updated Jun 10, 2015

Lexus RX 300: The Precursor

A Case for a Classic Car of the Future


No one stops to admire my car, to remark on its not-exactly-sleek but most attractive rounded shape and pretty claret color (what they now call Matador Red Mica although I am not sure that was the hue nomenclature in 1999), all packaged in a handsomely matured nearly 17 years. Why doesn't anybody fawn over my vehicle? Why are there no covetous glances from fellow drivers or winks of shared satisfaction jettisoned to other owners of the same model? How prescient we were, we ought be declaring, with smug nods.

When I travel from Manhattan to the Hamptons in my cousin's 1964 Mustang, strangers honk; I've even witnessed them running up to the car as she parks it, peering through her driver's-side window and offering piles of money for the car, which is most definitely not for sale. Yes, those early Mustangs are fabulous, innovative, and represented a new lifestyle, the kicky 60s and all that.

But the same could be said about the 1999 Lexus RX 300 (without the kicky 60s reference). It was a mold breaker, a game changer, a maverick (not a Ford Maverick) in the annals of vehicular history. Look to the road now and it seems that a quarter of all driving machines are modeled after my Lexus: sedan sized Sports Utility Vehicles built for convenience and comfort rather than off-road activities. Why don't people observe the importance of my superannuated car? The innovativeness and cutting edge uniqueness? Why isn't the RX 300 considered a sure bet en route to Classic Cardom?

All right, you laughers, it's not a sleek and elegant sports car. Some might even consider it a mom-mobile It isn't sexy and temperamental. Its turning radius is wide. But it was the very first luxury SUV to be built on an automobile chassis, rather than that of a truck. It is the predecessor!

Prior to the RX300, I had driven a Chevy Suburban for 10 years and I wanted something smaller, but I still wished to be seated high and to have access to four-wheel drive. I was tempted to buy a handsome Jeep Grand Cherokee, which fit the bill but the ride was rather stiff, rough. It was a real off-roader, not the comfort car with off-road capabilities I was seeking. I tested the other luxury SUV's: the new Mercedes ML 320 and the Infiniti QX4. They were definitely both appealing. Then I entered the Lexus showroom on 11th Avenue in Manhattan, and there, showcased, was cherry metal in a unique vehicular shape I had never seen before, with funny little triangular windows but great visibility. Dare I say it was "cute" without being "girly"? Inside was a glabrous cream leather interior with super comfortable adjustable seating, memory, and fine walnut trim. And the backseat (as this was the model car) featured something I'd never witnessed, except in limousines, a VCR player; here it was mounted on the ceiling facing any would-be backseat passengers. (After purchase, my kids watched Jurassic Park countless times as that was the only tape that seemed to dwell in the car). I test drove the RX300 and it was the quietest vehicle I had ever encountered. Its ride was so much smoother than the other luxury brands: the Mercedes, the Infiniti, and the larger Lexus SUV, the LX, all built on truck platforms. The car that was to be mine was set on a Toyota Camry chassis. It had a V-6 engine, 220 horsepower, a 3.0 liter 4-speed automatic transmission and a 103-inch wheelbase, all wheel drive and front and side air bags. It propelled 0 to 60 in eight seconds. Some aficionados appreciated it right away; it became the first Motor Trend Sport/Utility of the Year in 1999. And it had no problem with floor mat entrapment like some latter-day Lexuses (or Lexi or Lexera or Lexes or Lex-Us).

Over the last 16-plus years, it has traveled back and forth across the country. It has masterfully handled harsh weather: snow, mountains, mud. Its drive has remained, if not quite as silky as it once was, still a pleasure, even though the steering wheel now squeaks, a reminder of how whispery quiet it formerly was.

In the following years, post 1999, I began to notice more and more twenty-first century cars that resembled mine. There were ultra luxurious models made by Porsche, Audi, Mercedes, and BMW, and popular vehicles from Ford, Hyundai, Nissan and Mazda. But they were not the original, these millions of smallish SUVs that began to flood the freeways They were all copies, all followers, all metal acolytes of my now (should-be) iconic Lexus RX300. Someone even came up with a new name for these newfangled machines: CUVs -- Crossover Utility Vehicles.

Brothers and sisters and cousins and clones of my car now include: Acura MDX, ZDX, and RDX, Mercedes-Benz M class, Infiniti EX and FX and QX, Porsche Cayenne, Volkswagen Touareg and Tiguan, Land Rover Evoque, Range Rover Sport, Lincoln MKX, and MKT, Audi Q5 and Q7, BMW X3, X5 and X6, Volvo XC60, XC 70, XC90 and Cadillac SRX. Others include Kia Sportage and Sorento, Mitsubishi Outlander and CUV, Dodge Journey and Durango, Jeep Compass, Ford Escape, Edge and Kuga, Hyundai Tucson, Santa Fe, Veracruz and Nuvis (even with those gullwing doors), Suzuki Grand Vitara, Subaru Forester, Crosstrek and Tribeca, Nissan Rogue, the newest Pathfinder, and Murano, Mazda CX-5, CX 7 and CX9, Honda CR-V and Accord, Toyota RAV 4, Highlander and Venza, Chevrolet Equinox and Traverse, Buick Encore and Enclave, and GMC Terrain and Acadia.

Was the '64 Mustang more revolutionary than my RX300? Did it lead an innovation revolution of this caliber? Has any car since the Model-T been such a forerunner (not a Toyota 4Runner which is truck based)? Millions of passenger car based all-wheel drive vehicles have followed in the template tracks of my luxurious Lexus.

Even the later Lexus RX models have tended to stay ahead of the pack. Lexus revamped my vehicle in 2004, although its appearance wasn't drastically altered. By then, RX had 28% of the luxury SUV market. And the 2006 RX 400hp became the first luxury SUV hybrid. While the 2015 Lexus RX350 doesn't look a whole lot different than mine (or all the other crossovers out there), the 2016 seems to be growing larger and sharper edged, with an aggressive-looking spindle grille. And a baby sibling was introduced last year, the Lexus NX, which is a little smaller and sportier but follows the same sort of template as its brothers and sisters.

I have heard that RX stands for Radiant Crossover. My 1999 Lexus RX 300 may be old but it started a revolution. My car is a star!