Home » Here’s How The Lexus RX 300 Changed Cars Forever

Here’s How The Lexus RX 300 Changed Cars Forever

1999 Lexus Rx 300 Ts Copy
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Every so often, a car comes along that creates a new segment, but rarely are those segments massive, all-consuming juggernauts that alter the course of the entire industry. The 1999 to 2003 Lexus RX 300 changed cars forever, possibly more than most of us will ever know. In fact, it was even more disruptive than the original LS 400, because while that car forced established players to change their products, the original RX forced them to create new ones. All of them.

The BMW X5 showed that sports sedan brands could branch out into crossovers, and the Infiniti FX shook off all off-road pretenses for the better, the Lexus RX 300 came before both of them. It was the first luxury crossover to catch on, and it changed absolutely everything about the automotive landscape.

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Cast your mind back to the midsize luxury SUV scene in 1998. Land Rover had the body-on-frame Discovery, Jeep had the ZJ Grand Cherokee with a solid front axle, the LaForza still existed for some reason, and Mercedes-Benz launched the body-on-frame ML SUV. Notice anything in common here? These are all fairly truck-like vehicles, and Lexus was about to shake up that order.

1999 Lexus Rx

Based on the ES 300 sedan, the RX 300 shared that car’s three-liter 1MZ-FE quad-cam V6 engine, its four-speed automatic transmission, and its unibody platform with independent suspension at all four corners. It wasn’t an off-roader in the slightest, but it offered a raised seating position, plenty of cargo space, and an interior that feels far more modern than its 1998 introduction suggests.

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1999 Lexus Rx

For starters, the RX 300 got a screen displaying both information and entertainment. Alright, so it was really a combined display for the automatic climate control and sound system, but this screen was the centerpoint of the RX’s dashboard. Boiling it down to the basic concept, how modern is that? Oh, and that’s not the only touch you’d expect to find in a more recent car. A partial console incorporated a floor-mounted cubby for a laptop bag or purse, the second-row seats slid and reclined, and you could get auto-dimming exterior mirrors to cut headlight glare behind you. This is still a nice car in 2024, a testament to how hard Lexus went when creating a segment.

1999 Lexus Rx 300 10

The Lexus RX 300 isn’t normally considered a performance vehicle, but performance is relative. Keep in mind, the average SUV — even the average luxury SUV — of 1998 was an agricultural device by today’s standards. Even if the Lexus looked a bit like a Mercedes-Benz ML320, it was a whole lot quicker than that German-American ute, as Car And Driver found in a period review:

Working through a four-speed automatic of impeccable smoothness, [the 220-horsepower V6] hauled our four-wheel-drive, 4020-pound RX300 to 60 mph in just 8.2 seconds. In the inevitable Rodeo Drive stoplight drag, the 4443-pound Mercedes, at 9.8 seconds to 60 mph, doesn’t stand a chance. Nor do most other SUVs, for that matter. Only two sport util­ities we’ve tested—the Jeep Grand Cherokee 5.9 Limited and the SOHC V-6 Ford Explorer Sport—are as quick or quicker.

Oh, but the RX 300 wasn’t just the third-quickest SUV that Car And Driver had tested at the time. It stopped better, turned better, and got better fuel economy than the Mercedes-Benz ML320 it was competing against. The on-road performance improvement over a typical body-on-frame SUV was so great, the magazine noted:

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This is typical performance for a car, not a truck. In fact, driving the RX300 feels a lot like driving any of a number of Toyota or Lexus sedans, if you overlook the increased ride height. At idle, the RX300’s 45-decibel murmur is as hushed as an Audi A6’s. At 70 mph, only 67 decibels of noise will impinge on All Things Considered. That’s luxury-car quiet.

If you’re looking for the holy grail of RX 300 options, option code LD ought to do the trick. It was a Torsen helical limited-slip rear differential that would let this sedan-based ute carve snow like nobody’s business. Thanks to a viscous coupling, the original RX could send power rearward smoothly and automatically, a stark contrast from many luxury SUVs of the time with part-time four-wheel-drive.

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Now, one could potentially argue the Land Rover Freelander is the real godfather of the luxury crossover. While it did beat the RX 300 to market, the RX 300 holds two distinctions over the Land Rover. Firstly, it’s based on a car platform that everyone knows. Secondly, it still feels luxurious inside. Thirdly, it sold like psilocybin at Burning Man. Over five model years on the market, Lexus sold more than 370,000 RX 300s, quickly becoming the biggest model in the range for sales. The people were hooked, and they’re still addicted to the luxury crossover recipe today.

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The RX 300 hasn’t seen massive enthusiast attention, but that just means clean examples of these incredible pieces of automotive history are going for reasonable money. Here’s an absolutely minty pearl white 2002 example with crystal-clear headlight lenses and a properly nice interior for sale in Pennsylvania for $6,990. Would you guess it’s a salt-belt car with 98,485 miles on the clock just by looking at the shiny side? I sure wouldn’t.

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Want one from a sunnier climate? This 2000 model hails from Seattle, Wash., sports a mere 88,593 miles on its odometer, and is likely one of the nicest in the country. Of course, outstanding examples command outstanding price tags, but even at $12,700, you could do a whole lot worse.

1999 Lexus Rx

An extraordinarily successful car spawns a segment with two or three other vehicles, like how the Mustang brought about the birth of the pony car. The RX 300 spawned one of the biggest segments in the world. From the Genesis GV80 to the BMW X5, every luxury CUV today needs to tip its hat to the RX 300, for this humble-looking crossover is automotive royalty for getting the entire party started.

1999 Lexus Rx 300 02

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What’s more, crossovers don’t show any signs of being a mere fad. It turns out that people love tall, liftgate-equipped vehicles that ride and handle closer to cars than to body-on-frame trucks because they’re genuinely pragmatic. Mark my words, the RX 300 will be collectible someday. It’s just waiting for the world to catch up to it.

(Photo credits: Lexus)

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Michael Hess
Michael Hess
29 days ago

I got a 2010 350 with 140k for 10ka couple years ago. Fixed a couple things, runs like a champ!

Interior is very nice still too. This things will survive the apocalypse!

AceRimmer
AceRimmer
30 days ago

So we can thank these for ruining luxury automobiles forever and introducing the current CUV hellscape.

Ariel E Jones
Ariel E Jones
1 month ago

I don’t want to be that guy, but Car and Driver must not have tested the GMC Typhoon. That would’ve pushed this RX one more rung down the SUV ladder of “quickest”.

Red865
Red865
1 month ago

Still quite a few of these running around in my area.
We had 2002 for several years, selling last year for $5900 with 220k miles. Super clean w/ new tires.
Might have had the ES motor, but it was tuned to reluctantly to use higher revs…really had to keep it floored to get the power out of it in quick on ramp merges. It had dual throttle bodies. Sounded really good when it was wound up.
Seems there were some transmission issues in the early yrs…like a lot of upsized vehicles based on sedans.
Even though the ride was a bit soft/mushy for me, it was quite solid/stable hitting the curves a bit too hard.

Last edited 1 month ago by Red865
beachbumberry
beachbumberry
1 month ago

This is a cool one for me. I work at an aerospace company that is pretty prevalent in the media (particularly our CEO). What’s interesting is that the president of the company daily drives an old RX despite being a multimillionaire

Evan M
Evan M
1 month ago

You know, I’d never thought of it but yeah this really did kick off the luxury crossover segment. As you said, the Discovery, Freelander, various Denali models, and other truck-based luxury SUVs existed and were quite nice, but were trucks under all the leather and wood.
All that said, I’m not sure I could bring myself to shell out $7k+ on one of these, no matter how historically significant. They’re the embodiment of beige design, only remarkable because they were the first of many.

Clueless_jalop
Clueless_jalop
1 month ago
Reply to  Evan M

Personally, I agree. But I think for the people that do buy them, the “beigeness” is part of the appeal. It doesn’t draw attention, it’d fit right in at a high school or Walmart parking lot, but it’s well equipped, comfy, and reliable, just like the sedan it’s based on.

Citrus
Citrus
1 month ago
Reply to  Evan M

Here’s a potentially controversial opinion – they’re NOT beige design. When they came out, they were weird, they were in a form factor nobody had ever seen before, they did a lot of stuff that nobody else was doing. It was an incredibly remarkable car on release, it drew eyes from absolutely everyone else.

But it’s considered “beige” because it was such a huge hit. Not only did it sell absurdly well, everyone else made one too. Everyone else copied everything cool and innovative that it did. It blends in because every single other manufacturer ripped it off.

Go back to 1997, it was risky and weird. It was so popular it became boring.

(It should naturally be noted that it wasn’t exciting to drive, having Lexus’ typical devotion to smoothness, but as a package it was like nothing else. Until it was like everything else.)

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