1999-2003 Lexus RX300: The Perfect First Car

Doug DeMuro
by Doug DeMuro
1999 2003 lexus rx300 the perfect first car

Like Steve Lang, I’m always getting asked by friends and family for recommendations on cars for young drivers. Unlike Steve Lang, I don’t have the balls to publicly recommend the “tough love” approach of making a young driver buy his own car. After all, that would make me a hypocrite, since my own 16th birthday earned me a ten-year-old Volvo, which marked the beginning of my transition from a normal high-schooler to the dorkiest kid on campus. My fanny pack may have also played a role.

Instead of “tough love,” I politely provide a long list of car recommendations to friends and family, who ignore all of them and buy a Civic. This annoys me. It’s not that I don’t like the Civic, which has reliably provided mediocre transportation to three decades of Americans. It’s because I’ve found something better: the first-generation Lexus RX300.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking. Some of you are so blood-boilin’ mad at the fact that your own first car was a 1991 Pontiac LeMans hatchback that you’re going to quickly scroll down to the comments and write in all caps about how no TEENAGER should be driving a LEXUS. Of course, this is the same “chip on your shoulder” set that would quickly point out that “it’s just a fancy Toyota” if a co-worker bought one.

But I have my reasons for recommending an RX300 over the hallowed Honda Civic, so hear me out.

1. Quality. Parents who stick their kids with buying their own first car often forget about one important factor in first-car ownership. When it breaks down, the first call is to mommy and daddy. For the next six weeks, you’re carting them around to school and tennis lessons (or whatever kids do these days. Ecstasy parties?) while a mechanic scours junkyards searching for a shock absorber for a ’91 Pontiac LeMans hatchback.

In the RX300, this isn’t a problem, as demonstrated by the fact that every single example on Craigslist has between 220,000 and 440,000 miles, even though the only sign of wear is some brake dust.

You’re also very likely to find an RX300 in good shape. That’s because not one RX300 was bought by someone on a shoestring budget who thought it was “cool,” since it definitively is not. Instead, they were all purchased by wealthy people who spent two grand whenever the dealer asked nicely.

2. Cost. So you want a quality used car for your kids. But you don’t want to spend much on it, because it’s not as if you’re buying it for somebody really important, like yourself.

Again, the RX300 is a masterful purchase. Not one of these things is over ten grand, and most of them are closer to six. And you may even be able to get down to four grand if you’re willing to compromise on unimportant things like paint quality and total number of side mirrors.

3. Safety. Let’s all agree we don’t want our kids to be in an unsafe car. At this point, parents of young children are nodding as they think about how many airbags their new minivan has, while parents of moody teenagers are thinking “Eh, maybe I’ll take my chances.”

But I’m going to assume you want to protect your offspring. Once again, the Lexus is the right car. They all had dual airbags, side airbags and anti-lock brakes. Later models also came with vehicle skid control, the function of which is unknown except to calm worried parents. Being an SUV, it also rides higher than a typical car, which improves visibility. This is important since teens primarily view rearview mirrors as a way to check their hair.

4. Cool factor. This is where you parents really hit a home run. Your kid wants a BMW. You want him in a cheap, dependable car that won’t kill him. Buy him the RX300 and you both win. We already know it’s cheap, safe and reliable. If he ever complains it’s not cool, this is the time to play the “Lexus SUV” card. You know the one: “Son, I bought you a Lexus SUV! Do you know what I was driving when I was a kid? That’s right, a horse and buggy! You’re complaining about a Lexus SUV?! I walked uphill in the snow…”

This is sure to shut him up, or possibly just bore him until he stops complaining.

5. Practicality. Kids today have lots of stuff. The RX has a cargo area big enough to stow it, but not so big that kids can use it to make you a grandparent. In my experience, that may not stop them from trying.

6. Performance. What performance?! The original RX300 used a version of the spineless V6 that came out of the 1997 Camry. It produced 220 horsepower and 222 pound feet. And that was 14 years ago when it was new. Assuming you’re down to 200 horses now, you’re looking at 0-to-60 in nine seconds. Just like that Civic you were considering. The lack of power also reduces the rollover risk that’s so common in SUVs. Believe me: I’ve tried.

There’s another benefit here: fuel economy. It’s not really that good. Which means, assuming you make him pay for fuel, he will be stuck at home most nights while his friends are getting drunk and riding laundry baskets down the stairs. Score one for mom and dad.

7. Features. This is the part where you’re nice to your kid. You’ve checked all of your own boxes, so now you can check a few of his. Alloy wheels, heated seats, and a sunroof are on nearly every RX300. Most of them had navigation. Some even had a reversing camera. Sure, it ain’t a BMW. But it isn’t exactly a ‘91 LeMans, either.

Doug DeMuro operates PlaysWithCars.com. He’s owned an E63 AMG wagon, roadtripped across the US in a Lotus without air conditioning, and posted a six-minute laptime on the Circuit de Monaco in a rented Ford Fiesta. One year after becoming Porsche Cars North America’s youngest manager, he quit to become a writer. His parents are very disappointed.

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  • Jeff S Jeff S on Mar 03, 2013

    @baggins--I would just get another 6 or 7 years of reliable service out of the Accord and give your son a car that you know has been properly maintained and is reliable. My wife bought one of the first Accords new, a 1977 Accord hatchback with a 5 speed manual which she had for 17 years. It is hard to get bored with something that gives you good and dependable service and that costs little to maintain. That is money in the bank.

  • Chaparral Chaparral on Mar 04, 2013

    The most reliable, cheapest to run car I've ever dealt with was a 1994 Mazda Miata. Find me a trouble area other than "rust" and "tops". There aren't any! Ridiculously abuse-tolerant. Ridiculously fun to drive. Spec Pinata got a lot of them but there are still a lot left.

  • Redapple2 Good riddance to bad rubbish. Flawed from day 1.
  • Art Vandelay Mostly at home. Mine only does level 2 charging but very rarely do I actually use the 240v outlet…typically only if I'm home for a bit and heading back out. The office I go to a couple of times a week has 4 chargers…2 normal level 2 and 2 Tesla Destination chargers. After using them both I typically use the Tesla ones with an adapter cable. The standard chargers are in pretty bad shape with frayed cables (1 is currently broken). Other than that there is one at a library on the way home I can hit if I need a splash and go to get to the house which I have a couple of times. 20 minutes is enough there. I did solar on the house but I haven’t installed a battery yet so I don’t think much of that goes to the car since the majority of its home charging is at night (it does run the F150’s battery tender so I guess it technically charges a vehicle battery).it is something I put way less thought into than I thought I would prior to the purchase. You just need to match the vehicle to your use case. As there is much talk of golf carts on here, my club car charges 100 percent at home when it isn’t hauling logs about the yard.
  • IH_Fever If I was considering an EV it would probably be charged at home because that's about the only way an EV makes any sense. But for now it takes 10 minutes to fill up my gas guzzling, world killing pickup and I can drive all week without having to worry about plugging it in every day.
  • Kcflyer Ford expects to lose 3 BILLION DOLLARS on their EV business this year. That's on top of the 3 BILLION DOLLARS they lost over the last two years. So they will just "charge" it to the profitable albeit unreliable ICE vehicle division :)
  • 3SpeedAutomatic Ford is near #1 in recalls in North America. Another numb-nut in the C-Suite is an attempt to avoid responsibility.Instead of spending money on another layer of mis-management, how about spending the money on the vehicles!!"STOP THE HURT""STOP THE PAIN""I DON"T WANT MY CAR SPENDING MORE TIME AT THE DEALERSHIP AGAIN"