By on May 22, 2018

Oscar was orange; Grover was green. Agent 007 has no gadgets. Kramer was an agoraphobic named Kessler, and George was cooler than Jerry. It’s common for television shows (and long-running film series) to change in ways that become permanent and significant parts of their identity. When the original episodes or films don’t quite match up in retrospect with what people have come to expect, it’s called Early Installment Weirdness. “The first Puppy Bowl,” the TVTropes site reminds us, “did not have a Kitty Halftime Show.”

There’s plenty of Early Installment Weirdness in the car business — I can still remember seeing a 1953 Corvette for the first time, maybe when I was seven or eight, and saying “That’s not really a Corvette” to my father — but when I saw a very early Lexus RX300 in a parking lot last night I realized that Lexus in general, and the RX series in particular, really takes the cake in this area.

Which is important, because the RX300 is, in many ways, the machine that changed the automotive world into the “later installments” we know today.


Yes, that’s a direct reference to the famous book about Toyota’s “lean production” that has achieved ludicrous momentum in the tech world over the past few years. Every software shop from Hyderabad to Cleveland now faithfully, and idiotically, replicates a cargo-cult version of the “standups” and “kanban methods” that were designed to work on a factory floor.

The “standups” are particularly miserable: Toyota’s version was best understood as a five-minute meeting where any potential issues in a given assembly-line department would be sorted out before the shift began, but under the corrupting influence of IBM, Accenture, and other “body shops,” the concept has degenerated into a 45-minute hellscape of offshore “engineers” mumbling a list of their miniature accomplishments out of a speakerphone while everybody else shifts from leg to leg and attempts not to fall asleep.

On the plus side, if you’re a contractor you get paid to attend.

The original RX300 was conceived not that long after the above-mentioned book was released, some time in 1993. It’s scary to think how far ahead of the curve Toyota was at this point. Ford had just signed off on the facelift that would create the mega-popular 1995 Explorer out of the already popular 1994 model, and the industry was still very much obsessed with the pickup-based SUV. The only dissenting voice came from Jeep, which had the more-or-less unibody Grand Cherokee in showrooms. That was, however, a completely bespoke platform designed as much for off-roading (ugh, that leg-crushing wheelbase!) as it was for the “school run.” Land Rover, of course, would debut the Honda-Civic-based Freelander around this time, but I don’t think anybody cared about it — and I say this as a formerly quite devoted owner of a Freelander.

I think the genius of the RX300 comes from two decisions. The first is obvious: make it from a Camry instead of a pickup truck, thus enabling it to beat its competitors in NVH, dynamic qualities, spaciousness, and fuel economy. It was such a winning formula that it has basically no detractors 20 years later. If you want an SUV with truckish roots, you’ll have to buy full-sized.

The second decision wasn’t quite as inevitable, even in retrospect: make the RX300 a Lexus. This wasn’t a forgone conclusion. The RX300 was sold in Japan as the Toyota Harrier, a nifty tip of the cap to how the thing seemed to perch uneasily on its wheels the way a bird, or VTOL fighter jet, trembles on its legs. It could have been the Harrier here as well. There was no existing product in the store-brand lineup to conflict with it; the Toyota SUV lineup had a massive hole between the RAV4 and 4Runner that was later filled with the RX-derived Highlander.

By introducing the RX300 as an upscale product, however, Toyota took a risk that paid off in spades. The RX300 was the hottest thing in Lexus showrooms from the moment it arrived, massively increasing the brand’s volume. Just as importantly, the extra profit baked into the RX put hundreds of millions of dollars into the company’s coffers. Eventually, the vehicle would go on to reshape Lexus stores in its own image. It seems impossible to believe in retrospect that the primary reason to visit the “L” dealer in 1990 would have been the purchase of an expensive S-Class clone. Today the LS sedan accounts for less than two percent of the brand volume while the RX and its siblings take the lion’s share. The RX series is the best-selling Lexus in history, period, point blank, total.

Which makes the Early Installment Weirdness of the 1998 model even more hilarious. It had no “Lexus styling cues” because at the time there was no such thing. Its headlights looked similar to, but were not, the ones used in the 1992 ES300. That was it. Everything else was sui generis. Overseas, you could get a Harrier with a stick shift and a four-cylinder engine; there are people who have stick-shift RX300s in this country but I can’t come up with any authoritative sources for manual-transmission stock in dealers of the time. The RX was available with a cloth interior, which most dealers rejected out of hand but which made the car more livable in summer. The FWD-only model was remarkably popular despite the marketing, which was chock-full of outdoor motifs. It seems particularly ridiculous now, but the early brochures featured a few shots of an RX300 doing what can only be called “mudding”, blasting through a soggy field and throwing dirt clods higher than its own roof.

The interior was remarkably plain, even by the standards of the time. Its design suggested that Toyota wasn’t quite sure whether the RX300 was a car alternative or a minivan alternative, with its high-mounted shifter and complete absence of a center console. Twenty years later, all of these vehicles have a sedan-styled layout that’s been physically lifted a few inches to match the more upright seating position, but the RX350 is more Sienna than ES300 once you open the door and take a seat.

None of this matters. Customers came in droves, most of them of the coveted female variety. When the Highlander appeared a year or so later, it was the second half of a one-two punch. Imitators followed with shocking speed. The Explorer, Trailblazer, and even the Grand Cherokee were exposed as the unpleasantly functional vehicles they’d always been. Within a half-decade, the unibody crossover was the most important passenger vehicle on the market besides the pickup truck. Today, it’s remarkably difficult to buy anything else.

Did Toyota know that the RX300 would change the world? It’s hard to say. Obviously the Highlander was in process before the RX even hit showrooms. They must have known that this was the shape of things to come. I doubt, however, that they, or anyone else, knew how omnipresent the lifted wagon would eventually be, to the point that Ford isn’t going to sell you anything else in the near future and GM will likely follow. Only the strongest of the sedan nameplates — Civic, Accord, Camry, Corolla, maybe Sonata — will survive. For the rest, it’s just a matter of when the plug will be pulled.

Viewed simply as vehicles, the RX and its successors are suppository-shaped, profoundly unpleasant, entirely style-free exercises in cynical marketing. As agents of change, however, they are unsurpassed. We all live in the world that the RX made. Even your humble author is coming around; when I saw that early first-gen the other day my first thought was that it would make a great vehicle for getting up gravel roads to MTB trails in southern Ohio. It’s remarkably compact and lightweight in comparison with its plodding successors. Kind of like the way Jabba the Hut was a person in the original Star Wars outtakes. It wasn’t until later that he became a giant slug creature.

Can Toyota retcon the size and slashing exterior of the new RX to the old ones still prowling the streets? Of course not. That’s the problem with being an automaker. Your Early Installment Weirdness is out there in perpetuity. Why, just look at that very non-Corvette-ish ’53 Vette!

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94 Comments on “No Fixed Abode: The Machine That Changed the World...”


  • avatar
    DeadWeight

    The advent of the Lexus RX was to the automotive world what the advent of individual-size bottled water (especially “premium” brands such as Fiji) was to the beverage world.

  • avatar
    Kalvin Knox

    Never liked the way these looked.

  • avatar
    sportyaccordy

    My mom has one. It was quite the revelation to realize my same year Maxima with similar mileage had much less engine NVH. Its overall build quality was not far off either. RX is proof that if the concept is sound the details are kind of irrelevant.

    • 0 avatar
      gtem

      “Its overall build quality was not far off either”

      The engine NVH I get, but that’s just a bridge too far IMO. Nissan got wacked hard with the cost cutting stick, a 4th gen Maxima doesn’t stack up to a XV20 Camry let alone a Lexus.

      • 0 avatar
        sportyaccordy

        I have had several 4th gen Maximas and my mom has had the RX for nearly 15 years. The only real place you felt the Maxima’s cost cutting was the awful rear beam and the shift/clutch action of the 5 speed manual. Outside of that the interiors were similar quality and the VQ was much, much smoother than the 1MZ. Even with an intake and exhaust the Maxima did not sound as coarse on the highway or at low/part throttle.

        • 0 avatar
          gtem

          “the interiors were similar quality ”

          This is where I’m disagreeing, strongly at that.

          But going farther, the Maxima feels like a lighter, cheaper car going down the road. It’s lighter on its feet and more fun, but just missing that road-smothering tank like feel that you get in a Toyota on that XV10/20 platform. Part of that might be the inferior ride from the beam rear axle? Looking underneath at how things hold up, especially in the rust belt, the Toyotas of this gen are exemplary, the Nissans are nothing short of a horror show.

          I cannot overstate how big of a difference in “baked in quality” there was between my ’00 Maxima and ’96 ES300 that followed.

          • 0 avatar
            gtem

            A gen1 ES300 mated with the VQ30 (equipped with Toyota-spec Denso sensors and coils) hooked up to an Aisin automatic would be a dream.

          • 0 avatar
            sportyaccordy

            The RX definitely rode better thanks to its IRS and 800lb higher curb weight… but on the highway the Maxima had less road/engine noise and just felt better overall.

            I think the ESs of that era were built to a higher standard than the RXs, because I recall those being leaps and bounds better in refinement. I was shocked at how smooth my buddy’s 96 ES300 rode (though he had a knack for finding the most pristine examples of any cars he bought).

  • avatar
    Lynchenstein

    I always thought the tail lights with the clear lens and segregated brake, reverse and signal lights were quite influential as well. I don’t know if this was the first implementation of this design, but definitely became a trend that continues on some models to this day.

  • avatar
    dal20402

    The NX is the new first-gen RX, save for a couple of cylinders. And it has a much nicer interior than that original RX.

    I can’t think of many vehicles on the market today that are better-optimized for their target buyer than the NX.

    Also, I’m pretty sure those stick shift RXes are conversions using Camry and Harrier pieces. My memory from the time is that the first-gen RX was automatic only.

    • 0 avatar
      NormSV650

      The NX has a much nicer interior than the RAV4 it is based off of. With the rising trend of cuv, so do the prices.

      • 0 avatar
        dal20402

        The NX also has a nicer interior than pretty much any of its competitors. I expect the next-generation Q3 will be the first one to seriously challenge it.

        • 0 avatar
          sportyaccordy

          NX competes with the Q5; it’s a compact whereas the Q3 is a subcompact. In that context it gets washed; GLC/Q5/X3 are a class above in certain aspects.

          However, for a nice, well equipped daily driver that’s a little slow, the NX does great. And frankly, I think that’s all many buyers want.

          • 0 avatar
            Kyree S. Williams

            That’s just it, though. Price-wise, the NX competes more with the subcompact cars, the GLA-Class, Q3. and X1/X2. And it’s much nicer than any of them is.

          • 0 avatar
            dal20402

            Look at price, not size.

            The GLC is nicer inside than the NX. It’s also around $5k more expensive for similar equipment.

            The X3 is not nicer inside than the NX, or than a Honda Accord, despite being priced across from the GLC (typical deeply subsidized BMW lease notwithstanding).

      • 0 avatar
        Nick_515

        Norm, please never ever ever use “off of” again. “On” would have done here.

    • 0 avatar
      Carfan94

      Yes, there is no such thing as a manual RX or Harrier, There was a manual available in the first two generations of ES.

      • 0 avatar
        gtem

        Yep no manual in 1G RX or Highlander state-side. You WERE able to buy a Camry with the 1MZ+5spd right up through 2001, and in different trims to boot. Luxo-Q-ship XLE to grandma’s sleeper CE. There’s a tempting looking one for sale in Terre Haute at the moment:
        terrehaute.craigslist.org/cto/d/1999-toyota-camry-le/6563788173.html

        • 0 avatar
          dal20402

          V6 manual might be worth the work to source new front seats, if the powertrain is sorted.

          • 0 avatar
            gtem

            Yeah on these older Japanese cars I’d always much rather have the velour which typically aside from staining or burns or sun fading shows exactly zero wear even with 200k+ miles on the clock. The leather always tends to crack. To my surprise however my ’03 Pilot had leather that was wearing like iron. Check under the oil fill cap for gunk and she’s good to go.

            A more staid option with velour and a 1MZ+auto. When I see a one owner car from Carmel, I think stack of receipts and safe buy. Judging by the wheel/fender gap in the rear, this one’s been treated to some fresh strut assemblies in the not-so-distant past, always an encouraging sign.
            indianapolis.craigslist.org/cto/d/1998-toyota-camry-le/6589659332.html

          • 0 avatar
            dal20402

            Too bad the interiors are different colors or I’d suggest buying both and swapping a bunch of the auto’s parts into the manual car.

          • 0 avatar
            gtem

            LOL I’d say Camrys are not quite at such a collector’s value that it’s worth buying a nicely maintained fully functional one just to rip the interior out and swap into a more ragged on 5spd unit. A junkyard run and some shampooing would yield some decent replacement seats for the 5spd I’m sure.

          • 0 avatar
            dal20402

            That’s just my apocalyptic feeling about the demise of fun family sedans coming through. I feel like any of the older V6/stick Japanese sedans is something that would be worth some money to sort out just to drive, not to collect.

          • 0 avatar
            gtem

            I’m definitely intrigued by the concept of a cushy and bad-pavement impervious older Camry with a v6 and a stick. I’ve previously vacillated in my beaters between comfy/cushy and engaging (read: stick shift), perhaps something like a manual 1MZ Camry could finally be the magic pill for me?

  • avatar
    Scout_Number_4

    I’m quite impressed that you managed to draw a comparison between a Lexus and Jabba the Hut. I think we can safely assume that’s never been done before.

  • avatar
    cgjeep

    ” If you want an SUV with truckish roots, you’ll have to buy full-sized” Ironically Toyota is the only maker that still sells that: 4Runner.

    I drove one of the first Gen Rx300s and wasn’t impressed with it. I think the WJ (99-04) Grand Cherokee, particularly with the v8 drove better and smoother than the RX. If I recall correctly Car and Driver did too. Plus it still had full SUV functionality. No where near the reliability or resale value. Also the cargo area of the RX was tiny with the sloping rear hatch.

    • 0 avatar
      gtem

      “Also the cargo area of the RX was tiny with the sloping rear hatch”

      It’s actually pretty decent although yes the sloping hatch eats into space for things like larger dogs. 30cu ft seats up in the gen 1 RX300, but the 2nd gen in particular is not bad at all, 40cu ft with seats up, 80cu ft with seats folded, about the same as your WJ, to say nothing of the ZJ that carried its spare in the back.

      I will also agree that the WJ and even ZJ before it are very impressive in their smoothness and on-road ride, despite the “crude” and “primitive” solid front and rear axles. The RX just has a “tighter” car-based suspension with less travel to work with. My folks’ 2nd gen RX350 is excellent, even on 19s. But it can’t swallow up a pothole like a ZJ/WJ, no way. There’s the GX470 for that.

      • 0 avatar
        Carfan94

        19 weren’t available on 2RX’s only 17s and 18s, but yes I agree very smooth and soaks up potholes. I did have to get the struts changed though. After 150,000 miles the original struts became way too bouncy and trampoline-like.

        • 0 avatar
          gtem

          Right you are, 18s. it’s funny how that’s the minimum size for many vehicles of this class these days, they just seemed so huge and over the top back when my folks got that car back in 2012. They run snow tires on 17s with a taller sidewall. The little button to switch between two sets of TPMS sensors is clever as well.

          • 0 avatar
            Kyree S. Williams

            I have 18″ wheels on my Cruze Premier RS and I think they are entirely too big. I’d swap them for a set of 16″ wheels.

            The MKS had 20-inchers, and low-rolling resistance tires that made it handle even worse than it inherently did for being such a heavy FWD sedan.

          • 0 avatar
            cgjeep

            Wife’s Golf SW has nice 17 inch wheels with 45 profile tires. I imagine rides quite a bit nicer with 16 inch. Might have to try it if I can find factory 16s for cheap.

    • 0 avatar
      silentsod

      Tahoe/Yukon twins would like a word with you on the only SUV with truckish roots being the 4Runner.

      • 0 avatar
        cgjeep

        The Tahoe and Yukon are full size. Jack stated non full size.

        • 0 avatar
          silentsod

          ”If you want an SUV with truckish roots, you’ll have to buy full-sized” is the quote from the article.

          You then stated, “Ironically Toyota is the only maker that still sells that: 4Runner” which reads as “Toyota is the only maker that still sells an SUV with truckish roots which is the 4Runner.” I am must follow this logically and believe that you think the 4Runner is full sized and the only vehicle that currently meets the criteria laid forth in the article which is what was referenced with “that” in your reply.

          What, exactly, were you trying to say? Were you trying to say, Jack is wrong and here is a counter-example to his point?

  • avatar
    jh26036

    Unlike some of the other participants, I really like how this one looks compared to every generation afterwards. The proportions are right, handsome, classy, functional.

    The downside, these were not really all that efficient. I had a buddy with one of these, we drove it down from Boston to Key West and back. That thing barely broke 20mpg average. That was with a 2WD unit!

    • 0 avatar
      TwoBelugas

      well yeah, any lexus without a predator face is by default, “not that bad”.

      I drove an RX300 a while back for a few weeks, and I agree on the fuel economy, atrocious. It drove and felt exactly like an XV20 Camry on stilts that it is without the fuel economy and the handling that came with the Camry’s extremely low driver position.

  • avatar
    PandaBear

    Did Toyota predict the trend? Probably not. Did Toyota do everything in every segment so no matter what market wanted they have something to offer on short notice? Probably.

    This is how a company with resources and spend them on R&D get: response time and certainty to success. Corporate bean counters may not like it because it is not rewarding the share holders right away (i.e. this quarter) by propping up the stock price or dividend, but it reduces the risk of screwing up and goes bankrupt in the long run.

    It takes a lot of effort to cancel projects and then restart them because you realized you shouldn’t have, and even when you did restart your people may say “FU, I’m out of here”.

  • avatar
    lilpoindexter

    UGH. I work in the engineering department of a small industrial vehicle company that got bought two years ago by much, much larger conglomerate that “embraces” lean and the Toyota system….everybody tries to copy Toyota…but they ain’t Toyota. After we got bought, the conglomerate bought in the first round of “lean” and “Toyota System” experts that screwed everything up. Then they brought in a second group of experts to attempt to fix the first groups mistakes.
    I drew the short straw in the engineering department, and now i get to attend the morning meeting where I get to hear excuses about why a part we needed yesterday, was still in transit today.

    • 0 avatar
      DeadWeight

      But did they bring in THE BOBS?

    • 0 avatar
      TwoBelugas

      every “lean” initiative “implemented” by generic Bobs(now with the blackbelt!) I have seen inevitably turns into a DaimlerChrysler style cost cutting that drove away employees in droves.

      Hopefully yours was more benign.

      • 0 avatar
        DeadWeight

        Six Sigma Green Belt and Black Belts under ISO 9001, Lean, TQM and Six Sigma and the Baldrige Approach!

        • 0 avatar
          turf3

          Ah yes, the Malcolm Baldrige Documentation Award, as we used to call it.

          Been there, done that. And many others.

          Anyone who has lived through an organization certifying to QS9000 (now TS16949), or Baldrige, or Deming, realizes just how much effort and time get redirected from things like designing and building products to sell at a profit, in order to pursue these will-o-the-wisps.

          The most interesting aspect of the US automotive industry (and many other) embrace of these systems, is that they did so, hoping that their quality could improve to be like the Japanese companies’. The Japanese companies, who by the way, don’t participate in any of that nonsense.

          The ability of people in high positions to make large decisions in the complete and total absence of any evidence that they will help, continues to amaze me.

          • 0 avatar
            geozinger

            @turf3: We have the same thing in the printing industry, ISO certifications, G7 and other color quantifications. Rarely do they do much than enhance the companies selling you equipment to meet the certs.

            Several years ago, the printing company I worked for started printing instruction sheets that go with medical devices. In order to get the business we had to get several certifications and a sh!t ton of new equipment to maintain absolute defect free production. Before long, on-shore production was deemed too expensive by the client and they shipped our work to China. We ran the numbers after the whole project was over and barely broke even, due to all of the stuff we had to do to maintain the certifications.

            Never again.

  • avatar
    scott25

    Still one of the peaks of crossover design. I remember even as a 7-8 year old, it was one of my favourite car designs of all time, right up there with the Pacer and late C4 Corvette.

  • avatar
    TMA1

    I didn’t realize these things were so old. I guess I was oblivious to them in the 90’s. This thing looks 15 years newer than it is, a result of styling that is clean and bland. Something you’ll never be able to say about the Lexus vehicles of today. 15 years from now, the spindle grille will tell everyone you bought your car at the BHPH lot.

    I appreciate the call out to TVTropes. Great site that anyone can contribute to.

  • avatar
    gtem

    Great piece Jack, I love these throwback analyses of the car market.

    Count me in as a fan of the original RX300/Harrier (and by extension the gen 1 Highlander nee Toyota Kluger overseas). Car history flunky Doug DeMuro wrote a piece about the gen 1 ML320 as the progenitor of the luxury crossover soft-roader craze but this RX was definitely it.

    A clean one of these will still command a mint on the used market, on the order of $5k even with over 150k miles, again same applies to gen 1 Highlanders. Their one Achilles heel was actually the automatic transmission, surprising for a Toyota which generally has very sturdy and overbuilt Aisin units. I think it was a matter of finally putting enough weight and power behind a transmission that was originally engineered more-so for V6 Camry duty, and now had a heavier RX to lug around, and perhaps more buyers were trying to tow with them(?)

    Another cool little easter egg on gen 1 RX300s: the optional rear LSD. With one of them equipped, the RX300 could really slug it out with the best of the ‘soft road’ crew. This was back when Toyota engineered even their crossovers with good clearance and breakover angles. Not that it matters on our market I suppose.

    Interior is as you mention fairly plain in design, but it was still solidly in the era of very high quality Toyota and Lexus interiors. My parents have a final-year 2nd gen and despite the incorporation of painted silver trim, it too still has a VERY high quality interior. 2010+ RXs felt the full pain of Toyota in cutting the “fat” out of their cars across the board.

    • 0 avatar
      W210Driver

      Regarding the ML320, I always thought of it as a more affordable and aerodynamically styled mini G-Class with a broader appeal. I never saw both the ML320 and RX300 as competitors, even though they were pretty much aimed at the same market and buyer.

      These two cars couldn’t be more different in philosophy.

      The ML was designed to perform off-road and probably offer a typical sportier European driving experience.

      The RX in turn was designed to be as comfortable, quiet and refined as possible and had almost no serious off-road pretensions.

      Two completely different cars.

      My experience with these two is limited to the ML430. I thought I would hate it but for an American-built Mercedes it actually impressed me. The suspension was rather harsh and loud, but aside from that small annoying issue the rest of the car left a positive impression on me. This was of course a facelifted model. The owner of this car, a friend of mine, still has it.

      Another colleague in Australia has a 270,000 km+ ML270 CDI (diesel) which gets taken into Outback on a daily basis and enjoys some serious off-roading challenges. I enjoy the photos he sends me. In my mind, I think the first ML series is actually quite good off-road. This impression is reinforced by its popularity among the off-road crowd in certain markets.

      I doubt the RX300 had any sporting pretensions. The only Lexus I ever owned was the ES250, and it was rather “sporty” compared to the much softer ES’s which followed. Just my two cents.

      • 0 avatar
        gtem

        I don’t disagree with anything you wrote, my bone to pick with Doug was that he pointed to the ML and not gen 1 RX as the grandfather of the luxury crossover as we think of it today. Namely as a FWD-transverse engine sedan-based raised-roof wagon thing with AWD optional. You’re right the ML was definitely a step closer to a traditional “truckier” SUV and was RWD-based like the similar German E53 X5. Looking at where sales went with the RX and ML, the RX definitely set the trend for which layout to copy (transverse sedan bones).

        • 0 avatar
          W210Driver

          GTEM,

          When I am bored I “enjoy” reading Doug’s articles and watching his goofy (but nonetheless informative) Youtube videos. Yet at the end of the day I have to remind myself that he has this awful thing going on known as the “Doug Score”, which is pretty much biased towards super sports cars that hit 60 in under three seconds (or less!). Therefore I cannot take him seriously as a non-biased car reviewer. In my opinion I think it is silly to rate a car based on its acceleration time, especially if it is not a sports car. He has basically given a lot of great cars low marks because they’re “slow” to reach 60. And with “slow” we’re talking 6-8 second range.

          Depending on who you ask I think you will always get the ML and RX named as starting the new age SUV trend.

          • 0 avatar
            gtem

            Haha I’m conflicted in that he reviews cool old stuff that I love (XJ Cherokee, Previa, etc) but does his reviews in such a weird fashion like being impressed about being able to take the XJ’s tail light off with a few screws and how it has push-button door handles. He means well. Hoovie’s Garage who is better IMO.

            I’ve sort of poked around/considered an ML320/430 as a cushy winter beater, we have friends in Russia with an early-year maroon+plastic bumpers ML320 in Siberia that has treated them well aside from some minor oxygen sensor troubles. Stateside my bro has worked on a fellow Russian emigre’s high mileage (180k) ML430 that’s been a tank mechanically. My understanding is that the basic bones are fine, in spite of the cheap (relatively) interior and some ancillary components giving trouble. I guess I’ve heard of some issues with the transfer case.

          • 0 avatar
            Maksym

            I never even watch the Doug score portion. If I notice he’s wrapping up, I’m already browsing my next video. You’re right, it’s not to be taken seriously.

          • 0 avatar
            W210Driver

            GTEM,

            From what I understand, early ML vehicles had quality issues, but they were mostly sorted out with the facelift. I can’t speak for them since I have no ownership experience with the ML, but my friends with the ML430 and ML270 CDI speak quite highly of them. I think one can expect some minor issues, like with any car, and I think a lot of the horror stories are overblown. Keep in mind that unqualified and cheaper mechanics, which sadly attract people who do not want to spend a lot of money on maintenance, make things worse.

            That being said, I own two W210s (cars from the same era as the first ML) which don’t have the best reputation, but I’ve been very pleased with them and have had no major issues with them. They’re in fact more reliable than the problematic Lexus ES250 I owned in the early 1990s.

  • avatar
    cardave5150

    20 years later, and Caddy still doesn’t have a proper response to this segment-creator.

    • 0 avatar
      Willyam

      True. Were they trying to chase the X3 and X5 instead?

      My mother always wanted an RX3xx and my father for some reason just couldn’t do it. After several tries, he bought her a gold SRX (the CUV not the earlier wagon). The experience was expensive and inconvenient (there was a stranding or two as it decided to quit starting). The parts prices were typical Cadillac. The thirst of the V6 was insane. It’s been replaced by a CR-V EXL AWD. (Any more letters, Honda? Q?) He still won’t take that Lexus step.

    • 0 avatar
      cimarron typeR

      We sold our so far bullet proof 08ML350 just this year to a teacher at my daughters school, while our Disco Sport is loads quicker and more economical(30mg highway)and has cooler tech, it’s definitely not as well built.A 1st Gen ML with its more rugged drivetrain should make a good trail runner, but not fuel efficient as they gobble 91 octane.

  • avatar
    Carfan94

    I love my 2007 RX 350. It just turned 168,000 miles. I know a lot of car “enthusiasts” hate the RX. I don’t care I buy cars that impress ME and my needs, not other people. I really wish that Lexus had made the RX rear wheel drive like the GS, That would have helped its exterior proportions and driving dynamics some. One thing is that Lexus still puts an honest to goodness NA V6 in the RX and not some crappy unrefined turbo 4 cylinder like the competition has done.

    • 0 avatar
      Astigmatism

      My wife had a ’99 RX300 that became marital property once we were hitched; we made it to well over 250k before we finally got tired of fixing it in 2011. Even then, it was unfailingly comfortable and decently quiet, and the engine still ran smooth and pulled like it was new, even if O2 sensors, suspension bits and the like started going on a somewhat regular basis.

      That said, it was possibly the most boring thing I’ve ever driven, and I hope dearly never to have to drive it or one of its ilk again.

    • 0 avatar
      redgolf

      my friend bought an 07 Lexus RX last year with 225K and slight hail damage, pretty light silver blue with beige leather, mileage doesn’t scare him so long as its pretty, clean and runs! he says he’d rather buy a high mileage car over a low mileage one, why? ” because high mileage cars are tried and true low mileage cars aren’t driven enough, they sit too long which causes more problems than driven ones” he says! his check engine lights are always coming on and off and on and off and on! me, give me new or low mileage any day, not Lexus, BMW,or Mercedes.

      • 0 avatar
        Carfan94

        @redgolf, I would never get a car with hail damage. Mine may be high mileage but the body is near flawless aside from rock chips and bug stains on the front bumper and leading edge of the hood. I really wish the first owner had put on clear bra, people complain about that being a waste of money, But if I was gonna get a new car its something I would have installed. Lexus is definitely more reliable than the European makes you mentioned, So I definitely would not put them in the same boat together.

  • avatar
    dukeisduke

    I still remember the first commercial I saw for these, filled with weird carnival characters, and some guy with a Richard Harris-like voice demanding, “Bring me the RX300!”, and the RX300 escaping his clutches.

    I still see plenty of these first-gen models, some in great shape, and others not so much. Boring, but stupid bulletproof.

    • 0 avatar
      ajla

      Lexus had good commercials in that era.

      • 0 avatar
        sckid213

        For real. I’ll never forget the “Something wicked this way comes” commercials for the Gen 2 GS400. Those were awesome and probably gave kids nightmares.

        https://lexusenthusiast.com/2011/08/05/revisiting-the-1998-lexus-gs-400-something-wicked-this-way-comes-marketing-campaign/

  • avatar
    barryfaetheus

    These are rare and expensive. Want to know why? Take a trip to Cambodia, you will see that the vast majority of cars on the road are either these or Gen 1 Highlanders. Almost all are used imports from the US, as given away by stickers like “University of California-Irvine” or license plate surrounds from Toyota of Kirkland etc etc. Heck, some still have the US plates and long expired tabs on them, presumably to avoid paying the import duties necessary to register the car locally. Nice ride compared with a moped or the bus, which is what most Cambodians need to use.

    • 0 avatar
      gtem

      Same applies to Africa and Russia and who knows where else. A lot of Matrix/Vibe/Corolla/Prisms are hungrily snapped up by African buyers from various immigrant middlemen scooping them up at Manhiem and elsewhere. My relatives’ ’04 Sienna and ’02 Highlander are both US imports. US-sourced XV20/XV30 Camries are also a popular affordable ride there, the combination of LHD with parts shared with the more common JDM Gracias/narrow-body Camries makes them a solid choice for trouble-free motoring with decent parts support. German-imported Japanese cars are also well liked. Some guys turn their noses up American market Camries, the CE/LE trims are really poverty-spec compared to the JDM and German market Camries that generally start at XLE trim (push button climate control) and go up from there. There is also a not-incorrect stereotype that Americans don’t maintain their cars, especially ATF fluid changes.

      • 0 avatar
        barryfaetheus

        I was quite surprised that JDM imports are common in Russia. Would have thought the RHD would be a turn-off and they would prefer US market cars. I guess that is not the case, and price/spec is everything?

        • 0 avatar
          gtem

          Most of Far Eastern Russian cities like Vladivostok are like 95%+ RHD, there was talk in the early 2000s about actually switching the traffic patterns to reflect this. The govt has slammed used imports with a ton of customs tariffs and encouraged localized production, Sollers in Vladivostok assembles some Mazdas and either did or was planning on starting Land Cruiser Prado production a while back. The 1980s and 1990s Japanese cars that flooded onto the market in ’91 were such a tremendous shock to consumers in terms of how fantastic they were compared to the ancient Soviet stuff, people got hooked quick. Importers of various ilk set up shipping and distribution channels very quickly, it was a legitimate gold rush back in the day and attracted all sorts of people (and the criminal element) as a way to make money when many factories were shutting down or not paying wages. Cares would come in stacked on every possible flat surface of fishing boats, etc. Parts and used tires and even Japanese whiskey and various electronics became big business as well. The cars have slowed to a trickle now, mostly “raspil” (cut in half cars imported as “parts/scrap” that are then rewelded) and a few unmolested ones that are much less of a value proposition than they used to be. There is likewise a consensus that the Japanese cars are cheaper built and not as head-and-shoulders stand outs in quality and durability as they once were.

  • avatar
    la834

    The 2nd-gen RX offered a cloth interior as well, though only in grey.

    I strongly considered a used RX300 a decade ago, as well as a not-as-old but same-price used 2nd-gen Honda CR-V which had an even more minivan-ish interior, complete with Odyssey-like center console that folded down so you could walk between first and second rows.

  • avatar
    gbp

    Honda CRV precedes RX.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    Say what you will about the styling, etc. Not mentioned in Jack’s articles is the fact that the late 90s versions of these cars are bullet proof. On my advice, my two older daughters bought high-mileage versions of these (a ’99 and an ’00, IIRC) because that’s what they could afford. After 4 years of trouble-free ownership, one of my daughters — now more prosperous — traded it for a good lease deal on a new Golf. The other would still have hers but for the fact that it was “totaled” in a wreck that fortunately caused no injury. But she’d rather have had the car than the check.

    I don’t recall either of them complaining too much about the mileage . . . but, if memory serves, the car did have only a 4-speed automatic.

  • avatar
    redmondjp

    How old are you, Jack? Are you maybe thinking of the 1984 Corvette, and not the 1953 Corvette?

    • 0 avatar
      rpn453

      I’m not too much younger than Jack, and I can relate. I recall building a model gen 1 Vette with my father and thinking it seemed wimpy compared to the low, long-hooded, wide-tired gen 3 and 4 Vettes that I was familiar with. Those looked mean and fast. This looked like something an old lady would drive to church.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      I’m forty-six, sadly.

  • avatar
    brandloyalty

    I talked a relative into buying a first generation RX300. The first time I drove it I was shocked that a Lexus could be so plain inside, and nvh and handling were perhaps worse than an Escape of the same age. They didn’t have it long, but are happy with a 2017 RX. It is what I would have expected in the original.

    • 0 avatar
      gtem

      “perhaps worse than an Escape of the same age”

      Having spent time in some Escapes (1st and 1.5 gen), most definitely not unless the RX had some Linglong China-special tires on it.

  • avatar
    SaulTigh

    I lived in a small college town from 1994 to 1999 and it only had two new car dealerships…a Ford/Chrysler store with a 2 car showroom with quonset hut shop attached and a Chevy/Toyota store out north of town.

    These were very popular among the tenured professor set, though they had to drive 90 miles to buy them, they could have them serviced in town.

  • avatar
    ryanwm80

    Changed the automotive world? No. SUV sales had been on the rise since the early 90’s, and it wasn’t just the numbers of SUVs, but the larger numbers of high end models like the Jeep Grand Cherokee limited, Orvis Edition, and the Ford Explorer Eddie Bauer and limited models. When Ford introduced the Expedition they weren’t sure it would be successful – but they sold lots Expeditions, and a lot of them were the Eddie Bauer models, and sales were so strong that Lincoln ended up with the Navigator, which was really crazy at the time. The RX came along after years of increasing sales by other makes and models, and when it did, it wasn’t too crazy. The styling was very handsome, but also very typical for the time. I can’t think of any feature or technology this had that was innovative or unique. The Explorer could be optioned with a leather interior, air suspension, digital compass, keyless entry, sunroof, etc. at a price point that most consumers could afford. It was vehicles like that which showed there was a market for luxury SUVs. The fact that the RX was a unibody vehicle didn’t revolutionize the industry since Jeep was already making unibody SUVs, and had done so since at least the mid 80’s with the Wagoneer – I don’t know if the Grand Wagoneer was BOF, but most consumers are not car enthusiasts and don’t care about that sort of thing. My grandmother saw an RX300 once and said that it looked cute or nice – the size of the vehicle is what’s appealing to women in particular. My girlfriend thinks the 90’s era Lincoln Mark VIIs are big cars, and I had another girlfriend who traded in her Previa for a Mini Cooper. The industry ended up moving to unitized construction for several reasons, one being that most people didn’t use their SUVs for off-roading or towing boats, and the huge numbers of sales justified the production costs. Demand was driven by consumer preference, not any kind of innovation on the part of Lexus, and there never would have been an RX300 without the successes of the Jeep Grand Cherokee limiteds and Ford Explorer Eddie Bauers.

    • 0 avatar
      gtem

      “The fact that the RX was a unibody vehicle didn’t revolutionize the industry since Jeep was already making unibody SUVs, and had done so since at least the mid 80’s with the Wagoneer”

      That point doesn’t really fly IMO. The jeeps were still heavily reinforced integrated frames, heavy solid axles and transfer cases. They had a luxury bent, but still billed as seriously capable offroaders. The RX dropped all that and while they paid some lip service to the “SUV” equation with a few adds with the RX in mud, the transverse unibody car platform and the on road performance that resulted was the main selling point. It just felt less bulky and ‘trucky’ to drive. Lighter on its feet, less tippy, (slightly) more efficient, curvier less boxy styling

      I agree with the sentiment that the luxury midsize SUVs as desirable family vehicles set the stage for the RX, which I suppose was an EVOLUTION of that BOF Eddie Bauer theme rather than inventing the segment out of thin air.

  • avatar
    ryanwm80

    Changed the automotive world? No. SUV sales had been on the rise since the early 90’s, and it wasn’t just the numbers of SUVs, but the larger numbers of high end models like the Jeep Grand Cherokee limited and Orvis Edition, and the Ford Explorer Eddie Bauer and limited models. When Ford introduced the Expedition they weren’t sure it would be successful – but they sold lots Expeditions, and a lot of them were the Eddie Bauer models, and sales were so strong that Lincoln ended up with the Navigator, which was really crazy at the time. The RX came along after years of increasing sales by other makes and models, and when it did, it wasn’t too crazy. The styling was very handsome, but also very typical for the time. I can’t think of any feature or technology this had that was innovative or unique. The Explorer could be optioned with a leather interior, air suspension, digital compass, keyless entry, sunroof, etc. at a price point that most consumers could afford. It was vehicles like that which showed there was a market for luxury SUVs. The fact that the RX was a unibody vehicle didn’t revolutionize the industry since Jeep was already making unibody SUVs, and had done so since at least the mid 80’s with the Wagoneer – I don’t know if the Grand Wagoneer was BOF, but most consumers are not car enthusiasts and don’t care about that sort of thing. My grandmother saw an RX300 once and said that it looked cute or nice – the size of the vehicle is what’s appealing to women in particular. My girlfriend thinks the 90’s era Lincoln Mark VIIs are big cars, and I had another girlfriend who traded in her Previa for a Mini Cooper. The industry ended up moving to unitized construction for several reasons, one being that most people didn’t use their SUVs for off-roading or towing boats, and the huge numbers of sales justified the production costs. Demand was driven by consumer preference, not any kind of innovation on the part of Lexus, and there never would have been an RX300 without the successes of the Jeep Grand Cherokee limiteds and Ford Explorer Eddie Bauers.

  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    Nice piece, Jack.

  • avatar
    WallMeerkat

    While Rover/Land Rover at the time had a tie up with Honda, the Freelander was based on a reworked Austin Maestro platform rather than Civic.

    (Honda platforms did underpin the Rover 200/400/600/800 series though)

  • avatar
    WallMeerkat

    You did make a great point about lean kanban standups though.

    At best a quick “here is what I am working on” detailing any blockers or suggestions for improvements.

    At worst an informal discussion followed by an indepth recall of every single detail of the attendee’s day, then management micromanaging demanding to know why the complex task at hand – interrupted and context switched by the standup – is running slightly late.

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