Thirty years of the Lexus RX: The SUV Game Changer

In conjunction with the Lexus RX’s 30th Anniversary, we take a walk down memory lane to discover how the Lexus RX changed the SUV segment from a meagre people transporter to a Luxury Crossover. Traditional SUVs or Sport Utility Vehicles had qualities that appealed to the masses, with pros and cons. Back then, people liked the high driving position, the all-round visibility, the perceived strength and stability, and the cool, rugged image of SUVs. The negatives were that they were awkward to drive around town, difficult to get in and out of, offered poor fuel economy and are usually not known for driving capabilities. So, Lexus decided to step in and turn the traditional SUV into something else.

Enter the first-generation Lexus RX, also known as the Harrier in Malaysia. The first-generation Lexus RX, which made its world debut in 1997 at the Chicago Auto Show, then Japan a year later and  Europe in 2000, was created with a simple philosophy of being a comfortable yet powerful passenger car, combined with off-roading capability like an SUV. It was built using a single monocoque like a sedan, based off the platform of the ES 300 mid-size sedan. As a result, the RX handled better than normal SUVs thanks to a rigid body with less roll. Plus, it has a aerodynamically savvy design, more rounded. Supported by MacPherson strut with anti-roll bars front and rear, with active engine mounts, the RX had reduced vibration, hence offered a more comfortable ride. And thanks to reduced ground clearance, getting in and out of the RX was an easier one-step action.

The first-generation RX was fitted with a 3.0-liter V6 petrol unit, mounted transversely and matched to a four-speed automatic transmission. With 223 hp, it could move the car from rest to 100 km/h in 8.5 seconds.

Furthermore, it had front or all-wheel drive options to suit customers’ driving needs and lifestyle. For even stronger performance off-road or in low-grip conditions, a Torsen limited-slip differential (LSD) was fitted as an option.

Naturally, the Lexus RX was a game changer and no one could have imagined just how quickly it would spark a transformation in the luxury car business. Within just a few years, every major luxury car maker had come up with its own take on the RX. The first-generation Lexus RX’s lifespan from 1998 – 2003 was well received the world over, with sales amounting up to 370,000 units. In Part 2, we’ll provide more about the Lexus RX in its second- and third-generation.

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