Visitors to Japan often shriek with alarm when they see the cars the Japanese buy. It is like an automotive Island of Dr Moreau where freakish mutants teem and murky throwbacks thrive. They are a race apart and insist that the local gestation period is 10 months. Clearly, they also have different parameters in market research.
There are cars on sale in Japan that would not survive a Pacific crossing, still less get through customs. Odd shapes, mad colours, weird specifications (four-wheel-drive three-wheelers, that sort of thing). Crazy names: until recently you could buy a Mazda Bongo Wagon. One such was the Toyota Harrier, now selling in Britain as the Lexus RX300.
Lexus is Toyota's successful trophy brand. With lateral ingenuity that is a national characteristic, they did it their way: instead of buying an existing company, as Ford did with Jaguar, Toyota decided to make its own marque. Having, in the course of extruding 20 million or so deadly dull Corollas, learnt everything about production engineering, manufacturing efficiency and zero defects, they decided 12 years ago to productionise the black arts of luxury and prestige. This they did with relentless seriousness.
It is not true that 3,000 PhDs from Nagoya Technical University were employed to fine-tune the exhaust note of the first Lexus, but on the other hand that car did have gold-plated electrical connectors, in the interests of low resistance.
The RX300 is the first Lexus off-roader you can buy in Britain, although it is, in fact, a re-badged Toyota rather than a bespoke creation. This, of course, is amply eloquent of the genteel off-road market's vanities and aspirations, where cachet is more of a USP than ramp angle, unsprung weight or wheel travel. You wouldn't want to take a Lexus to work in an opencast Sumatran copper mine, but it's fine for the A27 between Alfriston and Lewes.
I liked the RX300, although it must have had the salesmen in breathless conniptions, since it further defines and slices an already hyper-atrophied (and possibly mature) market. Toyota is already long on four-wheel drives.
There's the rinky-dink RAV-4 for teenagers; the huge Land-Cruiser up in Range Rover territory; site managers can choose the mid-size Colorado; and there are some xtra-tuff pick-ups for mad axemen. Accordingly, the RX300 is positioned on the graph of human desire off to the side and up a bit, but not that far.
It does not look like a mighty bog-grovelling utility vehicle; more a largish estate on jacked-up suspension. You don't have to breathe in and hoist yourself gymnastically into the driving position. You just get in, vicar. It's easy, but the view is not that great, so one of the advantages of this bastard vehicle type is not available here.
Colours tend to be lightweight and feminine - icy blue metallic, light gold - rather than butchly agricultural, although the unique mirror-finished fenestration gives good stand-out credentials.
It's a handsome and understated car, not an exceptionally beautiful one, but the proportions are good. And if its appearance will not excite any lustful commotion among fainting virgins or induce mass hysteria in bus queues, it won't let you down either.
The interior, though, is a dreary disappointment: anyone who has taken a Carina E minicab from Peterborough station will feel at home here. All 70s-style plastic and drab velour. For some reason the Japanese, while fabuluosly inventive and predatorily wacko in so many areas, completely fail to get it up in vehicle interiors. Sure, it is tough and well put together, but also boring and unimaginative.
To drive, the RX300 is a treat. Its strong suit is refinement and a sense of infinite possibilities. The three-litre V6 is superbly smooth and seems a much larger engine. Transmission is equally relaxing with sensation-free shifts, and there are no complicated transfer thingummys to frighten the Carolines. The suspension works nicely too: on plenty of off-roaders you get a kidney-crushing thumping from the undercarriage, but here all is polite and muted. I daresay the RX300 is useless hub-deep in loose sand, but our concept here is Sussex, not the Sahara.
The RX300 is an interesting mutation, although blandness is perhaps its biggest deficiency. I would not (yet) trample new-born infants to get my hands on one. But with more Lexus and less Toyota, babies watch out.