Is the Lexus RX 300 a station wagon on steroids or a sport-utility that shrank in the dryer?
Such questions challenge the engineers trying to create a new generation of vehicles called sport wagons.
Consumers say they want trucks to be more carlike and cars to be more trucklike, so engineers are attempting both. They are wrapping nimble, smoother-riding cars in the rugged packages of sport-utilities.
The result is a new segment defined by a few key attributes:
Sport wagons are more carlike because they use car parts. For example, the Lexus RX 300 uses a smattering of components from the Toyota passenger-car parts bin. The engine block, engine subframe and steering rack come from the Lexus ES 300, while the all-wheel-drive hardware is shared with the European Celica All-Trac Turbo.
Sport wagons are more trucklike because the driver sits high. Engineers raise the driver's hip point - the distance from the ground to the hip of a seated test dummy - typically 3 to 5 inches over conventional cars by means of larger wheels and tires and taller suspensions. In the case of the RX 300, the hip point is 8 inches above that of the ES 300.
Sport wagons often use truck styling cues. Stylists increase the glass area and give the vehicle a cube shape with larger headlamps and a more prominent grille.
Sport wagons typically come with a choice of two-wheel drive or awd. Awd differs from a sport-utility's 4wd because there is no manually shifted transfer case with a four-low gear and lockable differentials. The awd is designed mainly for on-road use or light off-roading.