Tsuneo Uchimoto knew he was taking big risks in developing the Lexus RX 300. Would it be too soft? Did it have enough off-road ability? Would people treat it like a minivan? Three years later, Uchimoto's decisions as RX 300 chief engineer have been hailed for creating the benchmark for the sport-wagon class.
In creating the follow-up, the Toyota Highlander, Uchimoto faced challenges again. How should he develop basically the same vehicle to cost less without undercutting the Lexus? At the press introduction of the vehicle, Uchimoto talked with Staff Reporter Mark Rechtin about the changes he made.
What differences are there in content between the Highlander and RX 300?
The RX 300 has more total insulation between the wheel well and your ear. The power seat and vehicle stability control are standard for the RX. The tilt steering wheel has less range on the Highlander, which makes it less expensive, because the entire steering column tilts, not just the wheel. But the big difference is the cost to decorate the interior. Probably 98 percent of the RXs are sold with leather, plus the seat fabric and carpet costs are different. The standard stereo is of lower grade. On the exterior, the RX's cladding is very expensive.
What about physical differences between the two vehicles?
The Highlander has a 100-millimeters-longer wheelbase, most of which went into the cargo area. That translates into 110 millimeters more overall length, with the remaining 10 millimeters going into the thickness of the rear bumper. There is no difference in the front and rear seat room, but it feels more spacious because the rear wheel well is farther back and that means the thick C-pillar is no longer right next to the passenger's head. There also is more head clearance, about 15 millimeters more up and to the side. And with the wheel well and the rear strut farther back, that allows the rear seat to recline farther.
I had no intention to make this vehicle better than the RX 300. The RX is urban, sophisticated, elegant styling. The Highlander is the same basic concept of crossing an SUV with a car, but with more space utility and stronger styling. So even if people see a Highlander next to an RX 300, very few of them will think they are sister vehicles.
What about differences in suspension tuning?
For a Toyota buyer, the RX emphasis was much too soft in terms of ride comfort. We had room to make it more firm for better handling, less body roll and better cornering without losing comfort. We are making the RX a little firmer, too, but not as much as the Highlander. To do this, we made the springs and shock absorbers stiffer and made the stabilizer bar thicker.
Was there a desire for a stick shift on the Toyota version?
First, I doubt there was a five-speed available to match the engines. Besides that, since we are selling just in America and Japan, it is not necessary.
What changes will be made to the RX 300 to keep it competitive?
We will incorporate the good things from the Highlander. In Japan, the four-cylinder model will be replaced. The six-cylinder engines will be the same for both models in America. And the RX adopts an expanded fuel tank.