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New Car Test - Toyota Harrier/Lexus RX300

A new luxury player in the mid-sized four-wheel-drive segment - and it's a ripper!

Words by Michael Knowling, Pix by Julian Edgar

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Australia has one of the highest 4WD ownership per capita in the world. This has created a market for vehicles such as the Japanese-imported Surf and - of late - the prestigious Toyota Harrier (otherwise known as the Lexus RX300). This mid-sized all-terrain vehicle is officially sold in both America and Japan, and can now be purchased locally through Crossover Sports and Luxury Cars. Note that Crossover also stock, or have quick access to, a full range of parts. Our ex-Japan 14,000 kilometre test vehicle - for example - is stickered at $68,000 and comes complete with a 1 year/unlimited kilometre warranty. It presents as-new in every respect.

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The Harrier range starts off with a front-wheel-drive model (with the option of traction control), while the viscous coupled constant four-wheel-drive version - as tested - tops the line-up. Across the range, options include a front moonroof, electro-chromatic interior mirror, in-dash 6-disc stacker and a rear LSD (in all-wheel-drive models only). The Harrier is a genuine mid-sized 4WD, not a shrunken "truck" like many other off-roaders. Its compromises in urban conditions are kept minimal thanks to its 12.58 metre turning circle, easy boarding and extremely high levels of practicality and refinement. It is also built from a monocoque steel structure, which means its ride and handling is much more akin to a conventional road car than many like-looking 4WDs.

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Under the skin are road-car style MacPherson struts and anti-swaybars front and rear. Rubber suspension frame mounts effectively reduce in-cabin road vibration and our only negative observation of the ride quality was the occasional thump over hard, high-amplitude bumps.

The 1770kg Harrier turns into corners very well considering its tall 70-series tyres, and it never feels ragged when it's being hustled. Its straight-line cruising stability is also exceptional under most circumstances. The fingertip feel through the power assisted rack and pinion steering is beautifully smooth and well damped, and powerful four wheel disc brakes (with standard ABS) feel as-near-as-dammit to the braking performance of an everyday family sedan.

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Inside the luxurious 5-seater cabin is a generous amount of space and a complementary selection of earthly trim colours. Being a prestige vehicle, the overall finish and level of features are also very impressive. The most exciting of all the Harrier's interior goodies is the central LCD screen, which is used as a display for dual trip metres, climate control, stereo (tuner, cassette and CD), colour television and navigation system (via a dedicated CD). This high-resolution rectangular screen has incredible picture quality - although its Japanese language certainly takes some exploration! Part of this impressive system is a 240W (max) Nakamichi sound system that's wired to 7 speakers (including a small sub tucked under the front passenger's seat). The overall sound quality from this combo is very good, although the front speakers and tweeters do sound noticeably better than those in the rear.

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The Harrier pilot is fronted by white illuminated instruments, a leather-bound steering wheel (with buttons to enable manual up and down auto gear shifts) and a foot-operated park brake that works in conjunction with a dashboard button. The steering column is adjusted with one easy action and the driver's seat is also electrically operated. Storage wise, the vehicle comes with large door pockets, a tray under the front passenger seat, four cup holders (which even have adjustable arms to suit various cup diameters) and numerous centre console pockets. Furthermore, a pull-forward section of the console reveals yet another place for cups and small-to-medium sized oddities. With the console closed, the vacant area in front forms an ideal space for throwing handbags and the like.

In the rear there's a large - and extraordinarily cosy - bench seat. This is mounted on rails, enabling it to slide fore/aft. Its 60/40 split backrests are adjustable for angle with one easy action - ensuring excellent rear passenger comfort. Of course, those in the back are also pampered with separate air-conditioning as well.

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With the back seats in their upright position, there's a useful 1.13 cubic metres of rear cargo space - however, this grows to a huge 2.12 cubic metres when the backrests are folded forward into their perfectly flat position. That's more than enough room to fit a full sized mountain bike in on its side - no probs. Access is very good - thanks to a low loading lip - and there are dual struts to hold the tailgate up securely. There's even a handy 12V power supply socket neatly tucked into the side trim panel. And, as you'd expect from a Toyota/Lexus, the whole cargo area is trimmed in quality cut-pile carpet and protected by a full sized blind. Without a doubt, the overall interior of the Harrier is class-leading. From its plush velour seats and genuine walnut trimming to its masterful quality, it simply oozes class. Our only criticisms are the lack of cruise control and a cheap-and-nasty feeling sunglass holder in the roof. Forgiving this, it really is a top act.

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The middy-sized Harrier takes off with an all-alloy 3-litre V6 engine that boasts quad cams, 24 valves, continuously variable intake valve timing (VVT-i) and a 3 stage ACIS (acoustic control induction system). It delivers strong mid-range torque (with 302Nm at 4400 rpm) and its smoothness is exemplary. Although - no doubt - part of this can be attributed to an active control engine mount that counteracts engine pulses. Peak power is listed at 164kW at 5800 rpm and it really does feel like every little bit of this. Official Lexus literature quotes a 16.6 second quarter mile and 0-60mph (97 km.h) in 8.8 seconds - although our hand-timed sprint to 100 km/h took around 9.7 seconds. On top of this, the Harrier is also a certified LEV (low emission vehicle) and has fuel consumption as low as 12.8 litres per 100km.

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A 4-speed auto transmission comes as standard fitment, featuring dual shift programs, slope compensation control and full engine/trans networking. This really is a very smart trans - you never catch it out in the wrong gear, and we loved the way it automatically changes down while making descents.

The imported Harrier certainly turns heads wherever it travels - and that's not just because it's unique to Aussie roads. It's got a smooth profile with a radical windscreen rake (to help deliver a 0.36Cd), a very American-influenced grille as well as distinctive Lexus IS200-ish taillights. Unfortunately, though, the overall appearance is spoilt by those Japanese-market front guard mirrors, which do look a bit awkward. Each corner of the Harrier is poised high enough on its 16-inch alloys to deliver nearly 20 centimetres of ground clearance - which, we're told, is generally regarded as enough for light 4WD-ing. Furthermore, the front and rear bumper overhang is also arranged to give a 28 degree approach and 23 degree departure angle.

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While, undoubtedly, the Harrier may not be as go-anywhere as some other off-roaders, it is the ideal vehicle for a family that spends most of their time in suburbia and might (for example) drive to the snow each winter. Certainly, the surefootedness of constant 4WD makes the Harrier extra-stable in any type of conditions.

In terms of passenger safety, the Harrier is loaded with such protection as dual airbags, auto-locking doors and headlight activation, an in-cabin reversing chime, eccentric wiper arm (that delivers a massive sweep), excellent all-round visibility and big exterior mirrors (plus the afore-mentioned Japanese flank mirrors). Note that drivers are at risk of giving things a gentle nudge while parking, though, as you can't quite see the leading edge of the bonnet. A bit of extra care is required in that department...

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As you can probably guess, we were very much impressed by the brilliant Harrier. Its build quality, comfort, refinement, practicality, power (and more!) are simply class-leading. Anyone that's got a reasonably fat wallet and is in search of a medium sized 4WD should certainly take a look. The Harrier might just blow you away...

Contacts:

Lexus America
www.lexus.com

Crossover Sports and Luxury Cars
+61 3 9753 5799

http://www.crossover-car.com.au/mainpage.htm

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