The RX 330: Continuous Improvement Made Real
The Back Story
The Lexus RX 300 went on sale in March 1998. Although there have been refreshments to the vehicle since then, fundamentally, the RX 300 is the RX 300. Which, arguably, isn’t a bad thing. Four years into its production life, it was the top selling luxury sport utility vehicle in the United States—despite the fact that there were many more vehicles in that category than there had been when it first rolled onto the scene.
Consider these numbers:
- March-December 1998: 42,191 units sold
- CY 1999: 73,498
- CY 2000: 89,864
- CY 2001: 77,426
- January-October 2002: 69,345 Evidently, the unibody-based SUV has legs
One of the concerns that Lexus Division’s parent company, Toyota, has is making products in the places where the products are sold. But there must have been a bit of trepidatious give-and-take among the folks in both Toyota City and Torrance, California (where Lexus’s offices are located) before an announcement was made in April 2000, that the RX 300 would go into production in Cambridge, Ontario, Canada, at Toyota Motor Manufacturing Canada, in 2003. It’s one thing to produce the Toyota Corolla and Matrix in the plant. It’s still another to be producing a Lexus. Of course, the facility, which started production in 1988, has been the recipient of seven J.D. Power & Associates Plant Quality Awards (four gold, one silver, and two bronze).
Oh, and one more thing: Because there is more to a vehicle than putting it together, it was announced in January, 2001, that engines and transmissions for the North American-built Lexus’s would be produced at Toyota Motor Manufacturing West Virginia, the plant where four-cylinder engines are produced for the Corolla, Matrix, and Pontiac Vibe; V6 engines for the Avalon, Sienna and Highlander, and automatic transmissions for the Camry and Solara. A facility that started building its first four-cylinder engine in December 1998 was given the nod for producing Lexus products.
And so we ask Denny Clements, group vice president and general manager of Lexus Div., how he feels about what is certainly a big risk, especially as the top-selling vehicle in question is about to undergo a transformation, from being the RX 300 to become the 2004 RX 330. And he responds, without trepidation, “They’ll get it right.”
(As is also the case with many products that have started in Japan and have made their way into production in North America (e.g., the Corolla and Camry), there is what is sometimes referred to as a “mother plant,” the first place where something is built. In the case of the RX 330, it will also be built at the Toyota plant in Kyushu. They’ll start production in Canada in September, some seven months after the production has commenced in Kyushu. The plan is to sell 75,000 per year, of which, the Canadian plant, when at full production, will be able to build 60,000.)
And so far as entry-luxury SUV goes, Lexus has also gotten it right with the ’04 RX 330.
The Next Steps
So what do you do for the next step? What do you do when you’re ostensibly the benchmark and the competitors have had something to aim at? Apparently the answer is to raise the proverbial bar. Or, as Clements puts it, “The RX 330 was designed to surpass its successful predecessor in every way and set a new benchmark in the segment.”
Which means, in effect, that they’ve not rested on what are well-earned laurels.
Nowadays, one of the ways to get better (at least vis-à-vis what the market is evidently looking for) is to get bigger.
In other words, there’s more all around. Both vehicles fit five passengers. The RX 330 gives them more room.
And under the hood, the story is much the same. The four-cam, 24-valve, V6 with VVT-i (which stands for continuously “Variable Valve Timing with intelligence,” and means that good torque is attained at pretty much all engine speeds) in the RX 330 is designated the 3MZ-FE. Sure, that’s sort of an insider thing. But it is worth noting that the RX 300’s engine is the 1MZ-FE. But there’s a significant difference beyond nomenclature. The 330’s engine displacement is 3.3 liter; the 300’s engine displacement is 3.0 liter. The new engine produces 230 hp @ 5,600 rpm and 242 lb.-ft. of torque @ 3,600 rpm. The numbers for the 300 are 220 hp @ 5,800 rpm and 222 lb.-ft @ 4,400 rpm.
ThE RX 330 is more.
But the RX 330 isn’t entirely different from its predecessor from the exterior point of view: you can quickly identify what you’re looking at. But then as you look more closely, there are a number of differences, such as the rear hatch having a much sharper angle than the predecessor. The tail lamps have gone from something of a cat’s eye appearance to being much more integrated with the C-pillar, which has a character line that is flush with the top of the tail lamp. The tail lamps (LED lights are used) then meet up with the back window glass. The side body cladding of the former has given way to a much cleaner appearance on the side, with a line accentuating the bulges over the standard 17-in. wheels (18-in. wheels are optional) that’s carried though the top of the lower third of the doors. Not only are the headlights sail-shaped (the former are more trapezoidal), but if the optional air suspension is selected (which provides three different ride heights, with the “high” mode raising the vehicle up to a clearance of 8.3 in.; the normal height is 7.1 in.), then the vehicle is equipped with the Adaptive Front lighting System (AFS), which means that when driving into a curve, say, the HID lamps rotate: when making a left turn, the left beam can rotate up to 15° while the right lamp stays stationary; in a right turn, the right beam can pivot up to 5° while the left lamp remains stationary. And for those who go backwards, when the navigation system option is selected, there is a rear backup camera with the back image displayed on the screen when the gearshift is placed in “R.”
The list of amenities and options is, well, comprehensive. Exceedingly comprehensive for a vehicle that will sell in the $35,000 vicinity. There’s everything from (vastly improved) cup holders, to a laser-based adaptive cruse control. There’s dual-zone climate control. An optional Mark Levinson 11-speaker sound system. A power tilt/telescoping steering wheel. A long, long list of the standard and the optional.
ONE MorE Thing (or Two)
Let’s circle back to the start. Back to the issue of building a Lexus in North America. Kent Rice, manager of Quality Control Engineering at Toyota Motor Manufacturing Canada (TMMC) deeply understands the challenge they’ve undertaken. Rice says, “I would like to report that we found some sort of silver bullet, that we uncovered the single step we needed to take to meet what is really a pretty basic goal: ensuring that the TMMC’s Lexus RX 330 is indeed every bit as good—and hopefully better—than the RX 330 made at Kyushu. Unfortunately, I can’t. There is no silver bullet.”
There has been hard work. And the use of a computer-based simulation tool called “Digital Assembly.” According to Rice, they were doing digital builds both in Kyushu and Canada: “We both would conduct tests during the day and send responses in the form of Design Improvement Requests (DIRs) over night.” This took advantage of the two vastly different time zones. “Over the course of the project, more than 1,500 DIRs were filed. These included everything from revising the assembly sequence to making allowances for the varying size of the production team members—your standard Japanese worker versus a Canadian hockey player. The process has enabled us to build quality into the RX long before a single sheet of metal was stamped.”
In addition to which, they’ve instituted a program called “Circle L” in the Cambridge plant. Rice explains, “It’s a multi-pronged approach where absolutely every critical function, process or part—any element of the vehicle or its assembly that could affect the experience or perception of the driver—has been identified with a ‘Circle L.’” Then everything conceivably involved with one of these identified areas is carefully documented and everyone involved—including the process engineers, designers, and all “involved in the production or assembly of the part, or in executing the process”—learn not only about the part and, Rice emphasizes, “why they are important to our customers,” and all related parts or functions. They’re clearly taking the build quite seriously. And methodically. You can’t get consistent great product without great process.
Chief engineer Yukihiro Okane, talking about how he set the direction for the RX 330, says, “With my engineering team I established a philosophy called ‘Ike Ike don don,’ which means, ‘Let’s go! Think positively! Believe in yourself!’ I told them to challenge everything, and not to give up on any of the challenges. This made for a very difficult engineering process, but I feel the end result is successful because of it.” He’s right.
At the 2003 North American International Auto Show Toyota Motor Corp. president Fujio Cho announced the corporation’s plans for future hybrid- and fuel cell-powered vehicles, which includes an RX 330 that will be equipped with what’s called the “Hybrid Synergy Drive,” which employs an internal combustion engine combined with front and rear electric motors. According to Cho, “The RX with Hybrid Synergy Drive has a V6 engine with the power and torque of a V8 and delivers the fuel mileage of a compact car while producing a fraction of the emissions of standard SUVs.” Because of the electric motor arrangement, the vehicle is all-wheel-drive. According to Cho, the vehicle will be available “within two years.” The hybrid version will be built in the Toyota Kyushu plant.
The previous-generation Hyundai Elantra (2010 to 2015) had the edgy Fluidic Sculpture design forming its sheet metal; it’s bigger brethren, the Sonata, was more visible in this regard, though the smaller size of the Elantra gave the skin a greater tautness than was the case on the Sonata.
To know that 3,000 cars have been delivered since October 2015 would undoubtedly result in a shrug: in 2017 Toyota delivered 387,081 Camrys, so that 3,000 is less than one percent, and this is in one year, not just over two.
It’s the fifth generation of a vehicle that has been increasing in sales year after year since its introduction in 1997.