#7 – 2008 Lexus RX350

I wasn’t going to drive this Lexus. I have about ten drives in a queue in my head and I want to get them written out before I start anything new. But yesterday a wild Lexus appeared, and I couldn’t turn it down. I wasn’t sure if I had ever driven a Lexus before, and upon seeing the interior for the first time I was reminded of those Toyota SUVs I wrote about oh, so long ago. So, drive it I did.

So the car is relatively stylish (it had a 2007 or 2008 facelift so this was one of the first years for this style), it’s AWD, and it’s as cushy as you would expect a Lexus to be. I wanted to hate it, because as I said just that afternoon to a coworker “I hate all SUVs,” but it wasn’t really that bad.

I made a mediocre video detailing my thoughts on the Lexus, but it was filmed before reading my handy book on how to shoot videos, so it’s not that great and therefore is not being shown here. My wonderful writing will have to suffice for now. I would apologize but I’m really doing you all a favor by locking it away forever.

The inside. (I um, took no pictures of the exterior. It was cold.) It’s not too shabby.

radio climate, not bad.

Time for a close-up! It has everything you could need. Buttons, like the Saab. But since they were all still legible, and since the Lexus does not turn the climate control on full-blast right away I was not too offended.

controls up close

Part of me says that wood steering wheels are for old, stodgy people but holy cow do I love them. Also note, the void that is the space where the gauges should be. They aren’t digital and off, they are just that stealthy.

Wood Steering wheel, Luxury at its finest.

This is apparently called a gated automatic. (Did I determine that months ago and forget? Very possible. Will I go read old posts to find out? Probably not.) Not as good as a gated manual, but the name makes sense. Today I decided to make peace with them, because while it’s ok to be opinionated, I don’t want to be a dinosaur. Unless I could be a velociraptor in which case, rawr. Also, nifty seat heaters with a knob! They worked almost too well.

This is apparently a gated automatic

Why, oh why, are “panic” and “lock” the same button? I can see it now, middle of winter, freezing cold, gloves on, mashing the button to make sure your car is locked, when all of a sudden the alarm starts screaming at you and you drop your delicious vanilla chai all over your coat and you drop the dog leash and your dog runs away forever. And this could be a big generalization, but I’m under the impression that Japanese alarm systems are more obnoxious than the quiet, polite European alarm systems (source: I drove a Japanese car with a broken alarm system for many years.)

Lock apparently equals Panic. Ok then.

Light-Up door sills! In the front and back! Bonus points for things that light up.


Now, on to the fun stuff. Like how this car is apparently a death trap.

Roll Over! Good Boy!

And this harmless-looking little center console…

It may look innocent, but this is an alligator.

Also dangerous. I tried to move it, it was like wrestling an alligator. Watch your fingers, and your arms.

See, I'm not making it up. Only alligator consoles need warnings.

And then I had to drive it. After seeing the huge sticker right on the visor (seriously, airbag warnings get hidden on the inside of the visor, but the rollover risk warning is right there in your face) I was excited to put it through its paces. You can imagine that my test drive went something like this.

This is when you wish I had an in-car camera, right? Really, that would be more fun. Sorry, maybe next year.

But it doesn’t matter because the Lexus, much to my dismay, stayed perfectly upright. It felt like an extremely solid little SUV for the whole drive. At the time there was a flash flood watch here so the pavement was a perfect skid pad (I made the tires squeal and everything!) but there was no indication of the car wanting to lay down for a nap. Even the brakes were ok. I’m left wondering if the sticker was just a case of overly-cautious engineering for the litigious society we live in. Yes I’m sure on sharp offramps it’s a danger, but any more than any other SUV? (Note: the Lexus GX460, the big brother to the Toyota Highlander that I drove earlier did indeed have rollover issues, but again that’s more a proper SUV than this squat little RX.)

So I am now forced to rethink my position of hating SUVs. They might not be for me, but I completely understand why they could be for some people. (Though personal advice? For whatever extra room you get in a small crossover SUV like this, just get a wagon instead. I’m betting it would have similar cargo room and you know, wouldn’t need that giant sticker telling you about your impending doom. And wagons are cool, because I said so.)

#6 – 2004 Saab 9-3 Aero

I like Saabs. They are Swedish, and I like anything Swedish. This car was also a trade-in, and it was ridiculously cheap, which made all those alarms in my brain go off. Not the bad alarms, the good alarms that say “Hey dummy, it’s Swedish, it’s cheap, and you’ve been wanting a junk autocross car for awhile.”

Front view

So of course, I grabbed the keys and took it for a drive, but not after a thorough look-over.

Exterior styling is excellent. I tell myself that Swedish cars have a timeless beauty, and they don’t look old or outdated until well after most other brands of the same generation. At least I can admit that I’m biased, right?

Are you sick of me talking about my love for Sweden yet? Well just sit tight, it’s only one review. I promise I’ll review an American or German or Japanese car next time.

So we like the outside, and this car is in great condition. Obviously well cared for, I couldn’t find a scratch or dent anywhere. Not bad for an 8 year old car (holy crap, 2004 was 8 years ago?)

IMG_0366 (Medium)

IMG_0363 (Medium)

(Seriously, how does this happen though? Every modern Saab I’ve seen has had this problem.)

And then, the inside. Well first, the key. Most cars have a plastic key fob with a metal pull out key in case the electronics aren’t working.

Proper keyfobs

This car? Just a plastic fob as far as I can see. I can only assume that there was a standalone metal key somewhere, but when this car was turned in, it only came with one very, very beat up plastic fob. Top Gear Top Tip: dog chew toys are cheaper than new keys for your Saab.

funky, broken keyfob

The interior is nice. I like different color accent leather. And it’s not just pretty leather, it’s comfy! I like the back seats, I sat in them for a few minutes.


Front seats also very nice, if a little worn-in. And the buttons. There are buttons everywhere. No dials or knobs, just buttons. Are there no knobs in jet fighters? Is that where this came from? I guess you don’t really want knobs when you’re inverted in a jet fighter, you might think that you’re turning the radio up when you’re really turning it down, and that would be tragic.

(Yes we all know, in order to pilot a jet fighter you must be smart enough to know when you’re turning the radio up or down, I’m just making a point here, ok?)

I really like the gauge cluster in this car. It makes me happy, and I can’t really say why. Everything is there and it’s not too complicated. I hate overly-complicated gauge clusters.

More buttons on the steering wheel.

The cockpit

Buttons buttons buttons. Look, a sunroof button, and a light button.

What is this thing?

And this little nub that um, senses something. Ambient light sensor? Temperature sensor? It’s times like this that I wish everyone would leave their window sticker in the glove box so I could see what the standard options are on a car like this. Being Swedish I know it’s very safe, and it’s probably got lots of fun gadgets because that’s just what they do. Jet fighters, remember?

Speaking of fun gadgets, time for the fun one. The big 2.0L 4 cylinder turbocharged gadget under the hood. But before we start it up, seatbelts! Safety first!

seatbelt octopus

Oh, Wait.

IMG_0390 (Medium)

And it is then that I am reminded of the true make of this car. GM. Saab apparently brought their own important bits, steering, suspension, turbo (very reliable, from what I hear) but the interior, while nice, is still GM.

At least Saab kept the totally awesome key location. I love this, feels so high tech. Fighter jet.

Did you remember your pre-flight checklist?'

And then I start the car and aaah! The fans are on full and they are screaming at me! Help! Flail frantically looking for the climate control fan knob, but there are no knobs! Oh, it’s a button. And apparently this was a common problem, because the previous owner completely wore off the decrease fan button.

IMG_0384 (Medium)

It’s an 8 year old car with 140k miles on it, and I can’t be upset about a squealing climate control, and I don’t even mind that whole “Hey we can tell it’s hot and stuffy in here, let’s turn the fans on full blast to get some air circulating!” but making it so non-intuitive to turn them down is a problem. I guess you can argue that most people aren’t driving different cars every day and they learn, but what happens when you loan your car to your sister, or worse, trade it in to a dealership for a random employee to go on joy rides with?

Being a Jet Fighter Saab, it has kept the infamous night mode. This is fun, but I don’t really see the practicality. Especially because it a)disables the tachometer and b)makes it look like you are always out of fuel.

Night mode

I guess you don’t really need the tach, you should be able to listen to the engine to shift, but if you have night mode on it’s probably late and dark, and that’s not really an ideal time to run out of gas, which you are liable to do if you have no clue how much gas you have.

Oh, did I not mention that this was a manual transmission car? Yes, it is, please excuse me while I go squee. It seems like there are so few manuals so I love it when I get to play with one. And this is a nice one. It shifts really smoothly, and I was able to change gears without feeling like I’m on a roller coaster. I don’t do this every day so my manual driving isn’t the smoothest. But the Saab made it easy, and I love it for that. Also fun fact; to shift it into reverse you have to pull up on the shift boot. I wouldn’t think this would be practical or easy, and it does require a slight shift (no pun intended) in how you hold the shifter, but it’s not like reverse is something you use often so it’s cool. I liked this way more than I should.

I didn’t get a chance to do a proper road test due to license plate issues and not wanting police trouble, but my drive around the parking lot was nice. Felt very smooth, enough power and braking. It did have some squishy suspension issues but again, old car with lots of miles. And there were creaks and rattles and gah. Sorry GM, I love you, I like to support American businesses, but I haven’t seen recent American cars that feel anywhere near as sturdy in the long run as their foreign counterparts. Someone please prove me wrong here.

So I do want an Autocross car, but I decided against this one. At the very least it would need new shocks to race and not feel like you’re going to fly across the car at every corner. I do like the power (stock 210hp with a turbo that has been proven to be pretty reliable, as far as turbos go. Also lots of upgrades available, can easily see it getting up near 300hp) But a quick look on the forums confirms my suspicions: “Anyone who would want to get one of these cars and mod it can’t afford it.” The car itself was cheap, but I can’t imagine the problems and money involved with getting parts and labor, especially now that Saab is dead. For the money I would rather go for a smaller, rear-wheel drive car that I could work on myself. (Someone keeps pushing for a Miata, but I just don’t like the styling. Maybe I just need to drive one. Good thing that is consistent with my mission.)

edit: How could I forget the cupholders?? I love the overengineered cupholders in Saabs. And I neglected to take any pictures. I have a video, but it’s silly so instead I’ll leave you with this last picture of the half-broken-pseudo-heads-up display. Because Fighter Jet.

Heads up!

#2 – 2005 Nissan Maxima 3.5SL

It’s expected, when undertaking a project like this, that one would start with some introspection on previously driven cars. This is mostly done to ask the all-important question: “Do I remember enough about this car to write a review without having to track down another?” The answer, I’ve found, is almost always “No.”

Luckily, the car I was thinking about most, the Nissan Altima, is a relatively common car and I shouldn’t have a problem finding another one. And of course, within a week of starting this blog, a Nissan Maxima appeared. Not an Altima, but close enough and I couldn’t wait to give it a try.

You’re probably wondering why I’m so excited about a basic Japanese car, and the simple answer is: I wanted to try out a CVT now that I have a few more cars to compare it to.

Astute readers out there are yelling “But the 2005 Maxima doesn’t have a CVT!” Well Ok, I didn’t know this yet, so I headed for the nearest road and put my foot down.

And it was heaven. This was a 3.5L V6 Maxima SL with 265 hp, and it felt like a dream. The shifts were the smoothest I’ve ever felt in an automatic car. Revs go up, car shifts, revs go down, repeat. At this time I still thought it was a CVT, and I thought maybe Nissan built some sort of shifting replication feel into the car, and I liked it. Of course I now know it was just your standard automatic and this was just a superb example. Which is funny because if you google “2005 Nissan Maxima Transmission” you get several hits saying how the transmission in this car is horrible and jerks and breaks and blah blah blah. This must have been one of the lucky ones because it wasn’t exactly low-mileage and really, I cannot say enough about how nicely this car shifted. And it had power to go along with it, the smoothness was definitely not because of a wimpy engine.

Anyway, on to the rest of the car. I have determined that the SL badging on the trunk stands for “Super Luxurious.” It has all the standard luxury features, leather, heated seats, xenon headlights (impressive for a 2005 model), moonroof (unfortunately for me it had the optional traditional moonroof and not the silly-looking but curiously weird fixed skyview roof that is narrow and extends the length of the car roof), screen built into the dash…

Oh wait. Is that a large display screen full of 7-segment digits? I don’t really understand their reasoning behind this one, a decent radio display could have taken care of this information without looking like it was from the 90’s. By the end of my test drive I had come to appreciate it, simply because it let me set daytime and nighttime brightness levels that adjusted the orange hue to my liking. I’m probably the wrong person to be writing car reviews, it doesn’t take much to please me. Either way, this is still not a design choice I would have used.

Again it had a horrible non-linear automatic gear shifter. Do people bump the shifter while driving? Is it that eating a hamburger while driving makes it impossible to not flail and bump things? Or do car manufacturers think that this gives people the same satisfaction that one gets from shifting a gated manual? I don’t know, and I don’t like it.

This probably isn’t sounding super luxurious to you. And you’re right. Because then, as I was about to call it a day and exit the vehicle, I noticed a row of buttons hidden to the left of the steering wheel on the dash.

Ooh, does that one fold in the mirrors? I hit the button. Nothing. Thought maybe I should put the key back in the ignition and turn the car on before expecting buttons to do anything. Tried again and yes! The mirrors folded in. I am very particular about sounds, and I just really like the sound of power-folding mirror motors. I should mention right now that this car was driven in a major city quite a bit and damaged accordingly. But yet, the mirrors have survived probably hundreds of hours in those cramped parking lots and not taken their share of the damage. I’m going to credit the power folding mirrors with this.

Next button. Hmm. It almost looks like a steering wheel. But not quite like the steering wheel in this car. (Author’s note: It does quite resemble the steering wheel in the old Z cars, if this was intentional I appreciate the retro styling. They carried some of this over into new Nissans but not as much as this button implies.) So I hit this button, and nothing. Following my hunch, I waited a minute, and next thing I knew…the steering wheel was toasty! If that isn’t luxury I don’t know what is. Actually, I take that back. Real luxury would be a heated and ventilated steering wheel for the summer. But that’s beside the point. This was cool. I liked it a lot. It almost made up for the lack of seat bolsters.

So in conclusion, cool car. I was much more impressed than I had planned. And after the experience of driving this wonderful, if slightly dented, example of a Nissan, I can safely answer the question posed by the most recent Nissan television commercial. “Wouldn’t it be great if your car never had to shift?” No, Nissan, it would not be great.

Addendum: A week or so after driving this car, I was walking down the steps of my apartment and in the parking lot I saw it… And in the exact same tone as the Top Gear crew spotting a Dacia Sandero for the first time, I said (out loud) to myself “Hey, that’s a Nissan Maxima with the standard fixed glass skyview moonroof!” And my day was considerably brightened.

#1 – 2003 Toyota 4Runner Limited

I wanted to start these road tests with an exotic or interesting car, but the whole idea was to take a look at cars that I would not normally drive, and what better way to do that then to start with a Toyota. Which is also an SUV. As someone who likes small European sports cars, this is out there.

The model I drove is a 2003 4Runner in the Limited trim level which includes 4WD and a 4.7L V8 engine. I like V8s, we’re off to a good start. Also during my preliminary research, I found out that this vehicle is branded as the Toyota Hilux Surf in the rest of the world, so it has a good pedigree. (Go check out some episodes of Top Gear on BBC/BBCAmerica if you don’t know why the Hilux is so revered. The Polar Special is probably my favorite example.)

The 4Runner weighs over 2 tons, which I don’t think is too unusual for an SUV, but the V8 seemed to pull it just fine. I put my foot down and the SUV moved forward with some pep. I should mention that this was a used car with about 147k miles on the odometer, and I have no clue how well the previous owners maintained the car.

I wasn’t able to take the car for a proper road test to try out the brakes, but they stopped it well enough. I would’ve liked to see how they respond at speed…because as far as driving dynamics went, this thing felt like a boat. The driver’s seat feels very high above the road, and you don’t feel bumps in the road. Also when turning, you leeeeean. And then leeeeean the other way when you straighten out.

I don’t think most people will be taking their 4Runner on an autocross course, so as long as they understand that then we’re all good. Just watch out for people driving aggressively on the highway, they might think their luxury V8 yacht is a jet-ski, and it’s not. (Going back to the previous paragraph, it’s a possibility that this car could need suspension work so that may have explained some of the mushiness that I noticed.)

And now on to the interior. I got in the cabin and the first thing I could think of was: “This car is designed for men.”

Before I go any further on that thought, let me explain something about my taste in, well, everything. I have a cell phone that both male and female reviewers have said is “aimed towards the male market.” I look at this phone and I see a cell phone with red buttons and red accents. I am a female, and I really enjoy red and black. This is apparently unusual. Also in case you can’t tell, I really like cars, I like taking things apart, and I fly model airplanes as a hobby. Most things that are marketed to men I see as neutral so it’s not something I say often.

Back to the Toyota. The trim on the inside of the car was supposed to look like black granite, and all of the knobs were designed to look like big chunky gears. (The picture doesn’t do any of this justice, sorry) All of the controls felt very smushed in, like someone just said ok, we have 26 square inches, fit as many buttons in as you can. But I didn’t have much time, I’m sure that over time one would get used to where everything is. It also has one of those horrible, not-linear automatic gear shifters. (I suppose I should learn what those are called, especially considering their prevalence these days.)

Aside from that it was a standard car. Leather seats, rear legroom was great, cargo area had some nifty features to help keep you and your stuff (and in the case of the previous owner, your dog) organized.

I did appreciate how someone, somewhere decided to make sure I knew that the door cubby was only for bottles, and not for glasses. (There are cupholders for that you heathens.) There was also a handy cheat sheet on the sun visor telling you under what conditions to mess with your differential. (Kicking myself for not getting a picture of this)

Lastly, my favorite part of this car. In my time of working at a car dealership I have noticed that car brands often have little features that aren’t a big deal, but are great for convenience. I would list some of these here but I need to save something exciting for future posts, so I’ll just say that what Toyota did here is amazing.

Yes, there is the normal sun visor that folds down and can also go sideways, but there is also a secondary visor that you can fold down to cover the top of the windshield while the primary visor is covering the side window. I have terribly sensitive eyes and wear sunglasses even when it’s cloudy so this is the kind of thing I can get behind. Maybe other manufacturers do this too, but hey, I’m new to this game so I’ll just have to wait and see.

So that’s the 4Runner. My horizons have been expanded already. Next up, try to find the Lexus equivalent, I guess that would be the GX?