The Lexus RX has been around for so long that it’s easy to forget how significant a vehicle it was when it hit the scene way back in 1998.
Up to that point, SUVs had essentially been upscale trucks. Lexus’ parent company, Toyota, realised that many people, especially in America, were buying rugged four-wheel-drive SUVs when all they really wanted was SUV scale and utility. Their SUVs never got a whiff of trail; the closest they came to off-roading was when the parking lot of the Short Hills Mall needed a repaving.
Enter the RX, the first in a new breed of “crossover” SUVs, built not on truck platforms, but on more car-like undergirdings.
The RX was an immediate hit and has remained so for decades. Lexus has sold over 2 million of the RX 350, making it by far the most important vehicle in the luxury brand’s portfolio. This is not a car that Lexus can afford to screw up.
That said, Lexus did revamp the RX, rolling out the new crossover at the New York Auto Show last year. The fourth-generation crossover is just as versatile as it’s always been, but the design is newly aggressive, notably up front.
I live in the suburbs of New Jersey. This is the heart of the heart of RX country. Lexus loaned us a $60,000 RX 350 F Sport version, with all-wheel drive, and we tooled around in it around for a week. (A front-wheel-drive RX 350 is available, as is a hybrid RX 450.) Here’s the lowdown:
Photos by Hollis Johnson
Let's just get right down to it. The so-called spindle grille is completely polarising. You love it, you hate, but you don't hold back your opinion. Frankly, I think it's hideous, but the RX 350 had always struggled with the impression that it was bland, so I can see why Lexus went bold. And the grille design does look better at SUV scale than it does on Lexus' cars.
In profile, the RX 350 is quite sleek, with the caged energy of a silvery panther. But the pseudo-haunches over both the front and rear wheels look weird, as does the odd 'floating' roof.
There is just a hot mess of folded metal that fills the field of vision when you consider the RX 350 from an angle. Swoop! Slash! Curve! Eek!
The dual exhaust is a sign of the crossover's sporting spirit, and on balance the rear end of the RX 350 shows the Lexus' best, er ... face.
And it's all topped off with yet another blade-like element acting as a spoiler and housing the Cylon-esque third brake light. By your command, RX 350!
The good old Lexus badge does remind you, however, that this can't possibly be too aggressive a departure for loyal RX 350 buyers.
And once you slip inside, the world begins to feel more familiar. That perforated-leather-wrapped steering wheel is just the first course.
The infotainment system runs off a substantial center screen that's controlled with a puck-like thingy that resides between the seats. The screen doesn't retract, and while it satisfies all the necessary functions -- audio, navigation, Bluetooth connections, and so on -- it simply doesn't feel as up-to-date as what you can get in a Cadillac, Audi, or BMW.
A comfortable place overall for driver and passenger. One thing that you just have to deal with, because this is a Toyota product: The plastics can seem very plasticky. It doesn't seem cheap. Just not really all that ... special.
Although this is an F Sport trim, the seats aren't excessively bolstered. There's also a blissful absence of flamboyant topstitching.
The view out the back window is decent but not great. The cargo area handled everything I threw at it, and I have a family of five.
And the back seats are roomy and relaxing. There's room for two adults back there, or three kids. Three adults might feel cramped.
The RX 350 continues to get the job done in the driving department. I think of the experience as 'default crossover.' You've paid for that distinctive Lexus-y blend of don't-have-to-think-about-it driving, good utility, and enough fine luxury appointments to assure you that you aren't in a Toyota.
The F Sport goodies add some oomph, but they don't overdo it. A 3.5-litre V6 serves up 295 horsepower, and the AWD system can handle nasty weather. (We had some during our test week.) The F Sport stuff kicks in when you adjust the drive setting to take advantage of them, and they join the crossover a more urgent to the road, thanks to a peppier suspension. You've got paddle shifters if you're into that kind of thing with cars like this. Hey, it's fun. Lexus says it will do 0-60 in about eight seconds. But a sports car this is not.
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