Lexus defined the budding crossover segment in 1998 with its first RX model. At the time, it was a radical concept and a striking design. It was SUV-like with a wagon’s simplicity and a level of luxury that beat anything the American motorist had experienced.
Now in its fourth generation, the RX is still the brand’s best-seller, and it has been redesigned inside and out for 2016. The five-seat crossover is just slightly larger in width, but 4.7 inches longer in length (now at 192.5 inches). And the wheelbase is longer by nearly 2 inches (now 109.8 inches), allowing for more back-seat room and cargo space. Ground clearance is up by 2 centimeters, but the overall height is up just 1 centimeter.
Though no luxury crossover looks similar to the RX, identity is mandatory in this segment. The new body style has a sinister face and a wide-mouth spindle grille. The side lines are handsome. A sleek floating roof appearance is reminiscent of the Nissan Murano, another midsize five-seat crossover.
Other RX comparables include the Acura MDX, the Audi Q7, the BMW X5, the Lincoln MKX, the Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class and the Volvo XC90.
The RX has two powertrain options, including the RX 450h Hybrid ($53,185). Sold in front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, the gasoline-powered RX has starting prices of $42,850 and $44,280, including the $950 freight charge from Ontario, Canada.
Today’s tester is the RX 350 AWD F-Sport, which has a base price of $50,075 and was almost $60,000 with options.
The new RX is still in the midsize crossover category, but it does feel larger and sometimes bulky. The ride height is tall, but there are complex driver sightlines because of the outstretched windshield pillars and the broad side mirrors. Inside, there is considerable headroom in front (39.4 inches), a moonroof and a grand 38 inches of rear legroom. But the doors feel very heavy.
The driver has command seating, but the center console could be better designed for a more convenient phone placement and e-bin charging. The cup holders have a spring-loaded bottom that will accommodate tall water bottles.
The second row has a flat floor and pleasant ride position, though the seat bottom is narrow for large adults. Cargo space spans 18.4-56.3 cubic feet when the 40/20/30 back seat is folded. But at nearly $60,000, there were no power seat folders in the cargo area. There is an option ($200) for the tailgate to open with just a touch of the Lexus emblem. But it seemed just as simple to squeeze the release at the license plate frame.
The standard RX 350 has a luscious ride quality with buttery smooth steering force. The F-Sport treatment is a man-up package, with more aggressive features and a sport-tuned suspension — but no increase in horsepower. Its ride quality is variable, ranging from svelte to trucky. An active stabilizer system works to keep the RX flat through corners, but the F-Sport still felt husky in cornering transitions.
And the F-Sport’s 20-inch tires seemed to generate more noise than I expected from a Lexus. The four-wheel vented disc brakes (12.9 inches front and 13.3 inches rear) have a smooth and secure grip.
The 295 horsepower, direct-injection 3.5-liter V-6 has formidable power numbers, but they are constrained for fuel economy. The peak horsepower of 6,300 rpm is at redline, and the peak 267 foot-pounds of torque hits at 4,700 rpm, a rev range where few will ever enjoy the full force.
Roll on the power from a start, and the performance is brisk. But make a sudden acceleration in the mid-rpm range and the eight-speed automatic transmission has to think about which gear should be grabbed, followed by a NASA rocket-like blast of power. Trying to compensate the indecision by using Sport mode can be too intense to use all the time. The full-time all-wheel-drive system has active torque control for a sure-footed launch and side-to-side traction.
The F-Sport AWD has fuel economy ratings of 19 mpg city, 26 highway and 22 mpg combined. Front-wheel drive models are rated at 20/28/23 mpg. My combined fuel economy ranged from about 18.6 mpg to no higher than 19.3 mpg in a week of driving. On the plus side, the V-6 requires regular unleaded gas — not premium– and there is a 19.2-gallon fuel tank that allows a decent cruising range.
Despite the larger footprint, overall weight increased by just 44 pounds. The tester’s curb weight of 4,387 pounds ranges from about 200 to 500 pounds lighter than most of its competitors.
Moving the RX up in size allowed room in the lineup for the new compact class NX crossover. But the RX 350 is better suited for family use, it’s a better taste of Lexus luxury and it looks stunning
Mark Maynard is online at email@example.com. Find photo galleries and more news at Facebook.com/MaynardsGarage