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2015 Lexus RX 350 Test Drive Review
The F Sport Package is supposed to “man up” the RX, a model that's traditionally appealed to women. My test vehicle had the F Sport treatment, and I liked driving it well enough, so I guess it works.
Last year, the Lexus RX was the best-selling luxury vehicle in America. Quiet, comfortable, practical, dependable, and upscale on the surface where it counts the most, there are good reasons for this crossover SUV’s popularity. Age is taking a toll on the RX’s ability to compete, though, making the imminent arrival of a redesigned 2016 Lexus RX perfectly timed.
Look and Feel
Although irresistible style has never been a hallmark of the Lexus RX, which kicked off the luxury crossover SUV craze more than 15 years ago, Americans have made this 5-passenger vehicle a perennial favorite in the segment. Legendary durability, a hushed cabin, plenty of practicality, and refinement oozing from every one of its pores has virtually guaranteed success for the Lexus RX.
Lexus sells the RX in two different series. The subject of this review, the RX 350, is the most popular version and is priced just north of $40,000. The RX 450h, the hybrid version, packs both performance and efficiency, but it also commands a premium of $6,650, an amount of money buyers would apparently prefer to spend on upgrades to the RX 350, if the hybrid’s sales figures are any indication.
Among those upgrades, the F Sport package ($7,750) adds all-wheel drive, an 8-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters, a sport-tuned suspension, bigger wheels and tires, perforated leather upholstery, and unique styling details. The F Sport Package is supposed to “man up” the RX, a model that has traditionally appealed primarily to people equipped with XX chromosomes.
My test vehicle had the F Sport treatment, and I liked driving it well enough, so I guess it works. Either that, or my testosterone level is too low. In any case, my favorite thing about the F Sport package is that it sharpens and better defines the RX’s usual chubby-cheeked visage.
From the front wheels rearward, any RX is reasonably attractive. A fastback roofline, hockey-stick side sculpting, and deeply defined character lines that demonstrate clear relationships with one another give the RX a clean, appealing look. Lexus also exercises remarkable restraint with regard to SUV styling gimmicks. But that face. Ugh.
Inside, the RX reveals an almost Zen-like approach to dashboard design and overall décor. This Lexus exudes taste and class and delivers a calming, soothing effect upon its driver. Add the F Sport package and Lexus attempts to quicken the driver’s pulse through the use of black perforated leather seats, exposed white stitching, Ebony maple wood trim, and a black headliner—oooh, so Germanic!
Nice try, but even the RX 350 F Sport represents a cocoon from the outside world.
Lexus goes beyond mere cosmetics in its attempt to inject some excitement into the RX 350 F Sport. Its 270-hp, 3.5-liter V6 engine is matched to an exclusive 8-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters, and Lexus bolts in a stiffer suspension while bolting on a set of unique 19-inch aluminum wheels, a pairing designed to improve grip in corners and add road feel on all surfaces.
Do these rather simplistic adjustments work to liven up what is usually a pretty dull driving dynamic? Yes, especially in conjunction with the F Sport model’s standard active torque vectoring all-wheel-drive system. At the same time, I’d also say Lexus needs to refine its approach to performance.
Untouched by the F Sport treatment, this V6 engine is a delight, sounding terrific when revved and feeling much stronger than its horsepower rating suggests. The 8-speed automatic transmission, however, is geared too aggressively in its quest to prove that an RX 350 can be quick and fun to drive. With just moderate pressure on the accelerator, the RX F Sport rushes forward as though you’re racing fellow motorists to the next traffic light.
Take the RX F Sport onto your favorite stretch of twisty two-lane road, and the paddle shifters prove to be useful tools. The transmission even matches engine revs when downshifting in advance of a corner, which is frankly stunning in this, the Lexus RX, which has always been a rolling sleep aid. At the same time, rev-matched downshifts are entirely out of character with the vehicle.
Instead of paddle shifters and rev-matching, what the RX 350 F Sport needs is a better set of tires. My test vehicle’s 235/55R19 Michelins squealed across road paint markings and demonstrated limited grip when rounding tight corners. Then again, that might be the point, since the RX 350’s Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (VDIM) suite of safety systems goes on high alert the moment you start tossing this SUV around with any degree of vigor.
Driven more sedately, the RX F Sport feels appropriately athletic, displaying a firm, connected, and communicative feel for the road while the VDIM system remains a silent bystander. Occasionally, when driving on pockmarked city pavement, you can hear the suspension impacting bumps and holes, impeding upon the normally isolated cabin. I also found the steering to be unexpectedly heavy in low-speed parking situations, and the brake pedal difficult to modulate in traffic, neither trait appealing to a traditional RX buyer.
Generally speaking, the RX 350 F Sport is more engaging than other versions of this SUV. As evidence, consider my observed fuel economy of 19.3 mpg, which fell short of the EPA’s official combined-driving rating of 21 mpg and is reflective of a more engaged driver.
But does this iteration of the popular Lexus convince as a performance model? Not if you’re cross-shopping it with an Audi Q5, BMW X3, or Infiniti QX70.
Form and Function
Because the RX’s interior design is unlike that of any other Lexus, it looks and feels special. You cannot mistake this crossover for any other vehicle, which lends the RX an air of exclusivity, however faint.
Still, even at a base price above $40,000, this interior displays room for improvement, and the frustrating thing is that the rare instances of evident penny-pinching cause an observer to wonder why they didn’t just fix the issue in the first place.
Mainly, my nitpicking pertains to gloss levels on the few pieces of hard plastic used to finish the cabin, and the lack of a rubber mat or similar material for the tray located beneath the center console. Resolving these examples of cost cutting should be simple and cheap.
For the most part, the RX 350’s controls are easy to find and to use, and the navigation system employs a comfortably familiar controller designed to mimic the operation of a computer mouse. My test vehicle included heated and ventilated front seats, but it took me a few days to discover this, because the dials for these features are hidden beneath the sliding center-console lid.
Front-seat comfort levels are high, and my wife and I agreed that we could ride in this Lexus all day without complaint, especially one equipped with the optional driver’s seat power cushion extension, which improves thigh support.
Rear-seat occupants might not be as happy about taking a cross-country road trip. The bottom cushion is mounted low and features flat topography, so adults slouch and splay their legs due to the lack of thigh support. The idea here, I think, is to facilitate a flat cargo load floor with the rear seat folded down, but this goal is achieved at great expense to rear-seat comfort levels.
Speaking of cargo room, the RX provides 40 cubic feet of space behind the rear seats, a generous amount considering the SUV’s rakish roofline. Fold the rear seats down to expand that to 80.3 cubic feet, another impressive figure.
What the RX lacks is a third-row seat. Since Lexus doesn’t currently have a 3-row crossover SUV, my bet is that the automaker will rectify this situation with the redesigned 2016 model that is scheduled to debut at the 2015 New York Auto Show.
With any hint that you might exceed the RX 350 F Sport’s relatively modest handling capabilities, the SUV’s Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (VDIM) system steps in to quell the fun or, as is more likely to be the case, to save your butt. The VDIM system employs sensors to determine whether the RX may be veering out of control, and automatically engages the stability control system while reducing engine power output in order to help save a driver who might be losing control. Enthusiast drivers don’t like VDIM, but in a vehicle like the RX, even one with the F Sport package, it is entirely appropriate.
I’m also a fan of how Lexus has designed the RX model’s infotainment system. Primary radio and climate controls are separate from the display screen tucked beneath the windshield, and when you must reference information on the display, or use the display to access various vehicle functions and settings, the Remote Touch controller on the center console works just like a computer mouse and makes navigating the different screens and menus a breeze.
Any RX equipped with the optional navigation system also gets Lexus Enform technology with a free 1-year trial subscription to service, an advanced voice-command system, and enhanced Bluetooth functionality. With Enform, owners benefit from App Suite smartphone access to selected applications such as Bing, Pandora, Yelp, and more. It also includes 24-hour Destination Assist service and the ability to send destinations to the vehicle from a home computer.
A rear-seat entertainment system is also available for the RX, complete with dual viewing screens, and this luxury SUV can also be upgraded with a heads-up display, a Mark Levinson Surround Sound audio system, and more. However, beyond such luxury SUV basics, the RX cannot be equipped with features such as a Wi-Fi hotspot, active parking-assistance technology, hands-free tailgate operation, massaging front seats, heated rear seats, or other features that are increasingly common on mainstream crossovers, let alone those wearing a luxury nameplate.
The Lexus RX also reveals its age in the form of a limited safety technology roster. For example, a reversing camera is standard, but it cannot be upgraded with a rear cross-traffic alert system, because Lexus doesn’t offer that feature for this model. Also missing in action: available lane-departure warning and lane-keeping assist technology as well as a 360-degree camera system.
Lexus does make front and rear parking sensors available for the RX, and you can outfit this luxury crossover with a blind-spot information system and a dynamic cruise control system with pre-collision warning technology. Add pre-collision braking, which automatically applies the brakes if a collision is deemed to be unavoidable, and you’ve pretty much loaded the RX with all the safety technology you can get.
One of my favorite features, though, is the Safety Connect service. Included as standard equipment and active without a subscription for the first year of ownership, Safety Connect automatically notifies the authorities of a collision when the RX’s airbags deploy, helping to speed rescuers to the scene of the accident.
Though the RX is an older design, it performs well in crash tests. The NHTSA assigns the front-wheel-drive version a 4-star overall rating, while the heavier all-wheel-drive version gets a 5-star rating. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) gives the RX the top rating of Good in four out of five crashworthiness assessments. The RX has not been subjected to the small overlap frontal impact test.
Once upon a time, buying a luxury vehicle meant something more than an emblem on a grille. That’s true today, too, primarily when spending upward of $75,000. Below that price point, “luxury” vehicles are more about image than anything else, instantly rendering them cost-ineffective, because you’re paying a premium for marketing rather than materials, a fascade instead of features, an impression in place of substance.
Accept this, and you’ll find that by other measurements the RX 350 is a cost-effective way to transport yourself in coddled comfort. Based on ratings from Consumer Reports and J.D. Power, the RX is basically bulletproof in terms of durability, and ALG believes this crossover will hold its value well over time.
My experience driving the RX 350 F Sport demonstrated that it is not as fuel-efficient as the EPA says it is, but I will admit to regularly exercising the energetic V6 engine. Besides, you can always get the RX 450h hybrid if gas mileage is that important to you.
Finally, though Consumer Reports thinks the RX will be more expensive than average to own over time, Lexus dealers are currently offering appealing lease and financing deals on this model. My bet is that the discounts will just keep getting better during the summer of 2015, as Lexus prepares to launch its redesigned 2016 RX.
Christian Wardlaw has nearly two decades of experience reviewing cars, and has served in editorial leadership roles with Edmunds, Autobytel, and J.D. Power and Associates. Chris prefers to focus on the cars people actually buy rather than the cars about which people dream, and emphasizes the importance of fuel economy and safety as much as how much fun a car is to drive. Chris is married to an automotive journalist, is the father of four daughters, and lives in Southern California.
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2015 Lexus RX 350 Top Comparisons
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