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2016 Lexus RX 350 Test Drive Review
The grille looks like it may inhale your body and grind it into little pieces, but that's all for show. The new fourth-generation 2016 Lexus RX would rather comfort you in every possible manner.
In 1998, Lexus had a revolutionary idea for its all-new luxury SUV: Mount the body on a lower, smooth-riding car chassis instead of a rough-and-tumble truck. Presto—the RX, and the entire luxury crossover segment that followed, was born. Four generations later, the 2016 RX still leads that segment. It’s the best-selling luxury SUV and the brand’s best-selling model, year after year. The segment has shifted toward sports car-like performance, and Lexus has promised an edgier RX to match. Can Lexus deliver, and most importantly, does it need to?
Look and Feel
You either love or hate L-finesse, Lexus’s design ethos of enormous spindle-shaped grilles, razor headlights, and all manner of slits and slash marks. We rather like it applied to the RX, especially among the me-too body styles that cover most of the competition. It’s sharp and windswept, with a continuous sweep of tinted black glass along the side that creates the illusion of a floating roof. Surface detail is everywhere, and there’s really no boring angle. We’ve seen this before, of course. Cadillac’s chiseled, hard-edged bodies in the early 2000s warmed us to such bold style, and Lexus, for so long a conservative copycat in the luxury field, finally has a look we’ll remember. The inside is just as dramatic, with a long dash cowl, rich materials, and delicate curves. Our test car’s Autumn Shimmer paint was a deep, golden-tinged brown that sparkled in the sun. With brown leather, matte brown wood, red stitching, a black-brown dash, and faux aluminum trim, every drive was like stepping inside a triple-layer chocolate cake. At $51,630, our RX 350 AWD was moderately optioned and quite typical of what you’ll find at most dealers.
The Lexus RX is not a BMW X5, Porsche Cayenne, or even a Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class. While the F-Sport model wears larger 20-inch wheels and rides on a firmer, adaptive suspension, the RX doesn’t drive as aggressively as it looks. A 3.5-liter V6 with 295 horsepower and 267 pound-feet of torque comes standard in front-wheel drive (FWD) with an 8-speed automatic formerly reserved for the F-Sport. All-wheel drive (AWD) is optional and standard on the F-Sport. The hybrid RX 450h pairs an Atkinson-cycle version of the same V6 (optimized for fuel economy) with a continuously variable transmission (CVT) and two electric motors for a total of 308 horsepower and 247 pound-feet of torque. A third electric motor powers the rear axle on AWD models.
Performance is adequate. The brakes are the most impressive, with gentle tip-in and a reassuring bite. Otherwise, the RX is basically driving asleep. Mash the gas while in motion, and the transmission hesitates for a second or two before surging and groaning to create momentum. Off idle, the throttle is a little jumpy, then quickly settles down. The steering is languid and numb to the road surfaces, and the suspension doesn’t try to hide roll. In many aspects, the RX feels like a Mercedes E-Class, only less planted due to its higher center of gravity and extra weight (about 4,517 pounds, according to Car and Driver). Selecting the transmission’s Sport mode and moving the console-mounted dial to Sport just makes things noisier, and not much more.
But if you take it at two-thirds pace, the RX settles into its natural groove of smooth power, undetectable gear shifts, a pillow-soft ride (helped by thick-sidewall 18-inch tires), and a hermetically sealed interior so obsessed with quietness that even the double-paned front windows slow down before they seal shut. Many SUVs strike a better balance between power and comfort, but other than a Range Rover, none are as tranquil. No matter how wild it appears, the RX is still a luxury car in the most traditional sense. The EPA rates the RX 350 AWD at 19 mpg city, 26 mpg highway. We averaged about 22 mpg over 400 miles. As a plus, the RX 350 takes regular 87-octane gasoline.
Form and Function
As a luxury car, the RX is kingly. The radio knobs are real metal, the two-tone steering wheel is a tactile delight, and the curved piece of wood trim adorning the center stack takes Japanese craftsmen 38 days to piece together, or so Lexus claims. It’s a feast for the eyes and fingers, from the soft felt on the headliner to the perfect padding in each of the four outboard seats. You can drive for hours without exhaustion.
Try to operate the standard 8-inch infotainment display (or the optional 12.3-inch display in our car) without exasperation. A fiddly square controller wobbles the on-screen pointer in circles, and it’s tough to place the pointer on the desired selection even after adjusting the sensitivity. The touchpad in the Audi Q7 (and in other new Lexus models, like the RC coupe) is far easier and more intuitive. A few hard buttons for the Map, Zoom, Main Menu, and Previous Menu help matters, but the controller—not the interface itself, which handily splits the last third of the screen to show alternate information—needs a complete rethink. All the other physical controls are easy to use and find, and the separate display on the instrument cluster can show navigation, audio, and lots of useful trip data.
The new RX is 4.7 inches longer than the previous car with a 1.9-inch longer wheelbase. That allows for generous legroom in all seating positions. While there’s no third row, the second row reclines and can be fitted with power-folding (and heated) benches. Side and front visibility are good, though rear visibility suffers from the tiny window cutout between the C and D pillars. A full-size spare tire is onboard.
There were no fewer than 9 buttons and stalks in our RX 350 that said “Auto.” That should give you an idea of how little work the driver has to do (there are automatic controls for the power-folding mirrors, high beams, headlights, wipers, climate control, air recirculation, parking brake, and the heated and cooled front seats). LED headlights for both low and high beams are standard, and they cast such an incredibly white, clear path that some drivers flashed us the brights.
Once you learn to make fewer mistakes with the infotainment controller, you’ll find the technology behind it quite useful. The navigation system drops breadcrumbs along your route, dotting the map so you can see where you’ve traveled all week. Directions by voice are relatively painless, since the system accepts single-string inputs for addresses. The usual live traffic and weather are available, although additional apps (such as Yelp and OpenTable) require a Lexus-specific app installed on a paired smartphone. It’s not worth the effort. We’d also have preferred the 15-speaker Mark Levinson stereo, but the no-name 9-speaker unit in our car was quite sufficient and included HD Radio, Bluetooth streaming, and two USB ports. One year of telematics, which includes stolen-vehicle alerts, remote unlocking, and vehicle health reports that send maintenance alerts to your email, are included for 1 year.
The touch-free power liftgate, which lets you hold your palm over the L badge like Darth Vader to pop the door, is a $200 gimmick. So is the $150 heated steering wheel, which heats the rim at only the 9 and 3 positions. But for just $635, you can get a suite of driver-assist features that would ordinarily cost a couple thousand in most luxury cars. Adaptive cruise control with lane-keeping assist works wonders in slow-moving traffic, although at higher speeds the RX bounces between lane markers as the cameras and software struggle to keep it on auto-pilot (it will disengage within seconds if you let go of the steering wheel). Still, if you’re into emerging tech, check the box for Lexus Safety System +.
Also included in Lexus Safety System + are forward-collision alert with auto-braking, pedestrian detection, and lane-departure warning. Our car also came with blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert ($500) that even let us set the sensitivity of the radar sensors that detect vehicles in their path. But here’s the big deal: The RX has standard rear-side airbags, a feature that only a couple dozen new cars in the U.S. currently offer. We’re not talking head curtain airbags, but the same thorax-mounted airbags that are mounted in the front seats. They’re not federally mandated, and we applaud Lexus for installing them. While the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has not tested the RX, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety awarded it as a Top Safety Pick +, which means it got the highest scores on all crash tests. The structure of the car feels solid, and the doors are demonstrably heavy. All good things.
A base FWD RX 350 starts at $42,850, while a loaded RX 450h F-Sport AWD can top out at $64,000. Compared to its German competitors, the RX is a bargain and promises to be more reliable than all of them. It’s about par to the Lincoln MKX and Cadillac XT5, both relative newcomers to this field. There’s plenty of technology and space-age style in the new RX, but the winning formula is unchanged. Luxury comes first above all, with performance a distant third or fourth. For Lexus buyers, that’s really all that matters.
Clifford Atiyeh is a reporter and photographer who has spent a good portion of his life driving cars he doesn't own. He is vice president of the New England Motor Press Association and committed to saving both manuals and old Volvos.
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