Car reviews - Lexus - RX - RX350 5-dr wagon range
Dynamics, spacious interior, sophisticated safety and convenience features
Room for improvement
Space-saver tyre, engine lacks refinement and torque
17 Feb 2009
By PHILIP LORD
FIVE more luxury SUVs have entered the market since the first Lexus RX arrived in 2003, and sales volume has almost doubled. In this environment, the latest-generation RX has to be something extraordinary to rise from the pack.
The L-Finesse design language of RX350 looks the goods, generally speaking. It holds enough DNA of the previous generation while at the same time looking crisp and modern.
Some design elements such as the proportion of the headlights, the “wings” at the front bumper sides and the accentuated hip line may not gel with everyone, but on the whole, it is a pretty good effort.
The interior looks fresh and much roomier than the previous model, with light tones adding a bright ambience.
There are no tricky interior flourishes in the new model as there was when the RX330 arrived. Back then, Lexus engineers seemed proud of the RX’s bi-fold damped-action cupholder cover, for example.
The new model’s hollow in the centre console, which makes a unique storage bin, might be the engineers’ latest attempt to show ingenuity.
This is quite an accomplished cabin layout, with simple lever-action drop-down rear seats, lots of easy and clever storage options, such as the hinged door pockets, and the centre console layout.
The dash is well designed, with clear, well positioned instruments.
The real test of any car’s controls is ease of familiarity, and there the new RX has no problems. The heads-up display on the Sports Luxury works well too – unobtrusive and entirely legible.
The new central controller on the centre console works in similar fashion to a computer mouse, dictating movements of a cursor on the centre dash screen.
However, it offers one extra element that makes it especially useful for on-road use: it has feedback through the control so you can ‘feel’ the choices being made.
Also, the control isn’t ‘free-range’ like a computer mouse, so the cursor doesn’t disappear off to the edge of the screen.
Even though it works well overall, some may not like the fact that it limits the selections you make when on the move. But you can resort to using dash buttons to operate some actions anyway.
The active cruise control is simple to use, although the separate wand for cruise control operation and button on the wheel for active cruise engagement is a little bewildering at first. So is the discreet difference in the cruise-control dash icon to indicate that the active element of cruise control is engaged.
At least there is no doubt that active is engaged when approaching another car on the freeway, with the RX slowing by itself.
The side mirrors offer plenty of width and depth for a good rear view, but the rear window seems a relatively small aperture and the D-pillars quite thick. This is becoming the norm, and in any case, the side mirrors and rear-view camera screen will be most drivers’ preferred viewing option for reversing.
The front seats are on the soft side and don’t have tremendous side support, but still appear to be entirely comfortable after the long day’s stint behind the wheel at the launch.
The rear outer seats are also supportive and well shaped, offering ample leg and head room. The middle passenger, as usual, gets the raw deal, with a thinly padded, poorly contoured seat. At least leg and toe room is quite good, with minimal centre tunnel intrusion into foot space.
The cargo area is well squared-off, although the swooping back design limits taller items. The loading lip is quite high and it is even higher when the optional full-size spare and false floor are added at a cost of about $1000. Four tie-down points are fitted, as is a cargo blind, but no cargo barrier.
The 3.5-litre V6 is essentially a carry-over item and feels it. The engine has enough smoothness, power and torque to keep most happy, but it comes up short on long climbs, causing the smooth new six-speed auto to work over time changing gears to get into the power band. The engine is also not as silken as you might expect from Lexus.
Speaking of the automatic transmission, it is a shame that paddle shifters weren’t included in what is now a more sporting sort of RX, although the manual mode is available on the gearshifter itself.
Fuel consumption was not exceptionally good either, with an average of about 12.5L/100km showing after around 250km of primarily open-road driving, a fair way off the claimed average of 10.8L/100km.
The new Lexus excels in dynamics compared with its predecessor. While no one would ever describe this suspension as firm or sporty, it is not the insipid, uninspiring vehicle to drive on a demanding, twisting ribbon of road that the previous model was.
This new RX really does handle. It has one of the most competent, benign luxury SUV chassis this side of a BMW X5. While not on par with the X5, the RX is far more precise in its steering than before, the chassis will point into a corner with almost eagerness and the body control in extremis is good.
Despite the far more focussed handling, ride quality remains good.
The stability control system is also improved, with the old system’s traits of breathing down your neck and cutting power or applying brakes at the merest sniff of trouble banished from the new car. You can now switch off the traction control (for when sand driving, for example) and partially switch off the stability control, although if the car really begins to drift it will still cut in, albeit quite discreetly compared with the old model.
The new RX350 is a clear step forward in design, sophistication of features and dynamics. While the engine’s performance and economy might not be as good as one would hope, this is still the best RX yet and one that will offer distinct appeal to buyers in the luxury segment.
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