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Car reviews - Lexus - RX - RX350 Sport Luxury 5-dr wagon

Our Opinion

We like
First-class quality, refinement and value, comfortable seats, high-tech gadgets, versatile cabin, improved driving habits over horrid old RX
Room for improvement
Unsettled ride, dull steering feel, heavy-handed styling

13 Aug 2009

SOMETIMES people seem to look a little like their cars. Case in point is the Lexus RX.

Words such as bold, brash and bling spring to mind when talking about some of the moneyed and manicured set that have taken this luxury SUV to their collective (and corrected) bosom, and the same is true for the RX too.

Southern California is teeming with this model.

But is the buxom Lexus just a silicon-enhanced fake tan salon on wheels, or the real deal?

We have to admit to disliking the previous (second-generation) model, despite its slick styling and lush interior, because we love driving, and from behind the wheel the old RX was more Beverly Hills Chihuahua than fit Venice Beach volley-baller.

Feel-free steering combined with a roly-poly attitude and a distinct lack of dynamic finesse did nothing to enamour us to this BMW X5 challenger, particularly as the closely related first-generation Toyota Kluger was a much more resolved vehicle to drive.

Yet, believe it or not, the original RX – the Camry-derived Toyota Harrier from 1998 that Lexus never bothered to bring into Australia – virtually invented the luxury crossover segment, at a time when most SUVs were lardy, lumbering trucks. Meanwhile, the X5 was still a year away.

And while the second-generation version released here in 2003 in RX330 guise boasted a novel powered tailgate, the real innovation arrived with the RX400h from October 2006, adopting its pioneering Toyota Prius cousin’s parallel hybrid petrol electric drivetrain principles.

And to this day there are no other hybrid SUVs or crossovers on sale in Australia ...

But that’s another story, because what we have here is the virtually all-new, third-generation, RX350 – the model that most buyers will choose.

Longer, wider and lower than before (wheelbase, front track and rear track increase by 25mm, 55mm and 65mm respectively, while the 180mm ground clearance is actually down 10mm), it features a conventional V6 petrol powerplant plundered more or less from the vast Toyota parts bin.

If you drive an Aurion, RAV4, up-spec Tarago or even the new Lotus Evora, you will find a related engine under your bonnet.

A 3.5-litre unit, it transmits torque to the front wheels until slippage is detected. Then, up to 50 per cent of it is instantly redirected rearwards via a new part-time four-wheel drive system employing an electromagnetic coupling in the rear differential housing.

Overseeing all this is a six-speed automatic gearbox similar to the slick item found in the Aurion, replacing the old five-speeder in the previous RX350.

Despite the ‘T’ brand connection, engine and gearbox live up to Lexus’ lofty standards, providing a smooth and steady stream of power immediately from take-off and right throughout the rev range.

Prod the nicely modulated accelerator pedal and the RX350 overcomes its 2.1-tonne mass to surge forwards swiftly and without fuss.

Assisted ably by the quiet but quick-witted transmission, it won’t lunge forward with fury, and a determined right foot is required if you need to overtake with even a light load on board, but the performance on offer is more than sufficient for most daily circumstances, and smothered in the syrupy mechanical symphony one would associate with a Lexus drivetrain.

Fuel consumption of between 14 and 15L/100km is not unexpected for a hefty SUV (weight has risen by 120kg over the old RX), unless you continuously stoke the accelerator to win the traffic-light sprint races. Doing that will see your figures soar into the high-17s.

Stopping the Lexus is an uprated set of disc brakes with a progressive pedal feel and an instant, measured response.

No complaints here, then.

Further bouquets are given for the almost complete lack of unwanted mechanical noise and vibration. We found ourselves asking just how much of the mid-sized Camry-platform derived DNA (everything from the current-generation Kluger II model and Lexus ES sedan to the intriguing US-built Toyota Venza crossover) has made the transition to RX.

“But is the steering as mushy and dead as the old model’s?” we hear you cry in anticipation.

“Light and remote” is our response, even if we are relieved that the looseness and bagginess of the bygone model has been banished for a far tauter and responsive handler.

So don’t lose any sleep just now, BMW, because the RX is again slanted towards stupendous ease and comfort, since the steering – now an electric item instead of the previous hydraulic set-up – still manages to obliterate any feedback, good or bad.

The upshot of this lack of steering feel means you cannot place it with the confidence or satisfaction of, say, a Ford Territory – let alone any of the German marques’ offerings.

And there’s no point hurrying the car through tighter bends either, because all it does is feel tiresomely heavy and ponderous, if not wayward.

Indeed, driving on wet surfaces, the alphabet soup of electronic driving aids (ESP, ABS, traction control), in conjunction with the fast-acting 4WD system, succeed in keeping the Lexus right on course. They also quell any instability caused by sudden sideways movements, so you do feel as safe as (non-American) houses driving this thing.

But you won’t be quite as comfortable as you might expect from a comfort-biased luxury SUV.

The ride is great on smooth roads, but stray on the sort of blacktop that blights many Australian cities and the result is a fidgety feel.

It seems that a lack of vertical suspension travel over even average sized speed humps compounds this, with the rear wheels feeling like they have hit their bump stops too soon during all but the slowest of speeds. The rubber band like 255/35 R19 Bridgestone tyres probably don’t help here either.

However, they are silent from inside the opulent cabin.

Open the door – no need to touch anything thanks to the remote keyless entry system fitted to the top-line Sports Luxury tested here – and the lavish sight, smell and feel of everything corresponds with what you would expect from a Lexus.

Space is no problem in this medium-to-large sized SUV, and nor are the perforated leather seats anything less than sumptuous. They’re heated and cooled in the front, and arrange electrically (with memory buttons to match), so getting comfy is both quick and easy.

It comes as no surprise that Lexus seems to have perfected build and material quality, but these days there is nothing to criticise regarding the driving position, climate control performance or general ergonomics either.

Rather oddly, the designers have attempted to instil a bit of character by creating a series of ‘slashes’ to delineate the fascia from the large glovebox, making for a distinctive if slightly messy look. It didn’t work on the first-generation Ford Focus, and it looks equally naff here too. But the basics – including the astoundingly clear instrumentation – are up to the brand’s sky-high standards.

The ‘cockpit’ has a cosy feel due to a tall centre console that bisects the front seats. There’s a lower-level section with a shallow storage tray of dubious merit. It’s good for housing a loaf of sliced bread, actually.

The upper part of the console houses items you expect (a padded armrest that lifts to reveal a massive storage bin, a pair of lidded cupholders, seat-temperature controls ranging from warm to singe, and of course the gear lever) and something you might not – a BMW iDrive-style mouse for the large screen recessed in the upper section of the dashboard.

Snappily dubbed ‘Lexus Remote Touch’ it is like a giant games console toggle switch complete with thumb-operated ‘Enter’ buttons on either side of the padded palm rest, behind a trio of fingertip controls for various menu functions. Aided by a satisfying (and adjustable) ‘bong’ sound it feels great and works a treat.

That screen doubles up as a crystal-clear camera that covers the front and sides of the car as well as the rear. It helps to overcome better than in most modern cars the myriad blind spots created by today’s crash-test-strengthened thick pillars, along with the style-driven high waistlines and shallow rear screens. Without these the Lexus would be a difficult car to park into tight spaces accurately.

Basic audio and temperature activation duties are taken care of by a series of knobs and buttons on the middle centre console, as well audio switches on the steering wheel spokes, which also house telephony and voice-control functions, as well as the trip computer options.

However, the RX’s occupants must take their eyes off the road and delve into the various menu sub screens to operate the satellite navigation, Bluetooth phone connection and vehicle set-up functions, or to change or rearrange the climate and audio settings, and this can get complicated and time consuming.

The RX needs a row of easily accessed single-step ‘favourites’ buttons, similar to those in recent BMWs.

A park brake from the 21st century would also be appreciated, since Lexus persists with the horrible foot pedal arrangement. Clumsy to use and agricultural in feel, this tractor throwback is wildly at odds with the high-tech veneer that permeates the rest of the RX’s interior.

Speaking of which, stepping into the rear passenger compartment reveals a pair of part-reclining and sliding outboard bucket seats of reasonable comfort, and a fixed though also-partly reclining hard and narrow middle pew that’s best left for occasional travellers and skinny kids. All knees can be cooled via a pair of low-set vent outlets.

It’s far better to lower the rear centre armrest to access another lidded cupholder compartment as well as a storage unit of tantalisingly voluptuous design.

Door bins with a bottle indentation and a duo of small map pockets complete the rear quarters’ odds and ends receptacles, except for the mobile phone holders fixed into the door pulls, highlighting precisely how well Lexus knows its market.

A quartet of cantilevered overhead grab handles are provided, while the Audi-style front door pockets that can be pulled out a little to access stuff inside is another nice touch.

Touch is all you do to raise the powered tailgate, revealing a high load area (above either a temporary or full-sized spare – the choice is yours when you order the RX) of quite sufficient width and length. The latter can be increased by pulling a lever without having to leave the rear of the vehicle, but the fiddly luggage cover extensions that clip onto the rear seat headrests are a pain to use.

There are enough gadgets in this car to keep you busy for hours, beautifully highlighting the value-for-money strategy that Lexus is employing for the RX.

Besides the aforementioned safety and convenience features, the Sport Luxury series includes automatic radar cruise control (that slows you down a little but does not stop the car and get it going again like some of the better European systems do), a powered tailgate, electrically adjustable steering wheel column, sunroof, high-end stereo, 10 airbags, head-up display for the satellite navigation and speed readout, and pre-collision system that prepares the seatbelts and other safety-related items for a collision.

These often cost more – and a whole lot more money at times – in rival luxury SUVs of this size. Yet all sneak in under $100,000 in the flagship RX350.

Combined with improved safety and refinement advances over the old model, these help make the latest Lexus an appealing luxury SUV proposition.

Plus, despite having similar appearances, the newcomer is much, much better than the tired old version, finally losing the superficial veneer that proved so galling to people who love to drive.

But the apple has not fallen too far from the tree, so to speak, because even a brief squirt around a few blocks will reveal that comfort and opulence, rather than satisfying dynamic capabilities, ranked highest in the company’s list of priorities for the RX 350.

That busy ride left us scratching our heads though, until we remembered once again that the Lexus is designed just the way American consumers – driving on their smooth flat roads – like it most.

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