PORTLAND, OR – With the third-generation ’09 Lexus RX, the brand delivered a model similar to the second-generation CUV it replaced.
Styling barely was changed, as brand executives said owners liked their RX just the way it was.
That if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it attitude extended beneath the sheet metal, where engineers firmed up the suspension and steering just a smidge.
Fast forward more than six years and the launch of the fourth-generation RX is upon us.
But now Lexus executives, prodded by Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda to make vehicles more exciting across the board, are singing a different tune.
Yes, the new ’16 RX launching in the U.S. in November once and for all is trying to shake its image as a jellybean-shaped soft-roader loved by upper-middle-class soccer moms.
To gain a little bit of the performance cred enjoyed by the German CUVs (Audi Q5, BMW X5 and Mercedes M-Class), Lexus says it has imbued the new RX with sportier tuning, especially for its F Sport trim level.
And in a break from design tradition, the RX is dressed up with more angles than an episode of 48 Hours.
However, excluding design, after driving three new ’16 RXs here we find the midsize CUV to be a familiar package, not nearly the performance monster brand managers want you to believe it is.
But that’s not a bad thing.
The RX is a more well-rounded CUV than those offered by German competitors erring toward athleticism rather than comfort. It also offers more progressive looks than the German CUVs treading water on design.
Like last year’s new NX compact CUV, the RX has some athleticism, but overall is sport lite.
Its ride still is like driving on air, although the near-perfect roads of Portlandia don’t challenge our test vehicles’ suspensions.
When summoning more torque, either by flooring the accelerator or downshifting via paddles or the shift lever, the RX delivers more oomph gently so as not to scare you. We find this to be true no matter if we are behind the wheel of F Sport or non-F Sport RXs, and even if the drive-mode selector in the former models is dialed into Sport+ mode, which is supposed to bring about more responsive acceleration at intermediate throttle positions.
The RX keeps its MacPherson-strut front and double-wishbone rear suspension setup, but up front adds a larger-diameter, hollow front stabilizer bar and now has lower coil-spring rates. In the rear, the lower No.1 arm-bushing rubber is hardened and adds an internal ring to increase the spring rate.
An adaptive variable suspension standard on F Sport grades controls shock-absorber damping force at all wheels and controls damping force at varying speeds, promising stability at higher-speed driving.
The RX is equipped with Toyota’s newest V-6, the 2GR-FKS. Debuting this month in the new Toyota Tacoma pickup and soon in the refreshed Lexus GS sedan, the 3.5L engine uses the Japanese automaker’s D-4S port- and direct-injection system in combination with new intelligent variable valve timing with a wider range of intake-cam control, able to switch between Otto and Atkinson combustion cycles.
The new V-6 makes 295 hp, up from 270 hp in the ’15 RX 350 3.5L, but still below the BMW X5 3.0L I-6’s peak of 300 hp.
Furthering our torque gripes, while total torque increases vs. the outgoing V-6, the peak remains at a relatively high 4,700 rpm. Again, BMW wins, with the I-6 boasting more torque, as soon as 1,200 rpm.
As in the Tacoma, the engine is smooth and competent, but doesn’t project much personality. Excessive engine noise that we found in the pickup is nonexistent in the predictably vault-silent RX, with its scads of insulating materials to quell noise, vibration and harshness.
The standard transmission for the non-hybrid RX is an 8-speed automatic, formerly only on the F Sport in the outgoing third generation. Outgoing base RX 350s came with a 6AT.
The 8-speed’s shifts come quickly and stealthily, praise considering many of today’s advanced automatics are obvious gear hunters.
RX Hybrid Horsepower Tops 300
The RX 450h pairs Toyota’s 259-hp 2GR-FXS 3.5L V-6 to a hybrid e-CVT and Toyota’s standard two motor-generators, for a total 308 hp, up from 295 hp in the ’15.
The outgoing RX 450h’s nickel-metal-hydride battery pack is carried over but has a more compact shape. The main body is lowered 1 in. (26 mm), allowing for thicker padding on rear seats.
Color us disappointed the EV mode in the RX gives what the EV mode in the ’10 Prius gave in 2009: roughly 20 miles (32 km) of range at speeds below 25 mph (40 km/h). And that only is possible if the battery is sufficiently charged. Oh well. Likely the forthcoming fourth-generation Prius will see a longer, more robust EV mode that will filter down to the 450h.
Both front-wheel drive and all-wheel drive RX hybrids now should average 30 mpg (7.8 L/100 km). The ’15 AWD RX 450h is rated at 29 mpg (8.1 L/100 km) combined.
Combined fuel economy for non-hybrid models is estimated by Lexus to increase 2 mpg (0.9 km/L) over ’15.
In real-world driving, our RX 450h F Sport earns 26 mpg (9.0 L/100 km). As we returned 33 mpg (7.1 L/100 km) in an ’09 RX 450h we are underwhelmed by that number, but our twisty, mountainous route is a far cry from the gently rolling hills of Sonoma wine country, the location of the ’10 RX’s media preview.
The RX 350 F Sport does better than the hybrid, averaging 27 mpg (8.7 L/100 km) over flatter terrain.
Flogging a non-hybrid, non-F Sport RX 350 up steep hills results in just 16 mpg (14.7 L/100 km).
Attractive Inside and Out
The X5, Q5 and M-Class are handsome vehicles, but haven’t changed much over the years.
So Lexus deserves kudos for taking a risk, especially with a vehicle that accounts for a third of its annual U.S. volume.
If you don’t like the RX’s new look you can thank Akio Toyoda, who deemed a supposedly finished exterior design not extreme enough and sent the vehicle’s stylists back to the drawing board.
That commitment to appearance pays off. There’s nary a surface without something going on. Some may call it overwrought, but the look melds.
We love the floating C-pillar, although Nissan did it first on the Murano.
As with most new vehicles, Lexus says the ’16 RX is stronger and more rigid than the generation it replaces, thanks to high-strength steels, aluminum bits (hood and rear door) and abundant laser welds and structural adhesives.
However, while it has more lighter-weight materials, the new RX is not lighter. Curb weights still rise from ’15, 40-80 lbs. (18-36 kg) due to added content.
The car’s interior lives up to the promise of the exterior.
Interesting new colors and materials, including lovely Rioja Red leather for the F Sport and a unique laser-etched aluminum and sapele wood trim, are winning touches.
Prompting the question how much bigger can they get, there’s an available 12.3-in.- (31-cm)-wide display screen, operated with a tweaked version of Lexus’ remote-touch controller.
Seating comfort is high in both front and back seats, although the optional, giant, 11.6-in. (29-cm) rear-seat entertainment screens, affixed to the back of the front seats, cause claustrophobia. Fortunately they tilt back to open up breathing room.
Another cabin criticism is Lexus-typical heavy lacquer on some wood trims, at odds with industry trends toward open-pore veneers. Let this wood breathe!
We also struggle to get the voice-recognition system to understand our commands, but sadly that’s not exactly an atypical experience in today’s vehicles.
For all its advanced technology, including a safety system that warns you to pull over when it detects you’re sleepy, most amusing is a decidedly low-tech item: a console-mounted cupholder with a movable floor. Pushing down on it lowers the floor, keeping tall cups from wobbling. A button within the cupholder raises it. Genius.
Pricing hasn’t been released, but Lexus officials indicate the midsize luxury CUV will continue to begin “well under” $45,000.
The ’15 RX starts at $40,970 for a FWD 350 and hits $50,220 for an ultra-luxe “Crafted Line” RX F Sport.
While it could stand a bit more sport, we say the Lexus RX still is the midsize luxury CUV to beat.
'16 Lexus RX 350 F Sport AWD Specifications
|Vehicle type||4-door, all-wheel-drive CUV|
|Engine||3.5L DOHC all-aluminum V-6 with VVT-iW, D4-S|
|Power (SAE net)||295 hp @ 6,300 rpm|
|Torque||267 lb.-ft. (362 Nm) @ 4,700 rpm|
|Bore x stroke (mm)||94 x 83|
|Wheelbase||109.8 ins. (2,789 mm)|
|Overall length||192.5 ins. (4,890 mm)|
|Overall width||74.6 ins. (1,895 mm)|
|Overall height||67.7 ins. (1,720 mm)|
|Curb weight||4,387 lbs. (1,990 kg)|
|Base price||To be announced|
|Fuel economy||19/26 mpg (12.4-9.0 L/100 km) city/highway|
|Competition||Acura MDX, Audi Q5, BMW X5, Cadillac SRX, Infiniti QX70, Land Rover Evoque, Mercedes M-Class, Porsche Cayenne, Volvo XC90|
|Stylish looks||Could be a bit much for some|
|Interior beauty||Enough with the glossy wood|
|Sportier handling||Not by much|