Lexus RX 350 ups its popular ante, but is it better to drive?
By Jim Bray
Lexus' top selling model has a new set of clothes for 2016, as well as some new toys and capabilities. But has the redesign done anything to make the SUV/crossover a more interesting and/or fun vehicle to drive than before?
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Not really, alas, though it's still a very fine vehicle and will undoubtedly please its owners over the short and long terms. But I remember when the RX was a tad more fun, when I drove the customer shuttle for the local Lexus dealer some 10 or so years ago. I'd do one day a week, to get me out of the home office and get some real human contact, and the shuttle then was an RX 330 Sport model, which even had a decent manual shifting mode. On the other hand, Lexus dealers have a better vehicle to use as a shuttle now - the new RX is roomier and, thanks to its lack of driver involvement, it can undoubtedly be a little more relaxing for the passengers being shuttled by lead-footed drivers.
Of late, Lexus and its parent Toyota have been trying to jazz up their line from a driving point of view, but it appears the company had no plan to make the new RX a twisty road champion, which is completely understandable. "Crafting a new RX is one of the most challenging responsibilities we undertake at Lexus, for the very reason that it has been so well received by our guests over the past 20 years," said Cyril Dimitris, Director of Lexus Canada. "The all-new, 2016 Lexus RX reinvents itself as a more seductive and dynamic version of itself as it simultaneously retains all that our loyal RX guests love about the model."
In other words, they've tried to tweak it to keep it current and competitive, while still dancing with the ones who brung it. Sounds like a good plan and looked upon that way the RX is still a great choice. After all, it isn't envisioned as a Macan competitor and I have a feeling the people who buy the RX are more interested in shuttling family and friends, and stuff (I hauled a 70 inch flat screen in the previous version and it fit in fine) than in tempting radar cops.
This fourth generation of the RX has been given a new look inside and out, and despite the "spindle" grille and the extra creases and exterior gewgaws that seem to be finding their way onto an increasing number of over-styled Japanese vehicles recently, it's still a nice looking vehicle - and recognizable as an RX. If you want a version that's at least a tad more dynamic, you can opt for the F Sport version, which joins the base model and the RX 450h hybrid in the lineup - though you can also get the F Sport treatment on the hybrid for 2016.
New for this year are flush-fitting headlight washers, a panoramic moon roof, solid roof rails, and a redesigned Smart Entry System you can operate from any of the four doors and which also includes classy and handy door handle illumination.
Lexus Canada's sample was the base model, with some options. It features a redesigned power train with increased power and torque - which is always a great thing! - and an eight speed automatic transmission (sans paddles on this trim level, unfortunately, though the "sport" manual setting works well via the shift lever). There's plenty of oomph from the 3.5 litre V6 (Lexus rates it at 295 horses) and the eight speed transmission works well, though it seems a tad reluctant to downshift when pressed. That fits in with the RX's overall demeanour, however.
The sample also wore handsome, 20 inch wheels. Eighteen inchers are standard, as is Dynamic Torque Control AWD.
Inside, the expanded interior is "optimized" for five passengers and sports (oops, "features") a lowered rear floor the company says provides a seating position "comparable to that of the rear-seat passengers in the flagship Lexus LS luxury sedan." New is the optional touchless power tailgate, which can be opened by placing your hand near the Lexus emblem.
The redesigned centre console is big and the sample featured Lexus' darn mouse like "Remote Touch" interface, which I hate nearly as much as the newer trackpad version that's cropping up on some models. It's a good concept in theory, because it lets you navigate the huge, widescreen centre stack-mounted LCD screen, but it's touchy and forces you to spend too much time with your eyes off the road.
Fortunately, the voice recognition has come a long way and you can actually do a lot of the "pointing and clicking" by hollering at the RX - well, by asking it nicely anyway. And if you shut off the prompts it becomes much easier to live with. It did for me, anyway; I probably hollered at the vehicle in frustration less with this RX than with some other current vehicles.
That central LCD is available in two sizes, an eight inch one and the 12.3 inch one the sample wore, which is so large I was tempted to pry it off the dashboard and go snowboarding with it. The other gauges and instruments are designed well and work as they should.
Lexus' sample came with the base audio system, which is still pretty good and probably a better value than the top end Mark Levinson system. The base audio system features 12 speakers including a subwoofer and there are "newly-developed" woofers in the front doors. It also includes Bluetooth capability, USB inputs, and steering wheel-mounted audio controls.
In all, it's a very comfortable place to be, whether you're driving or "passenging." As one would expect from a Lexus.
Driving the RX is pretty straightforward and its Electric Power Steering works well. The suspension -MacPherson struts up front with a trailing arm/double-wishbone setup at the rear - has been tweaked, according to Lexus, to add stability through corners and "better overall handling character than its predecessor."
Lexus' Drive Mode Select system lets you choose between ECO, Normal and the Sport modes. When you pick one, the vehicle's brain tweaks the suspension, engine output, throttle response and the like. Sport is definitely the most interesting if you're into such driving experiences, but it isn't a lot more dynamic than Normal.
Not surprisingly, there's an abundance of airbags and other safety features. Besides the 10 airbags, you get a tire pressure monitoring system, a theft-deterrent system, and engine immobilizer system. The four wheel, power-assisted disc brakes come with a four-sensor, four-channel Antilock System with Electronic Brake force Distribution and Brake Assist. There's also traction control, vehicle stability control; and hill-start assist control.
The 2016 Lexus RX 350 starts at $53,950 Canadian and you can option it up from there via the other trim levels and options. The Luxury Package, which the sample wore, raises to price to $61,550 by adding premium leather seating, voice-activated HDD Navigation with Remote Touch, 10 way power adjustable front seats, a woodgrain and leather wrapped steering wheel, 20-inch aluminum alloy wheels, a rear door sunshade, illuminated LED front door scuff plates, the huge widescreen display, auto-recirculation air conditioning, clearance and backup sensors, L-shaped premium LED headlamps and rear combination lamps.
And it goes up from there. The Executive Package ($68,000) adds a lovely panoramic roof, panoramic view monitor, the hands-free power tailgate, Mark Levinson Audio, wireless device charger, power rear folding seats, and a bunch of safety and driver aids (Heads-Up Display, pre-collision system, adaptive cruise control, Automatic High Beams, and Lane Departure Alert).
There are two F Sport versions, priced at $62,700 and $68,000. The first package adds some styling enhancements, aluminum sport pedals with rubber inserts, paddle shifters, Adaptive Variable Suspension with Sport S+ mode, and Vehicle Dynamic Integrated Management. The other F Sport package adds the panoramic roof and view monitor, hands-free power back door, Mark Levinson Audio, wireless charging and the nannies.
If you want the hybrid, it starts at $68,550 and can be upgraded to about $75,800 for the top line F Sport version. That's serious coin, but at least it should save you some loonies at the gas pump. Of course you can buy a lot of gas for that premium!
However you configure it, you'll end up with a very fine, very classy and very luxurious hauler of folks and stuff and the changes with this new generation will undoubtedly help the RX 350/450h continue its spot at the top of Lexus' sales charts.
Copyright 2016 Jim Bray
Jim Bray is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada. His columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.
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