Lexus downsizes its RX 350's power and upsides its annoyances
By Jim Bray
Lexus' top-selling mid-size SUV has received a new set of clothes, a new engine, and new interfaces for its current generation. I only wish I could say they're all good things.
I've always liked the RX 350 and the 300 and 330 that preceded it. It's luxurious, comfortable and will probably outlast its owners. But it has never been particularly fun or sporty, despite some versions wearing Lexus' "F Sport" badging that's usually more extra trim and toys than extra oomph and enjoyment.
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In fact, in about the mid-2000's I drove a RX 330 while I was working part time as a Lexus customer shuttle driver, and I liked it a lot. It had an automatic transmission that featured a good manual mode and, for sitting in eight hours a day, you couldn't really beat it.
That was then.
Lexus still uses the 350 designation, which once meant it came with the company's really nice, really smooth and really torquey 3.5 litre V6. The mad stampede to save Parent Earth, however, regardless or whether or not it's really warranted, is causing many, if not most, carmakers to downsize their engines, with turbo fours displacing (no pun intended – well, not much of one, anyway) the V6's of the world.
And that's the case here.
So, this fifth generation RX now comes with a 2.4 litre four-cylinder turbo, which actually makes 20 fewer horsepower (275) than the 3.5-liter V6 (295 horsepower) that preceded it. I loved that old engine. The new one, meh.
Oh, there's enough power on tap, but there's also turbo lag now that was never there before, and that helps make the new RX seem a tad more reluctant to take off than it did before. Once you're going it's fine, though. But surely the folks at corporate giant Toyota/Lexus could have figured out a way to get rid of the lag.
Or do they think their customers either won't notice or won't care? I don't know, but I "wont" to.
The 2023 RX is actually available with three powertrains. Lexus Canada's sample "Executive Package" has the standard gasoline-only setup of 275/317 power/torque, but you can get the RX 350h AWD as well, which is a "fourth-generation self-charging hybrid electric system based on the industry-leading Lexus Hybrid Drive technology." It uses a 2.5 litre four-cylinder engine and, alas, an electronically controlled continuously variable transmission. That combination generates 246 net system horsepower and up to 233 lb-ft of torque, according to Lexus.
The third version is the RX 500h AWD – an all-new RX model – and it uses a new hybrid electric system that delivers "366 net system horsepower and 406 lb-ft of torque". It achieves that via a 2.4-litre turbo engine, a six-speed automatic transmission, inverter and an electric motor, plus "an eAxle rear unit that integrates a high output electric motor, inverter and reduction gearbox." I haven't driven either, so shouldn't mouth off about them too much.
I do find it interesting that the 500h still uses a six-speed automatic while the 350 gets an eight speed. I generally don't like all these additional gears because they cause so much hunting and pecking by the transmission as it seeks to balance Gaia with gaiety. I have to admit, though, the eight-speed works very well; just don't put much stock in its lazy manual mode. Sure, there are paddles, but I've driven a lot better ones.
This RX is a lot different from its older selves in other ways, too. First off, it rides on a new platform, which Toyota/Lexus calls the "Global Architecture-K". It's claimed to be lighter than the old structure. The wheelbase is also a tad longer and a lower centre of gravity is also claimed – a good thing: the lower it sits the better it can, though not necessarily will, handle).
They've also changed that silly "spindle" grille that has ruined the front end of Lexi for years now. The new one isn't a lot better, though. Lexus' sample's didn't look as luxurious as the old spindly version, but it also looks even more like a cow catcher than before. Maybe this is so you can mow down pedestrians with better abandon.
One thing that's good is that Lexus has finally dumped that horrid trackpad interface for the stuff that's on the centre stack-topping LCD screen. Alas, while Lexus says "the driver will delight in control surfaces tuned to enable a deeper and more intuitive connection with the RX," I hate the new touchscreen interface nearly as much. It emulates a smart device in that you can touch and scroll your way through various menu choices, but in practice it's nearly as dangerous to use while driving as the trackpad was.
There's also an annoying and concerning "Hey Lexus" voice control thing that makes the system leap to your attention, offer help and then, usually, say something comparable to "huh?" when it doesn't understand you. Oh, I could get it to change the temperature or tune in a particular radio station, but get much more involved that that and it throws up its little virtual hands in frustration.
And it isn't as if I have an accent that's difficult to understand (well, unless you're my wife…); I've managed to parlay my voice and accent into decades of radio work where you have to be understood clearly if you want to get paid. I've done CBC work as well…
What's worse is that this means the damn vehicle listens to everything that's being said inside the car. It's none of its business! I mean, I'm not particularly paranoid but given the state of the world today do we need any more potential Big Brothers?
Still, the seats are great, the Mark Levinson audio system on this trim level really rocks and everything works as it should, my interface angst notwithstanding. This means owners should be able to drive all day comfortably and arrive fresh as a daisy (I once saw a daisy that was so fresh, I had to slap it!). Well, a little more interface angst, but kind of minor: The RX would add radio presets in the opposite order that I like – and that I can save easily in most other vehicles – so I had to train myself to use the new interface.
Why do I need to be retrained to use the car when it used to be you could just get in and go? Seems to me to be change for change's sake (and marketing strategies' sake). Even worse, the new interfaces require more time with your eyes off the road than in much of the competition – though nearly all the carmakers I've sampled over the last couple of years seem to be falling all over themselves to screw up theirs as well.
Driving the RX brings to mind the word "soft". It floats rather than dances, and even if you engage the sport mode (you can program this by wrestling the centre stack's LCD to the ground) it's only a little less soft. Still, I have a feeling Lexus knows its customers and also knows I ain't one of them (though if they'd make it at least a tad more "Macan-like" I might consider it if I were shopping, since I have such respect for Toyota/Lexus quality).
The RX' door handles are electronic now, which is kind of neat but not necessarily any better. One issue I had was that when I locked it from the outside, I couldn't really tell if it was locked or not – and if I put my hand on the door handle to check, it would unlock again. I got around this by programming the side mirrors to fold in when the doors locked, so I could see that it was working as it should, and that worked great.
Naturally, you also get all the usually safety nannies and aides and they just keep getting more annoying, at least to this old fart. And now there's a new one! Hooray!
Yep, you know that "rear cross traffic alert" of which I've been singing the praises recently? It's a wonderful feature, especially in parking lots, that lets you know if a vehicle, pedestrian, or gnome, is approaching your vehicle's rear end and it's one of the only such "safety features" I really like.
Now, Lexus and Toyota have upped the ante so it does the same thing with the front of the vehicle – you know, the area in front of you that you can see by merely looking out of the windows? This is stupid, extremely annoying (since it's going off all the time!), and completely unnecessary unless you're blind. And how many blind drivers are there?
Okay, belay that last question. Judging by the quality of drivers these days there very well could be many of them who are, if not blind, totally oblivious to the world around them. But should we be pandering to them or encouraging them to take public transit?
The 2023 Lexus RX starts at $58,650 for the Premium trim level. From there, there's a nearly dizzying number of model choices. The sample Executive trim level starts at $75,650 and the top line RX 500h F SPORT Performance 3 starts at $85,600.
Okay, despite my whining, I can't imagine the new Lexus RX 350 not continuing to be Lexus' top seller. It's a fine vehicle overall, with beautiful build quality, and it will undoubtedly serve its clientele extremely well.
Just include me out.
Copyright 2023 Jim Bray