2011 Lexus RX350 review

The RX gave us the impression of a sporty sedan that was scrunched up to the crossover size.
The RX gave us the impression of a sporty sedan that was scrunched up to the crossover size.
The RX gave us the impression of a sporty sedan that was scrunched up to the crossover size.

Highs

  • Punchy engine and AWD
  • Sharp looking
  • Swank interior

Lows

  • Heavy handling
  • Big price tag
  • Despite nice looks, fails to stand out

At a time when every other car on the road seems to be cut from the same cloth, the Lexus RX350 stands out as unique and even a bit daring. This sporty crossover reveals its character the more you drive, and some of the features might even go unnoticed. But for the most part, the RX350 offers a good mix of technical features, surprising perks, and a fun and spirited drive.

Priced at $52,774 for the well-equipped model we tested, the RX350 is still a hair less than the premium version of the 2012 Cadillac SRX we just reviewed. Both cars have similar engine sizes. The RX350 is powered by a 3.5-liter V6 with 275-horsepower. On paper, it is less capable than the SRX. In practice, the RX has a flair around corners and extra punch that served us well on side-streets and highways.

2011-Lexus-RX350-rear

Interestingly enough, the exterior styling matches this flair. The RX has a curvy crossover profile that is a bit less bubble-shaped than the typical Infiniti, but not quite as elongated as the Buick Enclave. Lexus does not offer a third-row seat option on the RX, and we found this crossover to work best with four people, although it can seat five. There just isn’t enough room in the cab and in the rear hatch if you are transporting more than four people and a typical assortment of luggage. On a longer drive with five people and no luggage, things were not exactly tight, but they were not spacious either.

The RX350 gives the crossover segment a good marquee selling point though: The vehicle has zip around corners, and that made it a blast, considering this is not a sports sedan. We find Toyota and Lexus vehicles to be punchy just by rule anyway. Cornering ability, while not assisted by any gee-whiz stabilizing features like you will find on an Audi A8, still felt smooth and sure. The SRX just felt heavier around corners, even if it does have a bigger engine and some of those ride-smoothing features.

2011-Lexus-RX350-left-side

One oddity worth mentioning, though, is that the shifter for the RX350 is on the dash, just below the radio controls. This doesn’t cause any confusion and it works fine, but it’s different form most cars and feels a bit odd at first. A minor complaint: You have to reach a bit farther to shift.

At 24 MPG for highway driving, the RX350 is not going to save the planet exactly, but the mileage is still respectable given the V6 engine and sporty drive. The all-wheel drive felt secure on the road. There’s even a “snow” setting that pays more attention to tire slippage on icy pavement.

Interior amenities

Where we started noticing some differences between standard crossover models and the Lexus RX350 is in the interior. Lexus has a way of offering some surprises, as they did on the GX460, that make you feel like you are getting a bit more for the buck. At a base price of just over $39,000, that’s important.

For starters, the interior trim is not just leather – it’s a fine-grade leather that looks a step above other vehicles we’ve tested lately. The seats are downright confortable, even though, for some reason, the RX felt a bit stiff on the back after a long drive. There’s a 12-speaker stereo system on the model we tested that added $610 to the price. The luxury interior package, which included the leather seats, added $4,900. Oh, and a two-screen rear entertainment system with navigation and other perks added another $5,005. Ouch, spendy. What impressed us were the subtleties. For example, on the side doors, there’s a pouch that opens wider so you can fit more magazines or newspapers in without having to cram them. To the left of the steering wheel, you’ll find a pop-down cup holder (we’ve never seen that before).

2011-Lexus-RX350-steering-wheel

When you put the RX350 into reverse, a side-mirror camera shows up on the LCD screen. You can punch an option to have this camera appear every time you back up, and there’s even a wide-angle view. (For comparison, a similar luxury feature is found on the 2012 Infiniti QX56, which costs $75,000.)

Like many Lexus models, there are pop-up sprayers to wash off the headlamps. Predictably, with the premium upgrades, there are adaptive headlights that change focus on the road as you turn. The RX350 we drove had adaptive cruise control as well, something missing from the SRX.

Offering rear entertainment is one thing, but not every make and model matches the superior quality of the RX350. The included headsets, for example, worked without any fidgeting with a wireless connection. They fit comfortably and secure, and sounded rich and distinct for the movie Thor.

2011-Lexus-RX350-first-aid-kit

Here’s an option you don’t see often: In the rear compartment, there’s a first aid kit mounted to the side panel. When you see that, and realize what it is, you understand why the Lexus brand even exists. (Part of the debate has to do with the fact that the engine seems remarkably similar to some Toyota models.)

Conclusion

There’s something to be said for overall impressions. We felt the Cadillac SRX was a heavier car that did not feel as sporty around corners, and we were perplexed by the lack of high-tech features. We’re not a big fan of the underpowered Chevy Equinox, so when the SRX reminded us of that model, things started going downhill, even if the SRX has a bigger engine than the RX350. The one glaring difference, though, is that the SRX does have a much more expansive moonroof. Yet, the RX gave us the impression of a sporty sedan that was scrunched up to the crossover size. There are several unique features that make the luxury price seem more palatable, and we were impressed with the styling inside and out.

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