First drive: 2016 Lexus RX350 and RX450h

New Lexus RX flirts with audacity, but won’t close the deal

Evolutionary improvements are sure to keep the RX as Lexus’ biggest seller. If you liked your last RX, you will probably love this one.

Editor’s Note: While we were able to spend time with both the standard and hybrid models, the stats and pictures shown are of the RX350

The RX crossover line is Lexus’ biggest selling model – the bread and butter vehicle for Japan’s touchstone luxury automaker. So it’s absolutely critical that they keep this market-leading suburban family hauler right in the sweet spot that its customers have come to expect, but it’s also true that Lexus often plays too safe. The challenge laid before Chief Engineer Takayuki Katsuda was to take the most important vehicle that Lexus builds and make a new crossover that is at once fresh and exciting and still safely within the bounds of the conservative luxury segment.

The result is a new line of RX crossovers that is evolutionary instead of revolutionary, offers a full menu of the latest technology features, and is different enough to be visually distinct without offending the sensibilities of traditional Lexus buyers.

From egg shaped to chiseled body

The Lexus RX line was launched in 1997 as an unremarkable crossover. Basically egg-shaped, the RX looked pretty much the same as every other upper-end crossover on the market, and the styling didn’t change much over the years. As the market segment leader, why mess with success? But in recent years, the market has exploded with competitors, meaning something had to change.

The facelift that the RX line received in 2010 showed the way: More defined cut-lines and a wasp-waisted spindle grille started the process, and with the new 2016 model, the transformation is complete.

“I gave maximum freedom to the designers,” Katsuda said before we headed out to see the product.

The result is still an egg-shaped crossover, but with several bold elements that make the new RX far sportier than any previous edition. The first thing you’ll notice is the floating roof design, set off by a black band that flows back from the side windows to connect with the rear window. Combined with a sharply angled windshield, the effect suggests speed. It looks like someone gave the designers maximum freedom – yet still within the basic rules of the crossover world.

Lexus has not yet announced pricing for the new 2016 RX line, but they did say to expect the base price to come in under $45,000.

The rakishness of the roofline is mirrored in the deeply sculpted cut-lines in the body. No more bland slab-sided curves and smooth transitions. This new design features sharp lines and aggressive looks more in keeping with a Mazda or Nissan. The overall effect is enough that you won’t immediately recognize the new RX as a Lexus, and it will take a second or even third look to realize that this is the same model you’ve seen for the last 18 years.

However, when it came time to create the color palette, Lexus gave buyers a selection of two whites, two blacks, silver, gray, brown, beige, red, and blue. With only two actual colors in the whole lineup, Lexus is following the monochrome trend that has gripped the entire automotive industry. So there’s a limit to how much the new RX will stand out from the crowd.

A luxury SUV trough and through

Once you get in the new 2016 Lexus RX, you’re surrounded by familiar Lexus appointments, and that’s a good thing. People come to Lexus for a rock-solid luxury car, and that’s what you get. The new RX is a little bigger outside, but feels substantially larger inside, especially around the front seats. The cabin is spacious with plenty of light and air, even though it looks low and aggressive from the outside.

2016 Lexus RX 350


The seats are comfortable, and the ride is whisper-quiet. Katsuda mentioned that extra work had gone into noise reduction, and coming from Lexus that means an all-out effort. The optional Mark Levinson sound system sounds better than an expensive home stereo, and the standard Lexus Display Audio is adequate for most purposes. You’ll get a CD player, HD radio, satellite radio, Bluetooth, a micro SD card slot, aux and USB ports.

On the dash, the RX offers several screens to feed you information and entertainment. You get the 12.3-inch main display, a small display between the speedometer and tachometer, and an optional color Heads-Up Display that is projected onto the windshield. The HUD can show you current speed and the speed limit, adaptive cruise control information, navigation instructions, a compass, tachometer display, and an eco-drive indicator. There are also optional rear-seat screens to keep your kids occupied with games or videos.

To manage all that display space, there’s a joystick controller, a touchscreen, actual stereo knobs, a climate control center, and more buttons on the steering wheel than you can find in a Formula One car. Figuring out how to change the Heads-Up Display required pulling over and exploring menus for a while. Overall, the technology story in the new RX is simple – if you want it, you can get it.

Luxury on the go

Katsuda and his team have spent countless hours working on the driving dynamics for the RX, and he had a lot to say about the all-new platform and why it delivers a better experience than the outgoing model. He’s right – all that work paid off handsomely and the new RX is a much better drive than the outgoing model. The whole point of a crossover is to give you a more car-like driving experience than a truck-based SUV, but many crossovers give you the driving experience of a Minivan. The new Lexus is tighter, more responsive, and sure-footed – especially if you spend some more money and get yourself an RX equipped with confident all-wheel drive and the brisk F Sport suspension package.

There are two basic models that make up the new RX line. At the basic end you have the RX350 with front-wheel-drive. In that car you get the 3.5-liter V6 rated at 295 horsepower and 267 pound-feet of torque mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission. You can add all-wheel-drive to the RX350 and you get a smart system that varies from economical ,100-percent front-drive to 50:50 front-and-rear based on traction conditions.

The RX450h hybrid model starts with the same V6 engine, but adds an electric motor and continuously variable transmission in the front-wheel-drive configuration, then adds an additional electric motor to drive the rear wheels if you select all-wheel-drive. Combined power on all the drive units in the RX450h yields 308 horsepower and 247 pound-feet of torque.

Of the two models, I found the hybrid to offer the better driving experience. The electric all-wheel-drive system delivered more confident and well-balanced handling, though the AWD RX350 was a close second. If you live outside the sun belt, the AWD is worth the extra price on the vehicle.

I’d be remiss if I failed to mention that Lexus has added adaptive cruise control and lane keeping assist to the RX line. Both systems work as advertised, and the lane keeper will gently nudge the car back into the center of your lane if you wander towards the lines, while the adaptive cruise control will keep your distance in traffic right down to a dead stop. It does take an act of faith to test it, though.

Conclusion

Lexus has not yet announced pricing for the new 2016 RX line, but they did say to expect the base price to come in under $45,000. Obviously, adding all-wheel-drive, the hybrid engine, or the F Sport suspension package will cost you more, but Lexus hasn’t said exactly how much more. The 2016 RX series is set to arrive in dealers in November of this year, so wintertime buyers will have plenty of time to decide if the Lexus RX will remain the leading luxury crossover on the market.

Highs

  • Bold styling (if you like it)
  • Librarian-approved quiet ride
  • Innovative hybrid AWD
  • Tons of driver assistance tech
  • Improved handling

Lows

  • Bold styling (if you don’t like it)
  • Bewildering tech controls
  • Leisurely acceleration
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