FIRST DRIVE

2016 Lexus RX Hits the Reset Button

Popular luxury crossover gets a bold makeover

Published: September 08, 2015 12:00 PM

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For the past 18 years, the Lexus RX has set the tone for the luxury, midsized crossover category it pioneered. The RX has always delivered an appealing blend of refinement and practicality. It stands out as a benchmark thanks to its supremely quiet, plush cabin with oodles of convenience features, along with a settled, comfortable ride, smooth power delivery, and just the right amount of space for five people and their luggage.

One of the few knocks on the outgoing RX bore on its bland, even yawn-inducing, exterior styling. The 2016 makeover may draw gasps instead. All angularity and sharp points, it could masquerade as an armored spacecraft, with a shockingly large and ferocious-looking black grille. A blacked-out section of the rear roof pillars creates the similar “floating roof” illusion as the 2015 Nissan Murano, one of those coincidences that makes you wonder if half the world’s car designers live in the same condo.

On the whole, the new RX makes a fine pleasure craft. We’ve been spending a few days behind the wheel of an early-production 2016 RX, borrowed, for a fee, from Toyota.

Rather than a regular RX 350, our sampler is a high-end F Sport, which has larger (20-inch) wheels and different suspension tuning than the standard crossover will, so it probably rides a bit more stiffly, but is similar in other respects. Standard fitment are 18-inch wheels.

Power delivery from Toyota’s nearly ubiquitous 3.5-liter V6, married here to a new eight-speed automatic transmission, comes on with creamy smoothness. And, this time around horsepower got nudged from last year’s 270 to 295, and the resultant thrust is effortless. Fuel economy is estimated by the EPA to be 22 mpg overall.

As so often with a Lexus, the cabin remains almost unnaturally quiet when you’re under way. The switchgear gives good tactile feedback, and matte-finish plastic trim has a quality feel.

Wide door openings and high seats allow for easy access front and rear. Multi-adjustable power seats and a power tilt-and-telescope steering wheel make it simple to find a good driving position. We found the F Sport’s perforated red-leather seats well-shaped and comfortable, at least on short acquaintance. Because they are more deeply sculpted and bolstered than the standard trim’s will be, we can’t say how the standard-issue perches will stack up. When you shut off the engine, the driver’s seat thoughtfully glides back and the steering wheel recedes, easing your exit.

The all-electronic gauge cluster is easily legible, with a big round dial in the center combining a digital speedometer readout with an analog rev counter. The left portion of the instrument binnacle presents page after page of vehicle and trip-computer information, scrollable with steering-wheel buttons.

Safety gear includes the now usual suite of modern marvels, including lane-departure and blind-spot warning, adaptive cruise control, pre-collision warning with autonomous braking, and rear cross-traffic alert.

Poised atop the center dash is a prominent eight-inch display pod for the navigation, rear camera, and infotainment system. Several other luxury brands have also positioned that display as a free-standing upright pod, including BMW and Mercedes-Benz, but the RX’s is huge, coming acros as a flat-screen TV.

In some ways it’s ideal to have a big navigation map right up near the windshield where you don’t have to take your eyes off the road to see the thing, but it might grow tiresome to have something nearly the size of a sun visor sticking up from the dashboard all the time. The screen also defaults to the map view, rather than, say, the audio system settings—an odd quirk. A deep dive in the menu settings can alter that, though.  

Infotainment system functions themselves are managed with a unified control knob, sort of a joystick with a padded hat, that resides on the center console within easy reach of the driver’s right hand. It can take a bit of familiarization, because every slight nudge of that controller sends the screen cursor skittering all over the display. Once you get the hang of it, though, it’s no harder than riding a unicycle.

As happens way too often with hip-as-can-be car design, the new RX has coupe-like styling with a steeply raked back window and body lines that rise to meet it at the rear quarter. That sleek, modern look brings two penalties: the driver’s view to the right rear is severely impaired, and cargo space is compromised.

Thankfully, the cargo floor behind the second row is very deep, so it shouldn’t be a problem loading decent quantities of luggage. The cargo bay is also attractively finished, plushly carpeted, and has handy tie-downs at the corners and bag hooks above.

Time will tell if Lexus’s gamble with wild styling will alienate its conservative customer base or bring new converts to the flock, but the RX’s long history of quality, comfort, and reliability may prove to be an unbeatable ace in the hole.

Gordon Hard

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