Lexus' five-seat RX crossover SUV received a mechanical overhaul for 2007, as well as its second name change in less than a decade. The new model continues to exhibit Lexus hallmarks — a quality cabin, seamless driving dynamics and a comfort-tuned suspension — while offering a more refined driving experience. The best part? Gas mileage sees a slight increase. After a week behind the wheel, I'm confident the RX 350 will uphold its predecessor's best-seller status.
Halfway through its second generation, the RX has traded its 3.3-liter V-6 for an all-new 3.5-liter V-6, the impetus behind the name change from RX 330 to RX 350. Offered as a single trim level, the RX 350 comes in front- or all-wheel drive; I drove the latter version. For green shoppers, Lexus also offers the pricier RX 400h hybrid.
Exterior & Styling
The second-generation RX debuted for the 2004 model year, two years before Lexus adopted the edgy styling seen in its current crop of cars. As such, the RX 350 harkens back to an earlier Lexus — not quite cutting edge, but still elegant to my eyes.
Measuring 186.2 inches long, the RX 350 is about the same size as the Mercedes-Benz ML-Class and Infiniti FX. Competitors with three rows of seats — like the Acura MDX and Cadillac SRX — are a few inches longer.
Ride & Handling
Built on a unibody platform, the RX 350 utilizes a four-wheel-independent suspension with struts and coil springs all around. An optional air suspension can take up to an inch off the standard suspension's ride height, creating a lower center of gravity and better high-speed stability. It also has an access mode that drops the SUV about a half-inch more for easier entry and exit.
My test vehicle had the standard coil suspension, which soaked up bumps with minimal disturbance. Even with the optional 18-inch wheels and P235/55VR18 tires, occasional potholes delivered more noise than discomfort. For a cushier ride, standard 17-inch wheels have thicker 65-series tires.
A pliable suspension often means lackluster handling, but the RX 350 isn't a complete turkey. While steering offers limited feedback and imprecise turn-in, the chassis resists body roll admirably for a two-ton SUV. It caught me off guard several times, staying clearly upright even as the tires lost traction in sharp turns.
At low speeds, steering requires moderate effort. Lexus says the RX 350's turning circle is 37.4 feet, which is a foot or two better than that of the ML350, FX35 and SRX.
Going & Stopping
Lexus parent Toyota has swapped most of its 3.3-liter V-6 engines for the 3.5-liter V-6 that first appeared in the 2005 Avalon. In the RX 350, the new engine makes 270 horsepower and 251 pounds-feet of torque. On paper, it's a quantum leap over the outgoing 223-hp, 3.3-liter V-6, and takes away the need for lead-footed RX fans to splurge on the 268-hp RX 400h. (Wealthy environmentalists, on the other hand, still have a reason.)
|2006 RX 330||2007 RX 350||2007 RX 400h|
|Engine||3.3-liter V-6||3.5-liter V-6||3.3-liter V-6 (gas/electric hybrid)|
|Transmission||5-speed automatic||5-speed automatic||CVT|
|Horsepower (@ rpm)||223 @ 5,600||270 @ 6,200||208 @ 5,600*|
|Torque (lbs.-ft. @ rpm)||238 @ 3,600||251 @ 4,700||212 @ 4,400*|
|Required gasoline||Regular (87 octane); premium recommended||Premium (91 octane)||Regular (87 octane); premium recommended|
|EPA gas mileage (city/highway, mpg)||18/24||19/24||31/27|
|0-60 mph (sec.)||7.8||7.4||6.9|
|Manufacturer data. Data applies to all-wheel-drive versions of all three models.|
*Horsepower and torque for gasoline engine only. Combined horsepower with electric motors is 268 hp. Combined torque is unspecified, as Lexus does not measure electric motor torque for RX 400h.
The new V-6 offers plenty of midrange pull — perceptibly more than the RX 330 — but stop-and-go performance remains about the same, and both have the same accelerator lag starting out.
A smooth-shifting five-speed automatic is standard. Upshifts came rather early, sending me to fourth or fifth gear long before the car's speed required it. It's a practice that yields better fuel economy at the expense of accelerator response, and on several occasions I needed to give the accelerator a good kick to get the response I wanted.
The RX 350's all-wheel-drive system drops the previous solid center differential, which relied on the traction-control system to shift power between the front and rear wheels. In its place is a limited-slip viscous coupling device that Lexus says offers quicker response. Under normal situations, power is split 50-50 between front and rear wheels; if slippage occurs, additional power can be sent to the front or back.
The front seats are wide and comfortable, and 10-way power adjustment is standard. Neither seat slides backward very far, however, so tall drivers may find their legroom limited. Forward sightlines are excellent, but arching D-pillars in back result in a significant blind spot. The rear-quarter windows, recessed behind the second-row doors, offer little help.
Though the dashboard layout seems a bit unorthodox — with oversized instrument portals and a U-shaped centerpiece — fit and finish is excellent. Stereo and climate controls are easy to use, with large buttons or knobs for the major controls. An optional navigation system provided clear, colorful directions; Lexus says the 2007 version offers much better graphics than before. A new voice-recognition feature easily recognized my commands, finding coffee shops and Chinese restaurants with little delay (though I later discovered that "antacid retailer" isn't in its repertoire).
The backseat manually scoots fore and aft, and the 60/40-split backrest segments recline. Legroom is adequate in most configurations, though the seat sits a bit low to the ground, resulting in raised knees.
Cabin storage includes deep front door pockets that pull outward an inch or so, a nifty feature. The glove box is amply large, and a deep center console sits at seat height. In back, the center armrest holds a shallow repository, and both front seatbacks have extendable pockets. I counted five cupholders total: Two each in the rear armrest and center console, and a BMW-style (read: absurd) one that flips out next to the steering wheel.
Besides the all-disc antilock brakes, the RX 350 includes a standard electronic stability system with traction control. Front seat-mounted, side-impact airbags and a driver's knee airbag are also standard, as are side curtain airbags. The latter ones can maintain inflation longer in the event of a rollover.
Optional xenon high-intensity-discharge headlamps include Lexus' Adaptive Front Lighting System. It can swivel the beams a total of 20 degrees (15 to the left, 5 to the right) for better cornering illumination.
Inside, all seats include three-point seatbelts and head restraints. The center rear head restraint has limited height adjustment, but all other positions afforded me ample whiplash protection.
In crash tests by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the RX 350 earned a front-impact rating of Good. In rear crash protection, however, IIHS gave the RX a rating of Poor. Neither IIHS nor the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has tested the RX 350 for side impacts, though NHTSA did give the RX 330 a five-star side-impact rating for both front and rear seats.
Child safety provisions include child-seat anchors in the backseat, where all kids should sit. Lower tethers are installed in both outboard seats but not in the middle seat, where children are arguably the safest. Top tethers for all three seating positions are mounted in the seatback.
Cargo & Towing
The rear seatback folds down in a 40/20/40 split. The seat cushions descend slightly as part of the one-step operation, resulting in a nearly flat load floor. With the rear seats folded, cargo volume expands from 38.3 to 84.7 cubic feet. Raising the seats is a chore, as the seatbacks are heavy and must be unlatched from their folded positions via handles near each headrest.
Despite the bigger engine, towing capacity remains at 3,500 pounds when properly equipped.
A front-wheel-drive RX 350 starts at $37,400. All-wheel drive adds $1,400. Standard features for both models include a power liftgate, 17-inch alloy wheels, power front seats and an eight-speaker stereo with a six-CD changer.
Good luck finding an option-free RX 350. I searched inventory across five markets on Lexus.com, and the website reports that nearly all RX 350s include leather upholstery — adding, at minimum, the $1,245 Premium Package, which also nets a moonroof and power-adjustable steering wheel. Other options included a navigation system, rain-sensing windshield wipers, a rear-seat DVD entertainment system and an 11-speaker Mark Levinson stereo. Expect a fully loaded RX 350 to cost around $50,000.
RX 350 in the Market
Three years into its current model cycle, the RX doesn't show any signs of losing popularity. Still, given the fresh competition from BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Acura, the RX 350's mechanical updates didn't come a moment too soon.
Much of the competition packs a V-8 engine or third-row seat. Does the RX need them? I don't think so. Judging by the size of the cargo compartment, a third row would only punish those condemned to sit there, as the third-row seats in some RX 350 competitors do. A V-8 would aid passing performance, but so would a more responsive transmission — with a fraction of the gas mileage penalty.
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