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Expert Reviews 1 of 4
By Mike Hanley
January 7, 2009
The Lexus RX was one of the earliest luxury crossovers, and it's been one of the more popular ones, too, with sales topping 100,000 in 2007. For 2010, Lexus has redesigned what it calls one of its most iconic models.
Rather than taking the RX in a dramatically new direction — like Acura did when it overhauled its RX competitor, the MDX — Lexus has further honed the RX. The new model is easy to drive, has a refined cabin and is available with a host of high-tech features. I like the RX, and I continue to after driving this new model as it's well-suited to the needs of the U.S. luxury-crossover buyer.
I drove both the gas-only RX 350 and the gas-electric RX 450h hybrid in California's scenic wine country. The RX 350 hits dealerships in late February, and the RX 450h is scheduled to follow in the spring. Exterior & Styling The RX is the latest Lexus to receive the brand's "L-finesse" styling language. L-finesse models have a clean, uncluttered look that's accented by sharp, angular design elements, such as the headlights. The design theme doesn't diminish the RX's distinctive appearance, as it still sports a raked-forward D-pillar, like its predecessor. While the front end of the new RX is familiar, its nose isn't as pointy as the previous model's.
The 2010 RX 350 is similar in size. It's only 1.6 inches longer, 1.6 inches wider and 0.2 inches taller. Lexus says customers like the size of the current RX, which explains why it wasn't notably changed for 2010, even though cars often grow when redesigned. Both the regular and the hybrid models come standard with 18-inch alloy wheels; 19-inch rims are optional.
The styling differences between the RX 350 and RX 450h are subtle. The hybrid has a different L badge on the front grille that's outlined in blue, as well as blue-tinted headlights; LED headlights are optional for the hybrid. The RX 450h also features "Hybrid" lettering on the lower portion of the rear doors. Ride & Handling Delivering a comfortable driving experience is critical in the luxury crossover segment, and the RX is successful on this front. Available with either regular or Sport suspension tuning, the 2010 RX has a new double-wishbone rear suspension that Lexus says improves handling performance. The new setup also reduces suspension intrusion into the cargo area.
I tested a front-wheel-drive RX 450h with the base suspension, and an all-wheel-drive RX 350 with the Sport suspension. The RX 450h has a taut ride, but it's not firm to the point of being harsh. Overall, the suspension absorbs bumps well.
The driving route during my test included a number of winding roads through California's Napa Valley, which provided a good opportunity to experience the RX's cornering abilities. It's planted when hustled through sweeping corners and switchbacks, but the RX 350 with the Sport suspension seemed more composed and flat through the corners than the RX 450h with the base suspension. The difference between the two, however, was minimal.
I was a little surprised by the amount of road noise that made its way into the RX's cabin when traveling on rougher patches of road. Road surface plays a big part in the interior noise equation, and some of the asphalt roads I traveled were quite pockmarked, but noise from bumps was quite pronounced, too. Wind noise also starts to creep into the cabin once the car reaches 60 mph or so.
Both the RX 350 and RX 450h have electric power-steering systems, but the level of feedback and driver involvement that each provides is noticeably different. The RX 350 has Lexus' characteristic ball-bearing-smooth, low-effort steering that makes for easy drivability but doesn't provide much feedback. By comparison, the RX 450h's steering wheel takes more effort to turn, especially when transitioning from a straight line to beginning a turn, and it offers quite a bit of feedback for a Lexus. On rougher asphalt the RX 450h's steering lets you feel some of the road texture through the wheel. Going & Stopping The RX 350 and RX 450h have similar power outputs — 275 horsepower for the RX 350 and 295 hp for the RX 450h — but their unique drivetrains result in significantly different driving experiences.
The RX 350 proved to be a capable performer on the mountain roads of Napa Valley, charging strongly up hills without the 3.5-liter V-6 feeling burdened. The responsive six-speed automatic transmission is very well-behaved; during slow or steady acceleration it changes gears smoothly, but when you press hard on the gas pedal it delivers quick, firm shifts that match the urgency of the situation. The transmission also offers Sport and Snow modes, as well as a clutchless-manual mode for driver-controlled shifting.
The RX 450h, meanwhile, doesn't accelerate with the same level of urgency, even though its gas-electric drivetrain makes more power. It has more weight to carry around — about 300 pounds more. It's by no means pokey, but the assistance from the electric motor isn't as much as you might think.
The 2009 RX 350 was already one of the more fuel-efficient luxury crossovers available, and the new model offers even better gas mileage. The RX 450h's gas mileage improves over the current RX 400h's, too, and has the best gas mileage of any luxury crossover in the U.S.
Luxury Crossover Gas Mileage (city/highway, mpg)*
2010 Lexus RX 450h
2008 Lexus RX 400h
2010 Lexus RX 350
2009 Lexus RX 350
2009 Lincoln MKX
2009 Infiniti FX35
2009 BMW X5 xDrive30i
2009 Acura MDX
2009 Mercedes-Benz ML350
*Sorted by highway gas mileage estimates for 4WD models.
Both the gas-only and hybrid versions of the RX include features designed to save fuel. The RX 350 has an Eco indicator that illuminates when the driver is operating the RX in an efficient manner. The RX 450h, meanwhile, has an Eco Mode with specific throttle and air-conditioning programs to increase efficiency, as well as an Electric Vehicle Mode. In EV Mode, the RX 450h can operate for a few minutes up to about 10 mph on battery power alone as long as the high-voltage battery has a sufficient amount of power and the driver accelerates lightly, according to Lexus.
One of the most impressive elements of the RX 450h's driving experience is its brake-pedal feel. This is an area where hybrids — which make use of both friction and regenerative braking systems — have struggled to match the linear pedal response of a traditional hydraulic brake system. The RX 450h shows that it can be done, as its firm pedal feel and natural braking response give no hint that there's regenerative braking going on. The RX 350's brake pedal feels softer underfoot, but it offers the same natural response as the hybrid. The Inside The RX has a new interior that, unlike the exterior, makes a bigger break from the previous RX in terms of its design. Offered in solid or two-tone color schemes, the RX's dashboard has sweeping lines and makes wide use of soft-touch materials. My favorite color scheme is the new black and parchment theme; the contrasting colors make for a classy look.
The RX is also available with a new joystick-like interface called Remote Touch that's the latest in a string of multifunction control systems, including the likes of BMW's iDrive, Audi's Multi Media Interface and Mercedes-Benz's Comand. Unlike those systems, Remote Touch should be immediately familiar to anyone who uses a personal computer.
Remote Touch goes in RX models equipped with the optional navigation system and replaces the touch-screen interface of previous models. The controller in the center console features a curved hand rest with a short joystick at the front of it. The joystick controls a pointer on the 8-inch dashboard screen that you use to roll over various menu icons. Selections are made by pressing one of the Enter buttons on the sides of the hand rest. There are also a few hard keys immediately in front of the joystick for often-used functions, like calling up the menu or map, or zooming the map in and out.
The system has a low learning curve, thanks to its familiar interface, but a downside is that you have to spend a good deal of time looking at the screen to control the pointer when navigating menus and making selections. This isn't a problem if you're sitting in the passenger seat, but it's harder for the driver when the RX is moving and the top priority should be concentrating on the road. The navigation system does recognize voice commands, but I'm disappointed Lexus abandoned its touch-screen navigation system in the RX, as it was a pretty good one. Models without navigation have a smaller, black-and-white LCD screen that displays audio and air conditioning information.
The RX's front bucket seats have soft cushioning and are comfortable. Power operation is standard, but leather upholstery is optional (cloth seats are standard). Length-adjustable seat cushions for greater thigh support are newly optional.
Backseat legroom in the RX is good, and Lexus has addressed my main gripe with the second row by moving the backrest-recline lever from the top of the backrest itself to the outside of the seat cushion. The new position is much easier to reach when seated; with the old one you had to twist your body around to reach it. As was the case with the previous RX, the redesigned model doesn't offer a third row, which the MDX includes as standard equipment. Cargo & Towing The RX's cargo area measures 40 cubic feet. That's more space than a Lincoln MKX (32.3 cubic feet) but less than the MDX has with its third row folded (42.9 cubic feet). If more space is needed, the 40/20/40-split rear backseat can be folded using either the levers that recline the seats or remote handles in the cargo area that release the backrests. Dropping the backrests makes for a nearly flat extended cargo floor and 80.3 cubic feet of total cargo room.
When equipped with the optional Towing package, all-wheel-drive RXs are rated to tow up to 3,500 pounds. Safety Standard safety features include all-discantilock brakes, side-impact airbags for the front and outboard rear seats, front and rear side curtain airbags, knee airbags for front-seat occupants, an electronic stability system and active head restraints for the front seats.
Optional safety equipment includes a backup camera, which is included with the navigation system option. It's also available as a stand-alone option, and that version uses a small screen in the rearview mirror to show what's behind the RX. Also optional is Lexus' Pre-Collision System with adaptive cruise control, which cinches the front seat belts and readies the brake assist system if the forward-looking radar determines that a crash is likely.
As of publication, the 2010 RX hadn't been crash-tested by either the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Features In addition to the new Remote Touch interface for the navigation system, the new RX is available with a number of other high-tech features. One of the more interesting ones is the wide-view side monitor system. Featuring a wide-angle camera mounted under the right mirror, the system can show an image on the navigation screen of the ground around the right side of the RX, to make parking easier. Swiveling high-intensity-discharge headlights that include an automatic high-beam feature, a head-up display and a dual-screen backseat entertainment system are also optional. RX in the Market There's the temptation to fault Lexus for not dramatically remaking the RX with this redesign. Something more radical would probably have made a bigger splash, but it would have risked alienating the customers who have made the RX so popular; Lexus says there are already almost 800,000 of the crossovers on the road. There are sportier models available, like the MDX and FX35, but if you're looking for refinement and comfortable luxury, the RX remains an appealing choice.