The Lexus RX was an early entry into the field of luxury crossover/SUVs — vehicles that wouldn't look out of place parked in a country club parking lot instead of towing dirt bikes — and it has remained one of the most successful models of all time.
For 2015, the Lexus RX 350 is a soft, almost numb, car that impresses with its responsive engine and general comfort, but comes up short at offering both a rewarding driving experience and exceptional interior luxury.
The Lexus RX five-seat SUV comes as both the RX 350 we tested and a hybrid RX 450h version. Sold as the RX 350 since the 2007 model year, the RX was completely redesigned in 2010 and refreshed for the 2013 model year. For 2015, changes are minimal; compare the 2015 with the 2014 here.
The field that the RX essentially launched in 1999 with the RX 300 has grown, and the RX 350 now faces many competitors, including the Acura MDX, Audi Q5 and Cadillac SRX. (Run through their highlights here.)
I drove an all-wheel-drive 2015 RX 350. The only official trim levels are base and F Sport, but there are many option packages that change the RX's feature set. Our test vehicle's Comfort Package added xenon high-intensity-discharge headlights, rain-sensing wipers, and heated and ventilated seats. A Navigation Package brought a GPS navigation system with voice command and Lexus' Enform telematics system, and the Premium Package included, among other things, blind spot monitoring, heated side mirrors, memory seats and roof rails, as well as a wood- and leather-trimmed shift knob and steering wheel.
How It Drives
The RX 350 is powered by a 270-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 that's combined with a six-speed automatic transmission for both front- and all-wheel-drive models. Lexus also offers an F Sport, higher performance trim of the RX 350 that mates the same engine to an eight-speed transmission. F Sport models come only with all-wheel drive and a sport suspension.
The engine and transmission in our all-wheel-drive test model was the standout positive feature of the car. The RX 350 responds willingly when you press the gas. It gets up and goes, whether that's from a stoplight or when you need to pass. One picky editor noticed some hunting for gears in the transmission, but that issue never reared its head in my drive, nor did other editors raise the issue.
The standout negative feature is the steering: It's overboosted to the point that there's no feel for what the car is doing at any speed. Driving around parking lots, that's a good thing; you're parking a car, not doing a workout or racing a grand prix. On highway ramps, though, it's too easy to turn the steering wheel too sharply and wind up in the next lane; there's nothing at any point to suggest you're turning the car too tightly for the speed you're going.
Why that's especially bad is that the RX 350 isolates you from bumps and outside noise really well. At highway speeds, it was eerie how there was simply no discernable wind noise. That's nice, but until I got used to the RX 350, I took a few highway off-ramps too quickly because my speed wasn't immediately obvious.
The too-light steering meant there were a few anxious moments. Instead of feeling the road, I was looking at it and sort of guessing what was going on. The RX 350 reduces your communication with the road to a whisper.
Overall, the RX 350 is best-suited for long drives on long, straight interstates, where you'd just as soon relax, take your time and arrive at your destination not feeling like you just got out of a bar fight. For that, it's one of the better entries in the field.
When it comes to cruising along, it's worth noting that front-wheel-drive Lexus RX 350 models are rated 18/25/21 mpg city/highway/combined. All-wheel-drive models with the six-speed automatic transmission get 18/24/20 mpg, and RX 350s with the eight-speed transmission get slightly higher mileage estimates, at 18/26/21 mpg. Premium fuel is recommended.
Just judging the quality of materials and general layout, my first thought was, "Boy, this is one nice Toyota." (Toyota is the parent company of Lexus.) The problem is, you're paying Lexus prices — including $2,760 for the Premium Package — to get that interior.
To be clear, I'm not saying the RX 350's interior is ugly or has poor quality. I just wasn't wowed the way I have been by other vehicles in the class — notably the Acura MDX and Audi Q5. Also, I felt like some of the knobs and buttons would look right at home in a Toyota Highlander. That's not what you want in a luxury offering.
As I got to know the Lexus more, though, there were a few things I really liked. For starters, in this age, when more and more luxury cars have adjustments for suspension settings, steering response and transmission shift points, the Lexus doesn't confound you with choices right away. Instead, the driver's impression will be that the engineers have sorted it all out for you; you just need to get in and drive.
Another welcome feature is that backseat room is acceptable for taller adults. I'm 6-foot-2, and I had decent headroom and legroom sitting behind the driver's seat where I'd positioned it to drive. The seat is somewhat low, so my knees were raised a bit more than I'd want them to be for a long drive, but it didn't feel as tight or claustrophobic as some competitors.
Finally, those same buttons and knobs I mentioned earlier had a solid feel that does Lexus credit. However, Lexus altered one major control for 2015, and in doing so messed up a good thing. Other Lexus models use a controller knob that you manipulate like a mouse to select various menu items. It was a nice system. I was a fan of it.
This version misses the mark. There's little feedback, and it's virtually impossible to land on the menu item you want. It's not that the appearance of the knob has changed, but it's a different configuration that's a lot harder to use. Where there used to be buttons beside the controller that could be used to make a selection, those buttons are now gone and you have to make selections by pressing down on the controller knob. It's too easy to "slip" when manipulating the knob and select, say, the wrong letter while inputting an address.
The best way to imagine it is thus: Picture there are three menu items and you want to select the middle item. You can't. Well, OK, technically you can, but if you can select it the first time — without first skipping over it — I commend you, because I certainly couldn't. (And I'm a child of the video game generation, for Pete's sake.) It's so disconnected and numb it feels impossible to do; it's frustrating, and it never got any easier despite repeated attempts.
Fortunately, Lexus provides many buttons in the interior that allow you to skip the controller. That's not just nice, it's necessary — and the fact that the buttons are necessary suggests there's a flaw in the setup.
Cargo & Storage
The RX 350 offers a large cargo area that you'd hope to find in an SUV. Nice touches include levers in the side of the cargo bay that fold flat the spring-tensioned seats. Also, there are four cargo tie-downs that are necessary if you're using a cargo net, and nice to have if you're securing something like a bike.
With 40.0 cubic feet of space behind the seats, the RX 350 bests the Acura MDX (38.4 cubic feet), Audi Q5 (29.1) and Cadillac SRX (29.8 cubic feet) when you're carrying people in the backseat. It's the same story with the seats folded, as the RX 350's overall cargo room (80.3 cubic feet) beats its competitors by more than 11.5 cubic feet. (Compare maximum luggage volume here.)
The RX 350 has a 40/20/40-split backseat, which reclines and slides without exposing a gap in the cargo floor, as some SUVs do. Pull the handles in the cargo area to lower it and it automatically retracts to its farthest-back position (if it's slid forward) to ensure no gap. The lack of a gap is a thoughtful detail.
The 2015 Lexus RX 350 has not been tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, but a spokesperson for the institute said results from 2014 should carry over to the 2015 model. The 2014 model was a Top Safety Pick for the institute, meaning it scored the institute's highest rating of good in all crash tests. As of this writing, the institute has no plans to put the RX 350 through its small overlap front-impact crash test, which would determine the RX 350's eligibility for the institute's highest rating of Top Safety Pick Plus.
In National Highway Traffic Safety Administration crash tests, the 2015 RX 350 earned four stars overall out of five when equipped with front-wheel drive and five out of five with all-wheel drive. NHTSA says the difference is because of the additional weight of the all-wheel-drive hardware, as well as a slightly lower center of gravity for the all-wheel-drive model that resulted in a better rollover score and, thus, a better overall rating.
Standard safety features include Lexus' Safety Connect feature that calls for help automatically when an airbag is deployed. The system also provides an SOS button to request emergency assistance. This feature, while standard, is free only for one year; after that, owners must pay a subscription.
Our test car came with the Premium Package that, among other features, also includes a blind spot monitoring system and a precollision system that includes adaptive cruise control with forward collision warning. A pre-brake system that cinches the seat belts and readies the brakes for stronger stopping power is also included in the package.
Value in Its Class
Our test model rolled in at $51,000, including a $910 destination charge and a $1,400 premium for all-wheel drive, as well as nearly $8,000 in options. Still, that falls within the range of competitors such as the Acura MDX, Audi Q5 and Cadillac SRX.
The Lexus RX 350 is in the middle of a mileage competition with the Acura, Audi and Cadillac. The RX 350 with front-wheel drive gets an EPA-estimated 21 mpg combined, which trails the Acura MDX's 23 mpg and the all-wheel-drive, gas-powered Q5's 23 mpg, but beats the SRX's combined mileage of 19 mpg.
With all-wheel drive, it's the same story: The RX 350 is rated 20 mpg combined for the version we tested, which trails the Acura's 21 mpg and the Audi's 23 mpg, but beats the Cadillac's 18 mpg.
The numbers are close, but if mileage is the criterion, it's worth considering the higher-mileage RX 450h hybrid version, which gets an EPA-estimated 32/28/30 mpg with front-wheel drive and 30/28/29 mpg with all-wheel drive. That car could conceivably be cross-shopped with the TDI (diesel) version of Audi's Q5 with standard all-wheel drive, which is rated 24/31/27 mpg by the EPA.
Between its front-wheel-drive, all-wheel-drive and hybrid versions, there is at least one RX that can help shoppers interested in saving money. But "value" isn't always about being the cheapest; it's delivering on the money that's invested. Here, the Lexus largely does well, but there are tradeoffs. The driving experience isn't rewarding for those who want to be involved. The car's too numb for that. Also, I really think the controller inside is worth calling out because it just doesn't work well. I never got comfortable with it, and flipping through multimedia/information screens has become more common in cars than manually shifting gears. It's not an area an automaker can afford to mess up, and I feel Lexus has.
The positives are what you'd want in a luxury car: It's soft, quiet and really eats up the miles on the highway. In other words, that same "numb" sensation that dulls the pleasures of sporty drivers pays off for those willing to be more relaxed in getting where they're going. It's a very comfortable car.
The RX is still a very good luxury SUV. After breaking new ground many years ago, Lexus has not screwed it up overall, but the company hasn't universally improved it, either.
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