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2016 Lexus RX 350 and RX 450h First Drive

2016 Lexus RX 350;

Since its introduction in 1998, the Lexus RX midsize luxury SUV has been a hit. It’s one of the few luxury vehicles of any type that regularly sells more than 100,000 a year in the U.S., and it’s been a boon for the Lexus brand. But Lexus has always played it safe with the RX, with styling that was warm but never hot and driving dynamics that were pleasing but never entertaining.

Related: 2016 Lexus RX Video

The new 2016 RX 350 and RX 450h are the latest attempt to inject some youthful exuberance into the Lexus lexicon, but with many of the changes not much more than skin-deep, has Lexus gone far enough to attract new buyers?

You’ll Certainly Be Noticed

To paraphrase style maven Tim Gunn, the 2016 Lexus RX has “a whole lot of look.” From the pointed, gaping spindle-shaped grille up front to the hash work of character lines down the side to the floating roof that is dangerously close to becoming the latest styling element that every automaker incorporates, the new RX is highly distinct.

It’s a little bit longer and marginally wider, mostly to give backseat passengers some more legroom, but from any angle, the RX looks good. LED headlights and taillights can be had, and even an upgraded premium tri-lens package light can be optioned, which features LED cornering lights and rear turn signals. Eighteen-inch wheels are standard, but 20-inch wheels are optional and an inch larger than the 2015 version offered. They fill out the wheel wells nicely and add to the RX’s high-tech look.

It Drives Like a Lexus

The RX comes in four flavors: the base RX 350, the RX 350 F Sport, the RX 450h hybrid and new for 2016, an RX 450h F Sport. The base model’s 3.5-liter V-6 is mostly unchanged from 2015 aside from a modest 25-horsepower bump. The eight-speed automatic that was only available on the 2015 RX 350 F Sport is now standard on the RX 350 too. The result is an acceptably quick SUV that delivers thrust in a smooth flow, with shifts that are unobtrusive and practically seamless.

The transmission does hunt a bit in spirited driving, but with eight speeds to play with, that’s to be expected. The result of that hunting is a vehicle that’s always ready with power when you need it; the powertrain is really the best part of the RX experience. If you’d rather pay a little more money for better fuel economy, the RX 450h hybrid isn’t a bad way to do it, with just as much power on tap when you need it but with the added benefit of limited EV operation when you don’t. From a powertrain standpoint, there isn’t much downside to opting for the hybrid. Throttle response is delayed a bit as it passes through an initial EV mode before employing the gasoline engine, but the hybrid performs similarly to the gas-only model. It’s worlds better than the outgoing RX hybrid, however.

The rest of the RX 350 is less entertaining.

Its steering is nicely balanced, but it feels slow to react. In normal driving through parking lots and on interstate roads, it won’t be an issue, but when trying to negotiate switchbacks or mountain twisties, it becomes more apparent. The RX 350 is prone to understeer in both front- and all-wheel-drive versions, with pronounced body roll that makes the heavy SUV push through corners instead of slice neatly through them.

It is not nearly as athletic as a BMW X5 or Audi Q5, but its heft and damping give it a solidity and stability that is lacking from vehicles like the Cadillac SRX. The brakes are unimpressive, providing little feedback. Using them almost feels like you’ve pushed a “brakes button” instead of a pedal; they’re working, but it doesn’t feel like there’s much mechanical action happening underfoot. The RX’s mass once again is acutely felt.

Lexus has packaged many of the RX’s safety features into a new package, called Lexus Safety System Plus. It combines radar-based adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist, automatic high beams and pre-crash preparation with pedestrian detection into a single high-value package. While the adaptive cruise control with automatic stop-and-go worked well, the lane keep assist feature is overly sensitive, vibrating the steering wheel and nudging you back into the lane if you even approach the centerline, much less actually cross it. After a couple miles of being forced to meticulously maintain the center of my lane lest my steering wheel continue to vibrate, I switched it off.

F Stands for Flair, not Fun

Both the RX 350 and RX 450h can be had with an F Sport trim aimed at changing the driving experience to something more appealing to buyers of German luxury cars. The F Sport trim doesn’t get any more power; its changes are limited to suspension tuning, a special transmission shift program, increased steering effort and feedback, and some appearance items inside and out.

Steering effort goes up noticeably, and if you use the selector dial to switch into Sport S or Sport S+ modes, it goes up even more dramatically. Transmission and throttle mapping also get much more aggressive, and the adaptive suspension that’s unique to the F Sport stiffens the ride considerably.

Unfortunately, all this doesn’t translate into a more capable vehicle. It’s still just as heavy as the base model and features significant understeer and body roll. It may feel sportier, but the F Sport changes haven’t improved the RX’s actual abilities. Combined with more heavily bolstered sport seats and a less informative gauge package, I actually would opt for the base model RX 350 over the F Sport. It’s much more pleasant to drive, more comfortable (the sport seats are too small, too firm and too rigidly bolstered) and quieter to boot.

A Nicer Cabin

Inside, the RX gets a makeover with more luxurious materials and better trim and color options. Four colors of leather are available (including dark red, exclusive to the F Sport), as are five trim materials, four of which are real wood veneer in some lovely patterns. The standard 10-way power-adjustable front seats can be upgraded with the optional Luxury Package. With it, they come wrapped in semi-aniline leather and have power lower cushion lengtheners, making these the most comfortable seats in the whole lineup. All the surfaces you’re likely to touch with hands or elbows have a premium look and feel except for the buttons and switches, which still look like they’re from a high-end Toyota-brand model. The gauges in the base models are clear and easy to read. The optional premium Mark Levinson audio system is fantastic, but even the midgrade 12-speaker non-branded system is impressive.

Much less impressive is the RX’s multimedia system that produces the music as well as navigation and other tech. It doesn’t feature the maddening touchpad like the smaller NX, but it still has a joystick and selector buttons on the console by your hand. Imagine driving down the road while using a laptop computer, with the display screen sitting on the dash and your wireless mouse in your lap, as you try to identify icons on the screen and navigate the cursor to select them. This is essentially what Lexus is having drivers do with the RX’s Remote Touch Interface system, and it’s horrible. The automaker is long overdue for rethinking how it approaches its multimedia system, and given that neither Apple CarPlay or Android Auto are even planned for the RX, it would seem that the whole multimedia strategy needs a redo if the brand wants to attract younger buyers.

Overall, legions of happy buyers of the previous three generations of RX SUVs will be perfectly pleased with the new fourth-generation model. If you don’t ask too much of it in terms of spirited driving, it will deliver a quiet, comfortable commute. If Lexus wants to be known for innovation and sophistication, however, it will have to do more than just throw some splashy styling and stiffer chassis tuning on the RX to get German-intending buyers to cough up their cash.

 
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