The verdict: The 2023 Lexus RX is a bold redesign of a comfort-focused favorite that adds a large amount of flair without destroying its relaxed ride quality.
Versus the competition: The RX’s new turbocharged four-cylinder engine isn’t unexpected in the class, but it struggles to offer a premium experience in the RX 350. Other qualities, however, are successfully luxurious.
The Lexus RX is known and loved as a comfortable luxury SUV with a roomy interior and smooth, quiet driving manners. The 2023 RX is coming in with a ground-up redesign with claims of athleticism, including a new RX 500h F Sport Performance hybrid with all-wheel drive and advertisements that even show an RX on a racetrack (gasp). I appreciated the previous RX’s place in the class as an aggressive-looking crossover, but one that didn’t have a firm, unpleasant ride — so my biggest question going into Lexus’ first drive event for the 2023 RX was whether we’ve lost one of our favorite comfort options in the class. (Per our ethics policy, Cars.com pays for its own airfare and lodging when attending manufacturer-sponsored events.)
Related: 2023 Lexus RX Sports New Platform, Powertrains, Performance Variant
No More V-6 Engine
One thing that’s for sure gone is the previous generation’s 295-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 engine. What was a buttery smooth, refined V-6 has been replaced by a 275-hp, turbocharged 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, which isn’t an uncommon engine type among the competitors Lexus is targeting, including the Volvo XC90 and Mercedes-Benz GLE; the Acura MDX and BMW X5, two other competitors, use six-cylinder holdouts. However, while the RX’s new four-cylinder is more efficient by 2 mpg in combined ratings (22 mpg for the V-6 with AWD versus 24 mpg for the four-cylinder with AWD), it now requires more expensive premium fuel versus regular gas like the old V-6. With only a paltry increase in fuel economy ratings but a significant difference in the price of premium versus regular, at gas prices as of this writing, the new engine will cost buyers more to refuel than the outgoing V-6.
The question now becomes: Does the performance difference make the new engine more enticing? The answer: Not really. The 2.4-liter has 20 fewer horsepower, but even 50 more pounds-feet of torque than the V-6 can’t help the driving experience feel premium. The 317 pounds-feet of torque helps acceleration at lower engine speeds, but it’s not transformative and there’s not much zip in its acceleration overall (0-60 mph arrives in 7.2 seconds with AWD, according to Lexus). Like many of the entry-level turbo four-cylinders in competitors, the 2.4-liter’s sound is coarse and unrefined. There’s also less consistent power delivery than the old V-6; a prod of the accelerator often results in significant acceleration lag. Shoppers coming from luxury brands that already use turbo four-cylinders might not think twice about the new engine’s sound, but Lexus faithful will miss their V-6.
There’s more goodness in other powertrains. Now dubbed the RX 350h instead of RX 450h, the hybrid is the sweet spot in the RX lineup, though Lexus is projecting just 17% of sales will be the RX 350h. With a combined 246 hp from its gasoline-electric hybrid powertrain that includes a rear traction motor for standard AWD, the 350h is more responsive than the turbocharged 2.4-liter — perhaps thanks to its boost coming from electrons versus exhaust gases — and uses a quick-acting continuously variable-style automatic transmission. Sure, the non-turbo 2.5-liter gas engine is noisy, too, and requires premium fuel like the outgoing hybrid, but it makes up for that annoyance with a 12 mpg improvement in combined fuel economy versus the base four-cylinder with a rating of 36 mpg combined; that’s an impressive 6 mpg better than the previous-generation hybrid. Add in the barely perceivable difference in acceleration between the hybrid and the base engine — 0-60 mph in 7.4 seconds for the hybrid, just 0.2 second slower than the AWD RX 350 — and the RX 350h is a highlight of the RX lineup.
There’s a third variant available at launch: the RX 500h F Sport Performance AWD hybrid, which uses its hybrid powertrain to boost performance, not fuel economy — a divergence from Lexus’ typical hybrid strategy. By pairing the RX 350’s turbocharged 275-hp engine with an EV-spec, 80-kilowatt rear electric motor and six-speed automatic transmission, the combined output is 366 hp and 406 pounds-feet of torque. Fuel economy is 27 mpg combined versus 24 mpg for the 350 AWD and 36 mpg for the hybrid.
The RX 500h F Sport Performance delivers great passing power, but power delivery surges between the two power units versus acting as one unified propulsion force. We were driving early pre-production units (production doesn’t start until October), so Lexus has time for more fine-tuning ahead of production if they decide to make changes.
Then there’s the overall modest acceleration for a “performance” variant: 0-60 mph in a claimed 5.9 seconds, which feels less impressive on the road where the reality of trying to move 4,750 pounds with 366 hp sets in. There’s enough oomph for the RX 500h F Sport Performance to serve as a more powerful alternative to the base variant, but calling it a “performance” model is a stretch.
The fourth powertrain is the RX 450h Plus, a gas-electric plug-in hybrid with short all-electric range (at least compared with a full EV). As of publication, there are few details on the RX 450h Plus and no announced on-sale date for what will surely be a hot item.
Remains Roomy — for Some
The previous two-row, five-seat Lexus RX wasn’t short on interior space, but the three-row L version was stretched pretty thin. The L model has been dropped for 2023, and the redesigned RX has a longer wheelbase (the distance between the front and rear wheels) that Lexus says offers more rear legroom than the previous SUV. A redesigned rear suspension is more compact than before, said to provide additional cabin space for people and cargo.
To my eyes, the RX has a striking new design, but what’s indisputable is how that new shape affects interior room because the car is lower overall and the roof has an aggressive slope. Compared with the 2022 RX, the new model’s dimensions are similar up front and it’s roomy in back, too, but rear headroom might be an issue for taller passengers when the SUV is equipped with the available panoramic moonroof that stretches into the backseat. With it, rear headroom is cut 1.6 inches versus the normal roof and standard moonroof, and my head hit the top of the interior when the reclining backseat was in its fully upright position (I’m 6 feet tall). I could alleviate the head contact by reclining the seat, but that resulted in an uncomfortable seating position. Those needing to carry taller people in the backseat should consider an RX with the standard moonroof because of its greater rear headroom.
Interior quality is a step up from the previous generation. Quality is more consistent throughout the cabin, and while the interior quality itself isn’t a knockout punch to any competitors, it’s more competitive. The old RX has great details in some areas, like the dashboard padding and stitching, but it cheaped out elsewhere. One area that stands out in the new RX is an available suede door panel design, which is standard on the RX 350 Luxury, RX 350 F Sport Handling and RX 500h F Sport Performance AWD trim levels. The suede insert is subtle, but it’s the first thing you see when you step into the cabin and the last thing you see before closing the door, so the material and design leaves a high-quality impression.
Still the Comfort Option?
I feel fairly confident the RX remains a comfort option in the class, though I am curious how well it will drive on the poor roads surrounding Cars.com’s Chicago headquarters versus the coastal California roads Lexus chose for its drive event program. Lexus brought a previous-generation RX 350 to drive for comparisons, and the back-to-back experience showed where Lexus most significantly improved the RX’s ride quality. The RX is built on a new platform with increased rigidity that helps decrease noise, vibration and harshness, as well as improve ride and handling.
The previous generation rode softly, but it didn’t have sophisticated chassis and suspension control, so it felt uncontrolled when you hit significant road imperfections. The new RX has a connected driving feel rather than the soft but sloppy handling of the previous SUV, and it does this while maintaining decently soft ride quality that won’t turn off comfort-oriented buyers. Even with large available 21-inch wheels, it rides well, which is no small feat. The new RX is quieter, too, with less road noise on the highway, which makes it not only a suitable successor to the previous RX, but also a stout highway cruiser when compared with the competition.
An available adjustable-firmness adaptive suspension goes in the RX 350 F Sport Handling and RX 500h F Sport Performance AWD, and Lexus says it offers a comfortable ride with improved stability and superior steering response. No matter which suspension you get, however, the RX’s reflexes don’t feel especially sharp, and a lot of that is because the steering wheel is very well isolated from road feel. That’s great for a luxury car, but not so great for a performance vehicle. There are other reasons to pick the F Sport Handling or F Sport Performance hybrid, like styling or more power, but being fun to drive isn’t one of them.
I also couldn’t tell much of a difference in ride firmness or handling while playing with the SUV’s drive modes, which was strange because adaptive suspensions often have the ability to change a vehicle’s character; perhaps the differences will come through more when we spend time with the RX on familiar roads. The RX 500h’s handling is more defined by its powertrain torque split than suspension tuning, however, because the rear motor actively helps the SUV accelerate versus only being a tractive force when front wheel slippage is detected. This approach gives the RX 500h rear-wheel-drive-like flair; punch the accelerator from a stop and the rear wheels will spin, wiggling the rear end.