Editor's note: This review was written in October 2012 about the 2013 Lexus RX 350. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2014, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
The Lexus RX 350 was arguably the first luxury crossover on the market. I don't know about you, but I tend to overlook it: It's been around forever (since 1998), it hasn't made any Extreme Makeover-like changes to capture my attention, and it's driven by seemingly every high-income suburban mom in the carpool lane.
However, there's a reason why so many of them are on the road, and that's what I had forgotten before driving the 2013 model refreshed my memory.
With the exception of a few gripes, the 2013 Lexus RX 350 is an absolute pleasure to get into every morning, comforting me in my hectic family routine and offering me support around every corner.
There are a few updates to the 2013 Lexus RX, most notably a new front-end design. Compare the 2012 and 2013 versions here. The base 2013 model comes with either front- or all-wheel drive. A new F Sport version includes an eight-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters, dynamic handling with sport suspension, and a more aggressive-looking grille and front bumper. See the three trim levels compared side by side here. My test car was a base, all-wheel-drive version equipped with the Comfort Package, Luxury Package, Navigation Package and Intuitive Parking Assist system.
The Lexus RX competes directly with five-seaters like the Acura RDX, Audi Q5 and Cadillac SRX; see them compared here. If you need more seating for your family, you may want to look into the Acura MDX and Infiniti JX35, which have three rows of seats. See the three models compared here.
When the RX first hit the market, it was incredibly progressive with its sleek, rounded lines and low-profile design. Today, that's the general look that nearly every crossover on the market has emulated. While Lexus should be proud of setting the tone (it's the highest form of flattery, right?), the downside is that every year the RX slips just a bit further into design obscurity while the rest of the market continues to evolve.
The step-in height of the RX is just a smidgen high for me to slide into the seat without effort. At 5 feet 3 inches, I need to reach up just a bit on my tippytoes to get in easily, which is great news for the rest of the average-height population. Sliding in and out is assisted by a power seat and steering wheel that automatically adjust to create more space. Keyless entry and start and a power-operated liftgate also make life easier.
My kids (ages 8, 10 and 12) had no trouble hopping in and out of the RX unassisted.
The RX's interior is a mix of thoughtful refinement and an apparent attempt to keep its age at bay (like my mom trying to look like a hipster at Starbucks with her MacBook Air, even though she's still a little unclear about the difference between the internet and email). It initially felt upscale and luxurious, but my discriminating husband couldn't stop griping about the abundance of "cheap-looking" plastic trim on the steering-wheel and radio surrounds and the trim above the glove box. Honestly, I may not have noticed it if it weren't for him pointing it out, but once he did I had a hard time ignoring it. There were a few areas with the new high-end-looking black bird's-eye maple wood trim in my test car, but this should have been carried throughout the cabin.
Note that the RX 350's standard seats have cloth upholstery. Leather comes standard on the RDX, Q5, MDX, JX35 and several other competitors.
Lexus' supposedly forward-thinking Enform communications center went mostly unused during my test drive. I wasn't a fan of the mouse-like joystick used to control the screen. (I'd really just prefer a touch-screen, though neat freaks will appreciate not having to obsessively wipe fingerprints off the screen.) While Enform can pair with your smartphone to offer access to apps such as Bing, OpenTable, iHeartRadio and MovieTickets.com through your vehicle's interface, quite frankly, I'd rather just stick to the familiar interface of my iPhone if I need to make dinner reservations or buy movie tickets on the fly (of course, not while actually driving). I prefer Google to Bing for web and map searches, Urbanspoon to Yelp for restaurant reviews, and Flixster to MovieTickets.com for movie times and tickets. In short, I don't want my car telling me which apps to use.
It seems I'm not the only one disenchanted with Enform. User reviews of the accompanying iPhone app range from calling it a "gimmick that doesn't work" to others who can't even log in to the system from their phones, instead getting a "permanent rather than intermittent error message." Yikes. Seems Lexus needs to call a do-over on this one.
The Connect portion of Enform offers safety services such as roadside assistance, stolen-car recovery and airbag deployment notification. They seem antiquated compared with Hyundai's Blue Link system, which allows you to preset curfew, geofence and maximum speed limits for the car, and sends you text and email notification alerts when the car goes outside those boundaries. Even GM's OnStar system gives you access to a live operator to help you through just about anything.
There were plenty of storage compartments throughout the RX's interior. I especially appreciated the extra-large pop-out bins in the front door panels. When closed, the low-profile design is unobtrusive, but when popped open they expand to hold water bottles, snacks and all the trash I tend to accumulate through the course of a week.
The two standard cupholders in the center console for the driver and front passenger have a cover to close them up, streamlining the look of the interior. This is a great feature if, like me, you tend to use your cupholders to store myriad small items (lip balm, tissues, etc.) and you want a quick and easy way to clean up your car. It's a little like throwing all your stuff in a closet before guests arrive. A third cupholder for the driver pops out of the dash to the left of the steering wheel, just in front of the air vent. I loved having that extra place to store a cup, but since it was right in front of the air vent, stashing my hot latte there cooled my coffee down instead of me.
An additional small pass-through storage bin under the center console was a great place to stash a small evening bag, though it wasn't large enough to store my daytime purse, which remained relegated to the passenger footwell.
I really appreciate that the RX gives the driver and front passenger equal seat comfort and adjustability. Both sides feature standard eight-way power adjustment (including adjustable thigh support, which is awesome in our family, given my husband is nearly a foot taller than me). When we're together as a family, I often ride as a passenger and I hate getting shafted out of the luxury of the driver's seat. On cold mornings, however, I would definitely be fighting for the driver's seat in the RX thanks to the heated steering wheel in my test car. Both the driver and passenger seat were heated and cooled, part of a $1,340 Comfort Package. A memory function on the driver's seat is part of a $4,520 Luxury Package.
My three girls had more than enough backseat legroom for their legs and their obese backpacks — up to 36.8 inches of it thanks to a sliding rear seat. The seats also recline a bit, which is a huge bonus for my two youngest, who still like to nap in their high-back boosters. I could recline the seat just enough to take the edge off so they could sleep comfortably without slumping forward over their seat belts.
The kids had access to in-door bottle holders, storage pockets on the back of the front seats, and a center seatback that folded down to provide an armrest with cupholders in it.
The rear seats are split 40/20/40 and fold flat, expanding the cargo area from 40 cubic feet up to 80.3 cubic feet. These dimensions handily beat the other five-seat models mentioned. The RX's volume is actually within a few cubic feet of the three-row models — both with their third rows folded and with both rows folded.
You can fold the RX 350's seats from the seatback itself or from the cargo area, where you can pull a spring-mounted lever that makes the seats fold down.
IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS THAT COUNT
Storage Compartments (Puny, Fair, Ample, Galore): Ample
Cargo/Trunk Space (Puny, Fair, Ample, Galore): Ample
SENSE AND STYLE
Family Friendly (Not Really, Fair, Great, Excellent): Great
Fun-Factor (None, Some, Good Times, Groove-On): Good Times
BEHIND THE WHEEL
Driving the 3.5-liter V-6, all-wheel-drive RX 350 was generally a pleasurable experience, given this isn't a racecar and isn't meant to be driven like one. I found its acceleration to be responsive for family-hauling, even while tootling up the hills in my high-altitude 'hood getting to and from my children's school. The suspension in the base model was soft enough for the car to be comfortably used as a daily driver. For those wanting a "sportier" ride, the F Sport and its sport tuning is a logical upgrade.
Cornering in the RX is about like you'd expect: not as roly-poly as a truck-based SUV, yet not as tight as smaller crossovers, like the Infiniti EX. Falling somewhere in the middle is sure to attract the middle-ground consumer who just wants an easy ride for daily driving chores.
The RX surprisingly takes regular gas, and with all-wheel drive it gets EPA-estimated fuel economy of 20 mpg in combined city and highway driving. The front-drive version gets an estimated 21 mpg combined. This performance is slightly below average among five-seaters and on the better side compared with larger crossovers. A hybrid version, the Lexus RX 450h, is rated 30 or 29 mpg combined with front- or all-wheel drive, respectively.
While the interior of the RX can be incredibly quiet, filtering out an immense amount of road and engine noise, the extra-large side mirrors create more wind noise than expected.
The all-wheel-drive 2013 Lexus RX 350 received an overall crash-test rating of five out of five stars from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (four stars for frontal crash, five stars for side crash and four stars for rollover resistance). The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has not yet performed crash tests on the 2013 RX. As is required of all new cars since the 2012 model year, the RX 350 has standard antilock brakes, an electronic stability system and traction control. The RX features 10 airbags, including driver and front passenger dual-stage twin chamber airbags, driver and front passenger knee airbags, front- and rear-seat-mounted side-impact airbags, and front and rear side curtain airbags.
For families installing child-safety seats, the lower anchors of the Latch system are buried deep within the seat bight and are difficult to access. However, older kids in booster seats will appreciate the easy-to-use seat belt buckles in the two outboard rear seats. They're on stable bases, making it easy for little hands with limited dexterity to buckle up on their own.
While the RX seems to have just about every safety feature on the market today, the lack of a standard blind spot monitor was an annoyance in my test car. Given the super-large side mirrors, I kept hoping they'd have some additional function above and beyond just being a mirror. A blind spot monitoring system is optional. Front and rear parking sensors and a rear backup camera are also options on the RX.
See all of the RX's standard safety features here.