Test Drive: 2016 Lexus RX 350

In car design, as in life, appearance matters.

When you see what Lexus has done with this fourth-generation model, is it any wonder the RX helped define the segment it now, arguably, dominates?

In 1958, Ford introduced a car called the Edsel, a traditional-enough line of sedans, convertibles and station wagons to be sold alongside the Ford and Lincoln-Mercury brands.

Unfortunately, the feature that best distinguished Edsel cars was a controversial grille design that was compared to a horse collar, among other things. The new brand was so poorly received that Ford wrapped it up after three model years’ worth of dismal sales.

There's a comparison to be made between that Edsel styling exercise and one that began at Lexus around 2013, when that upscale Japanese brand began attaching its spindle grille design to its cars. Among the first cars to wear the controversial new look was the ES 350, one of Lexus' most popular cars.

The spindle is now standard on all of Lexus’ models, including another of its bestsellers, the RX mid-size crossover, which is redesigned into its fourth generation for 2016. To be clear, this is not the first version of the RX with the spindle face, but it's the first to display it so prominently.

I'll be up front with you: I don't like the look of this grille on any of Lexus' vehicles, and if online anecdotes and the real-life opinions of people I showed this car to are any indication, I'm not alone. And yet the RX literally remains as popular as it has ever been.

That right there is the difference between an established brand trying on an offbeat new look and an ugly upstart attempting to get off the ground. With the 1999 RX, Lexus was one of the first brands to foray into the uncharted territory of upscale crossovers and SUVs, and was instrumental in helping to create one of the auto industry's most lucrative vehicle segments.

When you see what Lexus has done with this fourth-generation model, is it any wonder the RX helped define the segment it now, arguably, dominates?

Lexus teased the fourth-generation RX before its 2015 New York auto show debut with a single image that showed just one rear corner of the car. That presentation led many to believe Lexus might be turning the RX into something closer to a crossover coupe, like the BMW X6 or Mercedes GLE Coupe, but the end result was far more conventional than that, despite all the edges and creases in the sheet metal.

Indeed, most of the RX is just as conventional as it always has been. Under the hood is a 3.5L V6 carried over from last year, only this time it's bolted to a new eight-speed automatic transmission. That V6 has always been a swell performer, but it plays even better with this eight-speed, whose closely-knit ratios do well at keeping the engine in the meat of a power band that generates 295 hp and 267 lb-ft of torque.

As with any transmission with this many gears, this one is kept busy with rapid-fire shifts in normal acceleration, but they’re handled so smoothly you could be forgiven for thinking this was a dual-clutch gearbox.

If you're looking for sharp handling, you're reading about the wrong version of this car. F-Sport trim levels get an air suspension that brings a firmer ride when the drive mode selector is toggled to the sport setting, but this base model gets old-fashioned metal springs that provide a comfortable ride, but not an interesting one. If that's more your speed, you still get those different drive modes in this version, but they only affect throttle response, steering assist and transmission behaviour.

Lexus' deft sound deadening work pairs well with the RX's relaxed comportment; this is a serene vehicle even at highway speeds.

Fuel consumption estimates are 12.2/8.9 L/100 km (city/highway); my tester averaged a little more than 11 L/100 km in a mix of city and highway driving, and about 10 L/100 km in straight highway cruising.

Earlier in the year: Test Drive: 2016 Lexus RX 350 F Sport

Exterior styling like this leads to certain expectations about what you'll find inside. Think of the Nissan Juke, whose centre console reminiscent of a motorcycle gas tank is nearly as unexpected as its froggy face. But when you’re this many notches up the crossover scale, an interior needs to prioritize class and comfort no matter how extroverted the exterior.

Still, the new RX's interior is almost a letdown in its straightforwardness. It feels richer for that in the end, with materials notably nicer than those in the old RX. There are more controls on the centre stack, but they're arranged better.

If you're initially dismayed that the controls for the heated and ventilated front seats (the latter being a standard item, surprisingly) are awkwardly placed ahead of the shifter, at least they can be set to turn on automatically in appropriately cold or hot weather.

I'm still getting used to the tablet-like tacked-on screens that are the current trend, but we really like the 12.3-inch screen that comes with the RX's navigation option, and a split-screen function that lets you view navi and music or climate info at the same time.

Less successful is Lexus' remote touch controller which, like BMW's iDrive or Mercedes-Benz’s COMAND, controls what happens on that screen. The joystick-like device is novel in that it provides haptic feedback when moving between items on the screen, but it's overly sensitive and makes it too easy to overshoot your mark. That defeats the purpose of a system conceived to allow the driver to toggle the car's many controls without distraction.

Lexus tends to build more value into their cars than other players in the luxury field. The 2016 RX 350's base price ($54,350) includes niceties like a heated and power-adjustable steering wheel, heated and ventilated front seats, backup camera, auto-dimming rearview mirror, passive keyless entry and push-button start and an electric tailgate. And for 2017, a $1,450 price increase brings with it a pre-collision system, lane departure alert and radar cruise control.

My 2016 tester had the $14,050 executive package with navigation, rear door sunshades, panoramic sunroof, LED headlights, premium leather seats, 10-way adjustable front seats with thigh supports and four-way lumbar, and power-folding rear seats with a recline function.

At $68,000 in executive trim, or with the similarly-priced-but-sportier F-Sport Series 3 package, the RX is a strong value next to its German competition. The Mercedes-Benz GLE is the least expensive of those, and its starting tag is $63,200. Stronger price competition comes from the Acura MDX (about $66,000 fully loaded), and the 2016 Lincoln MKX, which tallies up to a bit less than $65,000 when it's all decked out. And that Lincoln price includes multi-contour massaging front seats.

As Acura and Lincoln move away from polarizing styling cues -- the MKX will soon adopt a new front end inspired by the brand's Continental flagship -- Lexus has flung itself to the opposite end of the spectrum with a look that's almost comical in its ability to generate strong opinions.

But that doesn't seem to be turning buyers away from this new RX, whose reputation for comfort and refinement has existed for three generations. Before this, we would have suggested the RX as a crossover option for drivers more invested in their own comfort rather than proving to the world they have the means to buy an upscale vehicle.

The spindle grille suggests Lexus is done with being a wallflower and wants to build luxury cars that stand out from their competitors' products. Despite my reservations, I can't argue with that when the rest of the car is as well-conceived as this latest RX.

 

2016 Lexus RX 350
articles_PricingType 2016 Lexus RX 350
Base Price $54,350
Optional Equipment $14,050 – Executive Package
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $2,045
Price as Tested $70,545
Optional Equipment
10 0
Scoring breakdowns 7.1
4 Styling
7 Powertrain
8 Quality
8 Comfort
8 Practicality
7 Drivability
7 Usability/Ergonomics
7 Fuel Economy
8 Features
7 Value