First drive: 2016 Lexus RX [Review]

First drive: 2016 Lexus RX [Review]

When you create a segment, as Lexus did with their original RX back in 1998, you also happen to paint a target on your back. Flash forward 17 years with the 2016 Lexus RX350 and RX450h, and you either have become someone else’s lunchmeat or you are still at the top of the luxury SUV heap.

Kill or be killed, we say. Lexus just keeps plodding away, and we went to Portland to see how they did with their latest offering.

A sharp suit

Akio Toyoda’s call for cars with more style and fun have apparently been getting through, because a newer, crisper and more exciting breed of vehicles have been making their way to market wearing the Toyota, Lexus and Scion nameplates that fall under the Toyota umbrella.

The 2016 Lexus RX is just one of the new breed of autos from that brand that will be hitting the market in the very near future. Featuring the sharp angular looks that first appeared on the new IS, and followed shortly afterwards with the new NX200t, the RX follows that new brand identity, as well.

Featuring a new design that Lexus calls bold and athletic, and we will add aggressive, Lexus hopes to cater to the loyalists that made the current- and previous-generations best sellers, while tempting the checkbooks of a new generation of conquest buyers that the brand hopes to have, when all is said and done, now and into the future.

The now common spindle grill returns, only this time it’s sharper and more angular than ever before. Ditto to the headlights and fog lamps, with their arrowhead surrounds. On the sides, complex and complicated bends make their way from the front wheel openings to the rear fender flares of the RX, which give way to the broad shoulders and the “floating” roofline at the C-pillar.

Front and rear spoilers, as well as an under-tray diffuser at the rear, help to trim the aero down to a manageable coefficient of drag. Their results yield a Cd of 0.34. As the cherry on top, the rear hatch even has its own stylized spindle shape going on.

The F-Sport model also returns in FWD and AWD configurations, and for the first time can be had on the RX450h Hybrid version as well.

There is a wide range of wheels available on the new RX line that allows the customers to personalize their vehicles with color inserts.

A crowded segment

When you compete in a segment comprised of vehicles like the Mercedes-Benz GLE, the VW Touareg, Infiniti’s QX60 and the Acura MDX, you would think the Lexus RX has its work cut out for it. You would probably be right, but a Lexus buyer is nothing, if not loyal. The brand is betting on that.

After greenlighting the new RX designs, and seeing the clay renderings, Toyoda-san asked designers and engineers to change it up a bit more. The aggressive attitude seemed to get lost in translation (and in manufacturing ability — having the manufacturing engineers figure out how to stamp the new RX’s radical shapes initially proved to be problematic). But there’s nothing like the boss urging you to do it anyway, lighting a fire along the way. The result appears as a lightning bolt on wheels.

Finding its own level

For 2016, there are two available powerplants, including the direct and multiport injected RX350 with its 295-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 with 267 lb-ft of torque. Lexus claims mileage of 20 city/28 highway with 23 mpg combined, is doable. It is matched to an eight-speed automatic transmission with a lower first gear for quick takeoffs and a higher eighth gear for improved fuel economy. Combining the V6 with the AWD system drops that fuel economy rating to 19 city/26 highway and 22 combined.

With the gas-electric hybrid RX450h, and its 308-horsepower 3.5-liter gas/electric hybrid system, there’s 247 lb-ft of torque and front or all-wheel drive. Lexus estimates it’s capable of 30 city/28 highway, and 30 combined for the AWD version, while the standard front driver achieves 31 city/30 highway and 30 combined.

Depending on configuration, the hybrid version relies on either two or three motor generators to deliver power. MG1 is a prime generator responsible for the engine starter, and transmission ratio controller. MG2 drives the front wheels, and regenerative braking, while MGR (Motor Generator-Rear) drives the rear wheels on AWD-equipped RX450h models.

On gas and hybrid models, two styles of traction aids from the AWD system work. With the petrol-powered model, the Dynamic Torque Control system can vary the power from 100:0 down to a balanced 50:50 depending on conditions. With the hybrid system, if wheelspin is detected at the front wheels, the rear wheels will kick in, for added traction, otherwise they revert to front drive operations, where the rear system converts to a charger when the driver sets the RX450h into regenerative brake mode.

Speaking of modes, the Lexus Drive Mode Select dial still resides on the center console and offers ECO, Normal, Sport S and Sport S+ settings that firm up suspension bits, hold gears longer, and tighten up steering settings according to a driver’s comfort level. Converting gauge background to green, blue and red, respectively, they literally reflect an occupant’s driving mood.

The DMS system works with an available Adaptive Variable Suspension (AVS) to adjust the shock damping forces according to a read from shock sensors. Lexus claims it to be more responsive to changing road conditions.

The new RX includes a host of Lexus firsts ranging from Dynamic Radar Cruise Control that can, depending on speed, bring the RX to a complete stop. Land Departure Assist (LDA) uses a windshield-mounted camera to detect lane drift and vibrates the steering wheel accordingly. The Steering Assist will also guide you back on your path, but won’t let you ping-pong between the stripes.

Intuitive Park Assist (IPA) is another available feature that alerts a driver to obstructions at the front or rear of the RX. It works in conjunction with the also available Panoramic View Monitor for a bird’s eye view of the vehicle and its surroundings.

Expansive accommodations

Futuristic and classic, the new RX includes well thought out design and high quality materials that should last for the long haul. Single-needle stitching is once again all around the cockpit, and frames a new 12.3-inch TFT display in the center of the dashboard, which is now lower and gives off a wider field of view when looking forward. That same screen can play a DVD when parked and when ordered with the rear seat entertainment system, comes with an HDMI connection that allows high-def viewing from the rear seat. Leather and wood-wrapped steering wheels (with heating) start things off, and are joined with the newest generation of Lexus’s mouse-like Remote Touch Interface (RTI) to control navi, audio, climate and vehicle settings.

The interior continues its tradition of fine wood touchpoints, and has partnered with Yamaha Musical Instrument Corporation, who, in addition to their musical expertise, also know a thing or two about lumber. The results are seen in the laser cut wood veneers, which can also be ordered with aluminum striations running lengthwise in the cabin.

The RX now boasts of more legroom in the second row thanks to the growth of the wheelbase by two inches to 109.8-inches. Additionally, the overall length has grown by nearly five-inches to 192.5 in.

Rear cargo area in the RX350 is 18.4-cubic feet behind the second row seating. Fold that seat forward and it grows to 56.3-cubic feet. The RX450h gives up about a half inch more in both measurements.

Does it go?

Color us surprised, but this is a Lexus SUV with some actual sporting pretensions. Even from the passenger seat we could feel the grip with improved — and more rigid — body control. In all versions, ranging from standard RX350 FWD to RX350 F-Sport AWD and RX450h F-Sport AWD, we found surprising handling from a vehicle that up to now was known mostly for its grocery getting abilities. Traveling through the hills of Portland’s suburbs found us attacking twisties and elevations without even giving it a second thought.

But still, we want more power. With the F-Sport models, Lexus chooses to emphasize vehicle dynamics over engine power. The F-Sport Hybrid, with its gas-electric powertrain, did seem much more responsive than the gas-powered V6, which we think could stand an injection of 25 additional ponies. With paddle shifters it was actually a fun ride, almost allowing us to hit redline. Under that kind of circumstance, the RX puts on a good show, with its artificial engine sound being pumped in through the Mark Levinson stereo system.

Leftlane’s bottom line

Lexus rethinks a best seller that was sadly going stale. With the new, aggressive looks of the 2016 Lexus RX, they are hoping loyalists stay in the fold, and that conquest buyers take a look, as well. We think it’s a safe bet on both counts.

2016 Lexus RX350 and RX450h base prices: TBD.

Photos by Mark Elias.

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