The Cutting Edge: Too Sharp for its Own Good?
The Lexus RX is the best-selling luxury SUV on the market. By a lot. Its annual sales generally crest six figures, and since its debut for the 1999 model year, it has sold more than 2.1 million copies. In fact, among luxury vehicles, only the BMW 3 Series can match its sales pace. That might be surprising, given that the 3 is sexy and fun, and the RX is, um, neither? Then again, the ho-hum Toyota Camry has been the number-one-selling car since around the time Justin Bieber donned Huggies, so there’s no denying that Americans appreciate unexciting, reliable transportation. But when Lexus unveiled the ultra-edgy fourth-generation RX, it begged the question: Is this a recipe for disaster?
To find out, we headed to Portland, Oregon, for the 2016 Lexus RX’s media launch. Almost immediately, the phrase “seductive strength” was being etched in my mind. Sure, those words could describe the mighty Colorado River elegantly carving its way through the Grand Canyon. Or UFC champ Ronda Rousey tipping the scales bare midriff at a pre-fight weigh-in. But to RX chief engineer Takayuki Katsuda, they represent the SUV in this review. “Strength with a hint of seductiveness,” is how he expounded on the RX’s design theme, as if seductiveness were nutmeg. Heck, variety is still the spice of life, so perhaps that’s not a bad way of describing the RX’s myriad hard edges, polarizing spindle grille, and floating roofline.
What lies beneath the 2016 RX’s chaotic façade, though, is the sales magic that is typical Lexus ingenuity—a stiffer, stronger, and heavily revised example of the platform used in the Toyota Highlander; more powerful and efficient gas and hybrid powertrains, the former mated to a standard eight-speed automatic and the latter now available in F Sport guise; a roomier and more luxurious five-seat cabin wrapped in a longer (4.7 inches) and wider (0.4 inch) body riding on a stretched (1.9 inches) wheelbase; and added safety and convenience technologies. So despite the origami sheetmetal, don’t expect RX sales volume to go anywhere but up.
According to Katsuda-san, a goal with the fourth-gen RX was to heighten driver engagement via improved dynamics. His team started with the body, increasing the use of hot-stamp and high-strength steels, utilizing aluminum for both the hood and the hatch, and incorporating more adhesive bonding and laser screw welding. The result? Rigidity up, weight down (the fourth-gen’s estimated curb weight is roughly the same as the third-gen’s, which Lexus attributes to added content). Katsuda-san then turned to the engine mounts, which were repositioned to minimize NVH and alleviate the inertial effects of the V-6’s mass as it relates to yaw response – e.g. physics pushing the engine left as the vehicle goes right. Along with a retuned and reworked front strut and rear control-arm suspension, “optimized” speed-sensing electric power steering, and available 20-inch wheels with Michelin Premier LTX tires, Katsuda-san’s efforts all contributed to a more dynamic experience.
How dynamic? The 2016 RX will never embarrass a Porsche Macan on a road course, or the new twin-turbo Lincoln MKX at a drag strip, but it does leave the third-gen model in the dust. The ride feels more luxurious and quiet, building on Lexus’ reputation of smooth serenity. The steering comes across more responsive and communicative, certainly in F Sport tune. And the chassis seems more composed, buttoned down, and, yes, engaging than ever before. Imagine a grown-up version of our Big Test-winning NX 200t, and that’s the new RX.
A proven 3.5-liter V-6 continues to motivate the volume-selling RX 350. The so-called 2GR-FKS features direct injection, an 11.8:1 compression ratio, dual overhead cams, and the Atkinson cycle, all of which raise output to 295 horsepower and 267 lb-ft of torque, and bump fuel economy to an estimated 20/28/23 mpg city/highway/combined with FWD and 19/26/22 with AWD (vs. 18/25/21 and 18/24/20, respectively, for the six-speed 2015 models, or 18/26/21 for the 2015 F Sport model with an eight-speed auto and AWD). Bottom line: The new eight-speed’s two extra gears equate to two more mpg on the combined cycle. Opt for the gas/hybrid RX 450h, and the V-6 switches to a less potent 2GR-FXS 3.5-liter (259 hp and 247 lb-ft) paired with a CVT and two (FWD) or three (AWD) electric motors. Either way, system output is listed at 308 horsepower (Lexus doesn’t cite total torque) and combined fuel economy of 30 mpg. Off the line, the torque advantage of the RX 450h is evident, but get the RX 350 spinning in the upper reaches of the rev range, and it feels every bit as quick. Sounds better, too.
Step inside the 2016 RX, and the controversial, creased exterior fades into curvaceous, modern Lexus excellence. The interior design is clean and the execution thoughtful and well presented. The F Sport boasts drilled aluminum pedals, aluminum trim, exquisite bucket seats, such saucy hide hues as Rioja Red, and an LFA-inspired three-spoke steering wheel that frames a large center-mounted analog tach with an integrated digital speedo. For those of less sporting intentions, the non-F variants offer a variety of exotic trims, including matte bamboo and laser-cut gray sapele with aluminum, as well as semi-aniline leather. Resting neatly atop the dash is an available 12.3-inch infotainment screen that offers full-width map display. And it’s always nice to see volume and tune knobs still operating the audio systems, including the optional 835-watt Levinson unit. Naturally, the RX offers more interior space, notably 1.2 inches of additional rear legroom (thank you, longer wheelbase), not to mention an impressive ensemble of 10 standard airbags and the optional Lexus Safety System + that consists of adaptive cruise control, pre-collision system with pedestrian detection, lane departure alert, lane keeping assist, and intelligent high-beam headlights.
After several hours and few hundred miles with the RX, I came away thinking: Sure, the exterior design is gaudy and outlandish, but the interior is posh, the dynamics are commendable, and, at an estimated starting price of under $45,000 USD, the value is tough to beat. Recipe for disaster? Considering the hot sales of the similarly styled NX, the RX is looking more and more like a recipe for success.