What It Is/Who It's For
The RX 350 is the official soccer mom/lawyer dad SUV of Southern California.
The Lexus remote touch mouse is finger-clickin' good.
The perception you have of the dull people who drive them.
The RX 350 looks dull; the RX 350 is not dull.
The Lexus RX was the very first luxury crossover SUV, and the current RX 350 is the Japanese brand's pre-eminent family mobile. But like many of the cars in the Lexus model lineup, the RX is a little long in the tooth and will be, for better or worse, refreshed for 2013. And that's all the reason we needed to drive the current, out-going model.
Specifically, we wanted to know how the RX stacks up to the newest competition. Would we recommend it to bargain-hunting family and friends this summer, prior to the next models release, or would consumers be best served by skipping it entirely and waiting for the refreshed model? And lastly, what's the deal with all the boring Lexus drivers? Does the RX invite the dull, tame the wild at heart, or is it just a bad stereotype?
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What We Drove
The 2011 RX 350 is not significantly different than the 2012 model, but our all-wheel drive tester does represent a not uncommon, big-bucks and all-options check-marked model. With AWD and standard features, the base price is listed at $40,250 including destination (take away that $875 charge, and the RX 350 falls under the psychologically important sub-$40k plateau, at $39,375). Standard features include a 275-hp 3.5-liter V-6, six-speed automatic transmission, and 18-inch alloy wheels.
Of course, this is a Lexus, so you know it's also safe. That's why there's a full court press on airbags, including the front and rear, driver's side and passenger's side, and for the drivers' knees and the occupants' heads. Sing with us: Head, Shoulders, knees and... ok, you get the point. There's also the standard traction and stability control, anti-lock brakes with brake force distribution, and tire pressure monitoring system. And just for giggles, since everyone has AAA or roadside service anyway, Lexus included a tool/first aid kit.
That first aid kit might come in handy when your butt falls asleep in the plush interior, which is no slouchy run-of-the-mill Toyota. Standard features include Bluetooth and XM satellite radio, dual-zone climate control, power tilt and telescopic steering wheel, genuine wood interior trim, and a multi-information display. Oh, but that's not all! Our tester came equipped with the $1950 Comfort Package, which includes high-intensity headlamps and driver and passenger heated and ventilated seats; a $5005 Dual-screen rear seat entertainment system, as well as the front navigation system with Enform voice command, a backup camera, and the uber-amazing remote touch mouse; the $4900 Luxury Package, including a one-touch moonroof, wood and leather steering wheel and shift knob, and 19-inch wheels; a $1610 Mark Levinson premium surround sound audio system; a $500 parking assist and a $59 cargo net.
Total price? A svelte $54,274, including $14,024 in options.
There is a very good reason why the RX 350 is so popular on Southern California freeways: It's easy to drive! The RX has a great mix of fuel economy and power from the 3.5-liter V-6. Stomp the gas, and it moves with authority, enabling you to scoot around traffic. Or, hold off and watch the digital dash fuel economy readout climb. Some of this has to do with the six-speed automatic transmission. The gear shifts were quick and silent, and while cruising, the engine speed was low enough that we were able to average between 24-25 mpg. And the suspension floats over expansion joints and road bumps as impressively as any luxury sedan, making long trips easy on the butts and backs, because it just doesn't feel like a 4300-lb rolling behemoth.
Many SUVs cater to the captain's cockpit philosophy where the seats are ensconced on a raised platform and surrounded by gadgets and controls. That's mostly true for the RX, and there is an impressive array of technological goodies catered to the driving position. These can be ignored if you're so inclined, but for our commute, we enjoyed the "remote touch" mouse, which is by far the most intuitive feature on any navigation system on the market. Other manufacturers, including Lexus, feature a voice-activated menu system for climate, navigation, and audio, but those rarely work as well as they should. With the remote touch mouse, Lexus has developed an approach that takes almost no time getting used to. We were able to select audio channels on the go, adjust the climate controls, and monitor the navigation screen without moving our right elbows from the plush leather arm rest.
Feature-wise, the Mark Levinson audio surround system was a real treat, and well worth the added cost. Even the navigation system worked as advertised, though we did have trouble with Lexus' Enform voice-recognition. But if you're commuting, you already know where you're going and how you're getting there.
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The Grocery Run
It seems every third car in Southern California is a red RX driven by a soccer mom or lawyer dad. They're everywhere, especially the grocery store. And for good reason -- if the cavernous cargo space can swallow children and pets whole, just think of how many post-consumer recycled bags of Whole Foods groceries you can store back there. More than most of us journalists can afford, anyway. Which makes the RX the perfect mate for a trip to Best Buy for a new flat screen TV, or to Ethan Allen for a matching set of bedside tables.
Inside, the semi-aniline leather interior impressed, and soft touches and panels and materials abound. The backseat features a sliding and reclining rear seatback, and three easy to find and use LATCH points.
Around town, the RX feels less isolated from its surroundings. The steering feels a bit heavier and the suspension like more of a truck than a sedan. It's still Lexus smooth -- and quiet -- but it feels its age, something many of the newer crossovers have addressed. At the stoplight, the RX is not fast, but it is sporty-ish and has enough power to chirp the wheels on painted surfaces. Which answers the question everyone wonders about Lexus, but never asks: is the car dull, or is it the driver?
The Weekend Fun
The RX only looks dull, so there goes every preconceived notion I had about the automaker -- aside from its conservative styling. It's beyond us why dull people are attracted to Lexus vehicles, and particularly the RX, because it is lively and snarling when unleashed on the open road.
That's what I found when I took my family to a mountainous town in Northern San Diego County famous for its pies. The RX transitions well from freeway cruiser to mountain bobsled, thanks in part to the sport mode transmission, which provides a noticeable difference shift patterns -- and fuel economy! The RX is no sports coupe, but with all-wheel drive, a refined suspension and brake package, and a potent V-6, it has the power and agility to surprise the unsuspecting.
For the performance buffs, this equates to straight line performance better than the Lexus IS 250 sports sedan that we tested last year, and although not as nimble, it is more rewarding. Inside, the seats are comfortable and soft, though appropriately supportive for cruising more than go-karting, and there's plenty of knee and foot space. Really, the only question we have is why we don't more often see people enjoying driving it.
The RX 350 looks dull, but it is not dull. In fact, it's a very good SUV that merits consideration from people who can afford its price, regardless of competition. It is practical for hauling kids and goods without killing your wallet for gas, and is as comfortable in the mountains as it is the freeway and neighborhood streets. In fact, the RX 350 does everything that Americans irrationally want from their SUVs. And it really is easy to get past the anesthetized exterior once behind the wheel, which is what matters most anyway.
The majority of our editorial team walked away from the RX very impressed. So, there you have it -- our apologies to Lexus, and the heap of insults we've thrown them over the years -- the RX 350 is a fine car (but often driven by dullards clogging the left lanes of the busiest freeways), and you'd do well to pick it up on closeout before the refresh. For our money, though, we'd skip the $5005 rear entertainment system and the $4900 luxury package, and depending on region (you might want those heated seats in the northeast), we'd even skip the $1950 comfort package, putting us in the vicinity of $42,000, including the excellent premium surround sound audio system.
One request though: If you get one, drive it like you love it.
EPA City: 18 mpg
EPA Highway: 24 mpg
EPA Combined: 20 mpg
Estimated Combined Range: 384 miles
Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: Excellent
"The Lexus RX is the company's breadwinner. It invented the whole idea of a luxury crossover in the late 90s, and although there are a lot of different flavors of them now, the Lexus formula holds up well." - Keith Buglewicz, News Director
"The RX 350 is the ultimate rich suburban housewife mall assault vehicle. And it can even do double duty when lawyer husband's Bimmer is in the shop." - Joel Arellano, Senior Editor
"The wood accents on the steering wheel are tough to handle on long trips." - Trevor Dorchies, Associate Editor
"The weird mouse thing (Remote Touch) sounds like it'd be distracting on paper, but it works really well in application." - Blake Z. Rong, Associate Editor
"The RX 350 has a bonus driver's cup holder! It fits a Starbucks coffee cup perfectly." - Matt Askari, Associate Editor
"The RX 350 is all about isolating the driver from the harsh outside world. And it succeeds." - Jacob Brown, Associate Editor