2016 All-New Lexus RX 350: Expanding Benchmarks

By Frank A. Aukofer, January 2nd, 2016

In the big bang universe of crossover sport utility vehicles, the Lexus RX has been both a trigger and a benchmark, and the all-new 2016 model aims to accelerate the expansion.

Introduced as a 1999 model, it was the young Japanese brand's answer to the first luxury SUV, Germany's 1998 Mercedes-Benz ML320. But it was different and also prophetic.

Where the ML320 followed the usual practice then of building SUVs like a truck, with the body mounted on a frame, Lexus designed the RX with a car-like unit body.

That became the standard for modern crossover SUVs. Mercedes soon switched the ML to a unit body, and that design now dominates the marketplace. Early on, the RX competed in the luxury segment against four rivals. Now it competes for customers among 16.

The 2016 RX presents an audacious new face with a giant so-called spindle grille that invites attention but overbites the front bumper. If you ding the car ahead while parking, repairs could cost a bunch of bucks. The RX grille features horizontal bars; F-Sport versions have a mesh grille.

New styling also includes a roof that seems to float over the rear supports, called D-pillars in the industry. Front and rear illumination is via light emitting diodes, or LEDs.

strong>There are four versions: RX 350, RX 350 F-Sport, RX 450h hybrid, and RX 450h F-Sport. The last is the first time the hybrid has been available with the F-Sport package, which includes performance enhancements as well as appearance items. All variants have an eight-speed automatic transmission and front drive with optional all-wheel drive. F-Sports feature steering-wheel paddles for manual shifting.

The 350 versions are powered by a 295-horsepower, V-6 engine with 267 lb.-ft. of torque, which Lexus says can hit 60 mph in 7.7 seconds and has a combined city/highway fuel economy of 23 mpg. The more expensive 450h hybrid model, with a gasoline/electric drive system, delivers a total of 308 hp, as well as 30 mpg overall fuel economy.

In addition, at the press introduction, Lexus displayed a 200T variant of the RX, which uses the same powertrain as the entry-level Lexus crossover, the NX -- a 235-horsepower, 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine with a six-speed automatic transmission. However, it is destined for sale in China and other foreign markets; there is no plan now to sell it in the U.S.

The 2016 RX is nearly 5 inches longer than its predecessor with a wheelbase -- the distance between centers of the front and rear wheels -- a couple of inches longer as well. That translates into a roomier interior with generous head and knee room in the second row. Seatbacks there recline and even the center rear seat, though shortchanged as in most vehicles, is almost reasonably comfortable.

Tested for this review was the base RX 350 with front drive -- the least expensive in the lineup. But it is no slouch as a luxury vehicle, with soft leather upholstery, comfortable and supportive seats, attractive interior appointments, and quality workmanship and details.

Interestingly, despite its qualifications as an all-out luxury vehicle, the RX offers a long list of options, including packages labeled Premium and Luxury, which would seem redundant. But Brian Bolain, the Lexus marketing chief, says the RX needs many choices to satisfy its "almost fanatical fan base" and maintain its pace of more than 100,000 sales a year.

The tested RX 350, for example, came with the Premium option package, which included aluminum roof rails, rain-sensing windshield wipers, three-position memory settings for the driver's seat, and a motorized glass sunroof. Other options were a navigation system with a 12.3-inch screen, blind spot monitoring with rear cross traffic alert, and the Lexus sensor-driven parking assist.

The 2016 RX 350 is estimated to start at $45,950, including the destination charge. With the test car's options, the estimated price is $51,375. Other models, especially loaded hybrids, likely will soar into $60,000-plus territory.

On the road, the front-drive RX 350 exhibits sophisticated, impeccable manners. It is a silent runner with little intrusion of nasty mechanical, road, or wind noises. Acceleration, though not scorching, is strong and steady, and the RX delivers a positive steering feel, confident cornering, and solid straight-line tracking. As befits a modern luxury crossover, the ride is supple and comfortable without any floating sensation.

Though still a teenager at 18 years old, the Lexus RX is mature beyond its age and surely will continue to excite its fanatical fans.

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