A week spent in the midsize crossover SUV from Toyotas luxury brand
Smooth engine and transmission
Fit and finish, ergonomics, switchgear
Things get Harrier
If auto manufacturers' relentless use of letters and numbers – all the while following the Mercedes-Benz rule of model nomenclature - has led you into a mindless fog, you're not alone.
The first luxury manufacturer to follow in this path was Lexus. And while Toyota's luxury brand has held to this principle (Acura started with the NSX in 1990 and dropped its other model names shortly thereafter) identifying your models in this manner still seems to lack a certain amount of originality.
I only say this because prior to the introduction of the third-generation RX and before the Lexus brand was launched in Japan, back in its home market the RX 350 carried the Toyota Harrier badge.
Doesn't it seem that a "Harrier" ought to be much more interesting than an RX? If it's any consolation, Lexus has stated that the letters "RX" stand for "Radiant Crossover" – so at least it has that going for it.
2013 Lexus RX 350
Back in 1998, Lexus was the first luxury brand to base a sport utility vehicle on a unibody platform – in this case the Toyota Camry – and succeeded in creating a whole new type of sport utility vehicle, the crossover.
Today, the RX remains the brands only crossover model as well as the only one that is also built outside of Japan at Toyota's Cambridge, Ontario, Canada assembly facility.
Following its third generation re-do, the RX now sports a 3.5-liter DOHC all-aluminum V6 which produces a creamy 270 horsepower at 6,200 rpm and 248 lb.-ft. of torque at 4,700 rpm and features dual variable valve timing.
This six pot is mated to a six-speed manumatic that uses a low-speed lockup damper to enable lock-up from first to sixth gear to help improve the fuel economy. The tranny is also equipped with what Toyota calls "Intelligent Shift Control." This feature sets shift patterns based on vehicle speed and throttle position and estimates road conditions and driver input to automatically control the shift pattern.
On all-wheel-drive models, an Active Torque Control AWD system uses an electronically controlled coupling ahead of the rear differential to vary the distribution of torque anywhere from 100:0 to 50:50 front to rear, depending on driving dynamics and road conditions.
This means that when accelerating, or starting on a low-grip surface, torque is sent to all four wheels while at steady road speeds, torque is sent only to the front wheels, improving fuel efficiency.
Outside, Lexus decided to tread lightly (pun intended), even with the refreshed version that went on sale for the 2013 model year - and for good reason. The RX, it should be pointed out, is, by far, the best-selling Lexus model and represents nearly 40 percent of the brand's sales here in the U.S.
The biggest change to the refreshed model is up front, where the RX now sports Lexus' signature "spindle" grille. Other changes include a new front bumper, revised headlamps (now clear), LED daytime running lights and new fog lamp bezels.
In back, changes include a power back door, revised tail lamps (now also clear) and a new rear license plate surround. A particularly nice touch: the rear wiper parks itself under the upper rear spoiler, out of the way of accumulating snow and ice.
Inside, the RX retains its title as a benchmark for midsize luxury crossovers. Overall fit and finish is outstanding and is highlighted by a stunning one-piece dashboard cover that features complex curves. Trust me when I tell you that it's not easy, or cheap, to pull something like this off.
Inside, owners will find soft, leather heated front seats that are both firm and supportive with just the right amount of side bolstering while the 10-way driver's seat (the passengers is also 10-way) features three memory settings.
There are soft-touch surfaces galore, a new steering wheel with a varying circumference and a remote-touch joystick that worked the optional Mark Levinson-branded infotainment system on our tester.
Instruments are clear and easy to read, with the smooth console and center-stack buttons and controls being very intuitive. The only issue I had with this setup involves the computer mouse-like controller residing atop the center console. Don't get me wrong, once I got the hang of it (it even gives the user tactile feedback), I found that it worked very well although it did seem a bit overly-sensitive at times. The downside, however, is that it seems to demand too much of the driver's attention to the point where the best option is often pulling off the road to perform certain functions.
Front seat passengers enjoy a generous amount of head, shoulder and leg room. In back, up to three rear-seat passengers will find a nearly flat floor, along with plenty of room, featuring high-sitting and well-shaped seats along with easy ingress and egress.
Loading objects into the cargo area is also a breeze with the electric hatch feature that can be operated from the back, from a button on the dash, or from the key fob.
The 60/40 split rear seats are available with an optional fold-down center arm rest that contains a storage area and a flip-up dual cup holder. Folding them is also easy via the two release levers located on either side of the outboard sides of the lower seat cushions.
By their very definition, crossovers are not the type of vehicles one would normally associate with either twisty roads or straight-line performance. This is also very much the case with the 2013 Lexus RX 350.
The V6 is smooth, powerful and refined with strong acceleration. Road and wind noise are also fairly muted while suspension compliance is excellent and body lean is well controlled. Braking is also very good and it's easy to modulate the brake pedal.
Handling, however, is mediocre at best and there's very little in the way of feedback through the leather-wrapped steering wheel. One other problem is the result of the RX's styling – rear quarter visibility is impaired by the wide C-pillars and low roofline. I found myself constantly checking my rearview mirrors and, in one instance, I accidentally cut off another vehicle in heavy traffic (my apologies to the driver of the Jaguar X-type in Troy).
Equipment and pricing
New car pricing is fairly simple when it comes to the RX. Lexus's crossover is available in five flavors: front-wheel-drive, all-wheel-drive, F-sport all-wheel-drive and hybrid front-wheel-drive and all-wheel drive versions.
As befits their über- premium nature, all RXs come with leather seating, ebony maple wood trim, premium audio, full power features including a tilt-and-telescopic steering wheel and one-touch up/down windows (the quietest I've ever experienced), power rear door, and dual automatic climate control, auto-dimming inside rearview mirror, heated front seats, power moonroof, alloy wheels, and heated outside mirrors. Also standard are front door storage pockets that fold outward for easier access.
The optional Comfort Package adds xenon HID headlamps, rain-sensing wipers and heated and ventilated seats.
The Mark Levinson premium sound system includes HD radio with iTunes tagging and 15 (count ‘em) speakers.
The optional nav system features voice command, a backup camera and the Lexus Enform system with multimedia display, app suite, satellite radio, NavTraffic, destination assist, stocks, sports and fuel prices along with a 1-year subscription to these services.
Finally, the Premium Package on our tester came with a perforated leather-trimmed interior, memory system for driver's seat, outside mirrors and steering wheel, power moonroof, rear armrest storage, roof rails and power-folding, auto-dimming heated outside mirrors.
New car prices, including an $895 destination and handling charge, begin at $40,555 for a front-wheel drive model and top out at around $64,000 for an optioned-to-the-max 450h.
Our tester, a Nebula Gray Pearl, all-wheel-drive 350 had a base price of $41,060.00. Adding the Comfort Package ($1,340.00), Mark Levinson sound system ($995.00), Navigation System ($2,775.00), and Premium Package ($2,760.00) brought the total MSRP, including delivery, to $49,825.00.
The Bottom Line
It's easy to see why the RX is a best seller. For 2013 it's got lot going for it – attractive styling, good fuel economy, a quiet ride and a comfortable, richly-appointed interior. The fact that it could use a more responsive steering setup and better handling, while the optional joystick leaves a bit to be desired, will probably be overlooked by most drivers shopping for a luxury crossover.