Introduced on our shores way back in 1999, Lexus’ RX line has long been the top selling luxury CUV in the US market and of course not just to Realtors, although it does seem to be a quite popular choice for those practicing the profession; upon its redesign for 2016 I was a little curious if it would keep that crown as the styling had definitely veered a little to the polarizing side even looking beyond the spindle grille which captured (and still does) a lot of attention. However, I need not have worried as 2016 turned out to be its biggest sales year yet and they haven’t looked back or slowed down since, easily moving over 100,000 units per year every year in this market alone, which also makes it Lexus’ top-selling model.
Of course there has been a program of continuous improvement as well as additional choices since that first one over two decades ago; a popular hybrid variant first saw the light of day way back in 2006, and a couple of years ago finally saw the introduction of what many thought had been missing all along, that being a third row of seats. Along with a slight freshening for 2020 which should keep it going for the next few years and a few other improvements, one of the 2020 three-row “L” models is what we received for a week to take a closer look at.
Extremely similar to the Toyota Highlander from a mechanical and engineering standpoint (of which we happen to have a 2016 version in our personal fleet), which has long been available in three-row guise, Lexus lengthened the body (but not the wheelbase) by 4.4″ in order to fit an electrically powered third row into the back. The RX has always been more of a fastback design than the more upright Highlander and as such headroom would likely have been an issue without the extra length. However, due to the way the body tapers toward the rear, the RX has accommodations for two rather than three in the third row as compared to the Highlander, although I’ll be the first to admit that three people in a Highlander third row is not an exciting proposition.
My wife as the lead Realtor in our little firm was keenly interested in the RX, and as soon as it arrived was all over it. Within minutes she was asking me if perhaps we could purchase this particular one once it was done with its testing regimen as it seemed to tick all her boxes. From the Nori Green Pearl paint to the matte wood trim and satin nickel metalwork inside, she was quite impressed and clearly found it a significant upgrade from the Toyota. Who knows, we may very well be taking a closer look later this year…(don’t spill the beans to our dealer!)
I will say I was impressed at first glance (and that didn’t change during its stay here). I find that the spindle grille seems to work best on this model, it appears that the rest of the RX was sculpted around it and in conjunction with it whereas on at least a couple of the other models it looks quite grafted on. If nothing else, a Lexus is instantly recognizable from some distance which I suppose was much of the point after being accused of offering fairly boring and generic styling for over a decade.
The grille (and the RX body design itself) were perhaps not exactly what people thought they were clamoring for, but it doesn’t seem to have had a negative effect on sales. Those that say they would not purchase due to the grille likely weren’t going to purchase it anyway. The changes to the front fascia are minor and not very noticeable unless side by side with an older model, the most obvious change is that the black part of the grille has switched from horizontal black bars to a sort of grid pattern or three dimensional shapes repeated over and over. A similar effect was used on the older F-Sport versions of the RX over the last few years.
The additional length of the body for the “L” version is not very obvious, the above picture shows a comparison of the longer model on the right and a standard one on the left. It’s most noticeable when comparing the chrome swoosh trim around the rear window area which is a little more elongated but still very subtle, most people would have no idea what the “L” denotes and probably assume it stands for more Luxury instead of Long.
As much as I find the exterior styling to still be fresh and distinctive, the interior is where I really felt extremely comfortable. At first glance the dashboard can seem like there is a lot going on (and there is) but once one takes a moment and just absorbs it, the “Japanese-ness” of it starts to sink in. There is method to it, with various forms, materials, and textures all working with as well as seemingly against the others to create a design with tension and expressiveness in it.
The wood in this case was of an open pore design but with a sort of satin finish on it, not completely flat or unfinished as the Germans tend to do and was the same on the optional wood/leather steering wheel as on the console and door panels.
Combined with the warm tone of the satin nickel appearing trim work (which was used all over including the logo on the steering wheel) and the black leather and soft plastics the effect was very comforting and warming. I found the cabin to be an extremely soothing place to be, it simply relaxed me and I found it enjoyable to look at and touch every surface – this sounds weird, I know, but there was a craftsmanship to it that felt more human than machine and not commonly seen. Exquisite is a word that carries a lot of weight but it is not inappropriate here.
While some of the upper-tier Germans have some impressive cabins as well, few result in a feeling of warmth and comfort, some of which is more subliminal than initially obvious. Of course, perhaps not every RX build combination with whatever material mix is used will evoke that, but this one did, it’s almost as if they knew exactly what I liked, and perhaps more than I knew what I would like as I maybe would have specced something different if looking through a catalog/brochure.
There were aspects to the cabin that were wonderful as well as sometimes a bit frustrating too – that 12.3 inch horizontal touchscreen is a great optional upgrade over the standard 8″ one if only due to its ability to sort of split screen for multiple things at once as well as simply being able to display more information.
Controlling it can be done in a multitude of ways, touch being the obvious one although Lexus seems to prefer you use its “mouse-pad”-like touch interface in the center console that basically acts like a laptop’s track pad. Your finger moves the curser, you can press down to select and there are a few “hard” button choices as well. It did work, but I found it somewhat distracting, more so than a knob with more tactile detents.
And of course there are voice commands, that although boasting a recently upgraded system, still confounded me sometimes by the fairly rigid syntax that was necessary and at times not understanding or mis-hearing what I was saying. Over time I think an operator would get more used to it, but it is not just as simple as getting in and working with it as with some of the best systems let one do. One point in its favor is a training tutorial that the vehicle asks you to perform with it so that it can learn your particular way of speaking, I did not avail myself of it, but if I owned it, I would. As a result it may be a bit unfair of me to blame it for not understanding what I was saying since I didn’t take advantage of this opportunity, but then again other systems in some other vehicles have no trouble with my speech patterns without any training.
By the end of the week I was comfortable using the trackpad the vast majority of the time, interspersed with a few touches of the screen and sometimes a voice command, though that was the least favored option for me. The system does finally boast Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration so there’s always that as well and Siri responds promptly to my commands.
Placing your mobile phone is best done by actually inserting it into a vertical slot just ahead of the cup holders that is internally dressed with a rubber bubble of sorts, keeping it held tightly in place with the upper half protruding. However the slot was not equipped with a wireless charger which would seem obvious, and when using a cable would cause the cable to be in the slot below the phone, potentially risking damage. So when plugged in, I generally just left it on the console or the passenger seat if not the cup holder, not quite as ideal but within easy reach.
The seats were exceedingly comfortable, the RX (like the Highlander) provides one with a relatively low seating position, it’s more sedan-like (but still higher) than SUV-like in fact. You step in sort of laterally at most rather than stepping up, but once in, the RX’s seats envelop you with subtle torso bolstering that feels quite good. Equipped as mine was with both heat and ventilation, I’m starting to become very attached to the ventilated seats, the Lexus’ was powerful enough to make my shirt flutter on my back when I sat a certain way which amplified the cooling effect greatly. There is also plenty of thigh support even though the RX does not boast the “rollout” bottom cushion of the Highlander.
The lower door pockets are made with an outside layer of plastic as well as a separate inside layer rather than just being a one-piece molded affair, making the edge pleasant to the touch and making it feel far more solid with an actual structure, especially nice is the way that they are hinged so that if you pull on the top, they fold out by a couple of inches. This is very similar to how Audi did their door pockets in the late ’90’s A6, allowing for either more stuff to be put in there or also to make it easier to retrieve items or just to fit a larger cup or bottle into the molded-in holder towards the front of it.
The second row in this one was equipped with the optional captain’s chairs, allowing access to the third row either between them or by tilting them forward.
They adjust forward and back to allow more or less room for cargo or the third row and have about four inches of knee room for me when adjusted all the way back. Headroom for me was enough if not abundant, the sunroof in front cuts into it a bit but it would be plenty comfortable for a long trip.
The third row – well, that’s quite the operation, first you have to raise the seats using a button in the cargo area. The seats slowly (very slowly, it seems to take f o r e v e r ) rise up out of their well and perform more of a dance than you’d think involving not just the backrest rising, but also moving at its base somehow to provide space for the bottom cushion. One erected, the headrests slide up manually and then are ready for occupants.
One extremely nice feature is that the third row has its own HVAC control as well as separate ducts, which at least takes care of that potential issue. Still, space back there is not abundant, I did not even attempt it, but enlisted my two CC-Junior-Staff members to evaluate it for me. The 13-year-old said no way is he getting back there, and that it looked worse than the Highlander (where he now flat out refuses the third row) but the 11-year-old climbed back there and said he’d be happy to ride back there for now but would rather lounge semi-sideways rather than in a normal seating position.
However, and this is a big however, making him comfortable back there meant that the second row had to sacrifice some legroom as well as the front row doing the same. If there is a tall person in front with a tall person behind them, then forget about the third row entirely, the second row will push up almost against the cushion of the third row.
The upshot and my general opinion is that it now makes sense why Lexus resisted the third row in the RX for so many years, and this result likely keeps some buyers from defecting but it should be viewed as really an emergency only usage and then only for little people that can buckle themselves. Forgot about anybody remotely approaching adulthood in size or (lack of) flexibility.
There is a potential tax advantage though as the Hybrid “L” version appears to be the only version of the RX exceeding the threshold for the United States IRS Section 179 guideline for tax deduction and bonus depreciation, allowing a very generous tax write-off and potentially making what would be the most expensive version very competitive with a much more basic regular (non-Hybrid, non-“L”) version. Check with your accountant if considering this, don’t use me or CC as gospel.
Cargo space with the third row up is tight, a plastic rubbermaid type of tote that I was transporting fit but was squished a bit by the tailgate but as a two-row space is ample and with the second row folded, well, most things will fit as long as they fit in the hatch opening.
The glass on the RX tailgate does not open separately, again as opposed to the Highlander, which is a bummer as that is a very handy feature.
I assume all Lexus vehicles are finished to an extremely high standard, and while the vast majority (some think all) of our market’s RXs are actually built in Canada (Cambridge, Ontario), this particular one had a J-VIN, meaning it was built at Miyawaka in Fukuoka Prefecture, Japan. This vehicle was simply perfect in fit and finish, nothing was even barely out of place, everything fit, everything lined up, every stitch was immaculate; all of which is part of the reason for its success – although hardly cheap with a base price approaching $50,000, there are many lesser vehicles on the roads with much higher price tags with far, far less precision and quality in the final assembly, never mind material quality.
Visibility out is quite a bit better than expected, the front pillars are reasonably thin, over the shoulder allows for good views, and even the rear pillar has a much larger glass area in it than I figured, this car had Blind Spot Assist as an optional extra which always helps, but really, outward vision was surprisingly good.
Regarding safety, while I really believe that Blind Spot Assist should be standard if only due to so many inexpensive vehicles having it and many drivers now subconsciously at least partly relying on it, Lexus has finally made the Lexus Safety System + 2.0 standard which frankly on this level of vehicle should have also been done years ago. This consists of Lane Tracing Assist, Road Sign Assist, Pre-Collision System with Pedestrian Detection, Dynamic Radar Cruise Control, and Lane Departure Alert with Steering Assist along with Intelligent High Beam Assist. Brake Assist and Smart-Stop Technology are also included. All of these items’ names are very reflective of what they do, but none of the systems are overly intrusive, really being very much in the background unless absolutely needed.
An example might be the system that helped me when I was pulling into the tightly packed third bay of my garage to keep the dark green paint from getting dusty and dirty outside overnight. It was going to be a very tight fit due to the stacks of wheels and tires I have in my garage but as I pulled in slowly while riding the brakes, the camera in front switched on as well as a display with an “overhead” view and as I was getting close and the proximity sensors started to get louder the car hit the brakes and stopped me completely in order to prevent damage to the front.
There were still a couple of inches left which I needed in order to get the garage door to close without hitting the body so letting up the brakes again let it move forward again just enough to make it work. It did this consistently all week long, enough so that I could trust it when parking to not let me bump into the car in front or behind or in a stop-and-go traffic situation.
But enough about all that stuff, let’s talk about how it drives. I was interested in this as the engine is a direct injected version of Toyota’s 3.5l V6 with an output of 290hp and 263lb-ft of torque and mated to an Aisin 8-speed automatic transmission. In the end, the engine didn’t feel much different at all than the one in our Highlander, a non-direct injected version of the same engine mated to a 6-speed transmission.
It had plenty of power to move out from a light and when on the freeway was ready to downshift as needed and keep on accelerating. Contrary to reports from some other authors, I did not find the 8-speed at all intrusive or “busier” than expected. Sure, it shifted and did a good job of keeping the engine in its power or economy band as needed when needed, and perhaps doing so often is the point of the device, however it wasn’t intrusive from a noise standpoint and while one could watch the tach needle move upon shifting, frequent shifting is the whole reason for the large number of gears in the box.
The RX is not whisper quite inside, the engine is evident at times as is tire noise depending on the road, I thought it might be much more of a sensory deprivation chamber than it actually turned out to be. No, it is not a corner carver beyond being very competent and non-alarming when rounding bends, but the mission of it isn’t to provide the lateral G’s of a Corvette, not that it wallows or anything like that either.
When viewed in its proper context, like the impression I got when just sitting in it as detailed above, the driving experience was one of general peace and serenity but not devoid of character and feedback, you know you are driving it, but doing so requires little overall effort, allowing the driver to emerge from a journey more rested than not. The ride is well damped but never harsh, even with the 20″wheels this one was equipped with it was surprisingly good over bumps and harsh impacts.
Some credit likely goes to the Michelin tires but the suspension is very well tuned for the vehicle in general. I stopped being a fan of 20″ wheels (and larger wheels in general) after growing tired of the impact harshness that my Mercedes GL used to generate but I’m really coming around on this again, it clearly does not have to be that way as this Lexus showed to great effect.
A welcome bonus is the fact that this engine does not require or even recommend the use of premium unleaded fuel, any old regular unleaded swill will apparently do. On a sidenote, the Hybrid version of this engine in the RX Hybrid does recommend (but not absolutely require) premium, apparently due to its utilization of an Atkinson or Atkinson-like cycle (although that is not always a hallmark of such a setup).
While on the subject of gasoline, I was pleasantly surprised by the number I saw. When driving a long freeway leg with three stops around the Denver metro area, the trip computer displayed an average of over 25mpg. For comparison’s sake, I extremely rarely see anything over 22 on our Highlander on similar journeys. The overall for the week and about 375 miles total (with about 200 on freeways/highways and the other 175 in-town) was 21.7 (again, the Highlander tends to average around 17-18 for us). The Monroney sticker shows this RX at 18City, 25Highway, and 21Combined, so overall that’s pretty much right on.
Since the Monroney is in hand, let’s hold our breath and take a deeper dive…The starting price for this RX350L AWD is $48,700 plus $1,025 destination so $49,725 at a minimum. That includes lots of stuff I already mentioned but also 18″ alloy wheels, 10 Airbags, Bi-LED headlights, LED Taillights, illuminated door handles, and DRLs, a 9-speaker multimedia system along with six (!) USB ports, power tilt and telescope steering column, rain-sensing wipers, auto-dimming mirrors, power rear hatch, and aluminum roof rails.
Options are like the sprinkles on a sundae, there are seemingly never enough of them, and Lexus has a lot of different flavors and colors to choose from in that regard. In fact I looked through their website and quickly got overwhelmed, there are many different packages and options, not all of which are available with all others, and some forcing colors and finishes as well, I think ordering one might be a several hour affair that would need to be done at a dealer if only to compare examples of everything.
But this one had a good mix, to wit: Blind Spot Monitor with Intuitive Parking Assist, Panoramic View Monitor, and Rear Cross Traffic Braking (a must) for $1,865; Second-row Captain’s Chairs at $405; Cold Weather Package (wiper de-icer, headlamp cleaners and auto-levelers), a bargain at $100;
20″ Dark Silver Alloys with Machined Finish for $1,130 leave the vehicle with a surprisingly good ride and would be on my list; Heated and Ventilated Front Seats at $640 would also be on mine;
An upgrade to TRIPLE-Beam LED Headlights, Cornering Lamps, Front LED Turn Signals and Fog Lamps runs $1,775;
The 12.3″ Navigation System/Mark Levinson 15-speaker Premium Audio System at a numbing $3,365 (but the sound was excellent and the large screen wonderful although the NAV on my phone worked as well or better than the Lexus version, at least what I used it for); Touch-free Power Rear Hatch with Kick Sensor (wave your leg under the bumper and it opens) for $150 (eh);
Color Head-up Display at $600 that projects various bits of information just below one’s normal line of sight was quite helpful to use and reduced constant refocusing on the dashboard; Premium Package (Power Moonroof, Wood ornamentation) for $1,580, loved that wood, didn’t use the moonroof; the Heated Wood and Leather Steering Wheel at $450 would make the list; and a total of another $1,285 for roof rack cross bars, various mats and carpets, wheel locks and illuminated door sills are pretty standard fare in this class to take or leave as desired.
The grand total with all of the above was $63,100 which when viewed dispassionately as a very fancy Highlander seems like a lot (although even a Highlander can easily run over $50k so there’s that) but compared to other vehicles gets one an extremely nice and marvelously built machine with a highly regarded dealer network and excellent resale value, should you ever choose to sell it, there is no reason that a vehicle like this couldn’t go a couple of hundred thousand miles with minimal maintenance and few unexpected repairs.
Going in I was excited to give this RX a whirl, I had a high opinion of it without much if any prior experience, but it exceeded my expectations. I do believe that if this vehicle fits someone’s use case as well as their budget, it is a very good value and will remain so. It’s not necessarily the fastest, or the hardest cornerer, or the largest, or the most efficient, but it is the type of vehicle that makes people say they love their car and return year after year for another. And that definitely means something.