The new Lexus RX-350 SUV

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Michael Toscano

Lexus has been able to justify its often hefty price tags over the past two decades by creating high quality automobiles, earning a reputation as a maker of reliable and sophisticated luxury vehicles.  J.D. Power and Associates has named Lexus the most reliable brand in America in fourteen of the last eighteen years.  This storied car is, in actuality, an upscale Toyota mostly made in Japan (with one plant just over the border in Canada, and another slated for Kentucky).  But that has not stopped this newcomer from rapidly gaining a place in the automotive hierarchy alongside venerable names including Mercedes Benz, BMW and Jaguar, as a potent status symbol for the American driver.  

The Lexus brand is also becoming part of the popular culture.  A sure sign is that the name “Lexus” is not just found on cars these days, but has managed to break into the top 1,000 monikers for new babies in the U.S.   Bye-bye, baby Alexis.  So long, baby Alex.  Hello little Lexus. 

But status is harder to sell when money is tight, so Lexus is apparently trying to broaden the brand’s appeal.  Mixing in some robust beer to the Lexus champagne image is their crossover SUV for 2013, the RX 350.  The result is a sharp handling, energetically performing and comfortable vehicle that’s surprisingly affordable for the upscale driving experience it provides.  (The MSRP is just over 40 K, with an ambitious options package adding another 10 K for the model I drove.) There has to be a trade-off somewhere, of course, and it comes with the use of economy materials in the interior, some flimsy exterior detailing, and in some sloppy interior design.  So it retains all of Lexus’ curb appeal, handles like a more expensive SUV, but has some irritating, cost-cutting shortcomings which may seem minor, but which would likely keep me from granting it a permanent spot in our driveway.

Lexus has given the 2013 RX models a new look, featuring the dramatically sporty “spindle grille” that Lexus is now featuring as a signature of its brand.  Exterior light clusters, wheels, and the interior have been modernized, and the options packages have been updated, too.   

With a 3.5 liter engine getting 270 HP with its four-cam, 24-valve V6 and Variable Valve Timing,  I found the RX 350 responds vigorously on the highway, its 6-speed automatic transmission providing smooth, rapid and quiet acceleration.  The double-wishbone independent rear suspension, combined with a wide track (64 inches-plus in front), adds to overall stability.  And there’s great traction.  I had a good test of those attributes while getting caught in a powerful thunderstorm during a drive up the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.  Despite being buffeted by strong winds and pelted with heavy rain, the RX 350 hugged the road and the traction remained superb.  It handled more like a low-slung performance car than a sort-of-SUV, except that steering might be considered a bit on the loose side for my tastes. 

The RX 350 is competitive with the fuel economy ratings of other luxury brands in its class; the AWD version I drove earns an EPA rating of 18/24 mpg.   

A pleasant passenger experience is a high priority with this crossover.  Controls are easy to figure out and operate.  The cockpit is comfortable, of course, with a curvy design style that’s pleasing to the eye.  However, the use of downscale-but-durable materials are not so nice to the touch, and definitely take the edge off the sophisticated veneer.  Every element of the interior seems is curved or rounded, and there is an innate visual sense of elegance and harmony. The model I drove had a number of optional luxury and convenience options, with trim accents and cutting edge audio and communications features and a full package of safety enhancements.   Five people can ride in comfort here.

Several design issues got in my way every time I drove the RX 350, though.  The parking brake is mounted on the floor and extends up into the area where the driver’s left leg rests.  In fact, it sometimes ended up poking my leg while driving, an obvious safety drawback, as well as an annoyance.  Another example of slapdash design is the positioning of the power cord plug for phones and other personal devices.  It is tucked into a corner of an oddly planned storage bin in the console.  If you have arthritic fingers, you may never be able to properly insert the plug and will certainly face a major challenge removing it.  In fact, there’s no way to get a proper grip on your cord, and you’ll be forced to just leave it in place or risk pulling the cord out of its base and ruining it.  That may not be a deal-breaker for you, but I did not like it.  The cost-cutting is also evident on the outside, where some of the design features are molded out of incredibly flimsy plastic.  I had the impression a relatively light tap might crack open that new grille Lexus is so proud of.

This kind of cost-cutting will probably allow many more Americans to become Lexus owners, but the company runs the risk of diluting its vibrant brand if it goes too far.  The RX 350 does come in more upscale models, including a sport version, the 350 F Sport, and the RX 450h.  But try the RX 350 first.  It looks great, and it runs great.  It’s comfortable, handles nicely, and has a certain amount of practicality going for it.  If you can get by the things I did not like, you may see a winner.