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I have never got on with the Lexus RX.
For one thing, its styling seemed "gorpy" to me, its front-end design reminding me of the chinless wonders that were supposed to be the heroes of The Revenge of The Nerds. The interior styling was equally humdrum. Ditto its performance.
Indeed, the entire raison d'etre for the RX seemed to be to not offend anyone. And while that middle-of-the-road motif resulted in the mid-sized luxury ute being wildly popular on the sales floor, it also led to the decay of the Lexus brand -- no one quite sure what, if anything, Lexus was striving to stand for.
Three years into its latest redesign, the RX is getting new makeup and, in at least one case, the makeover is actually a little tarty. Make no mistake: Lexus IS not about to start sponsoring Les Folies Bergère, but there is, believe it or not, a soupßon of sexiness to the '13 RX.
At least if you order the F Sport version of the RX 350. Then you'll get all manner of GS 350-inspired aggressive additions, including the angular trapezoidal grille that we first saw on the LF-FC concept car. There's also some big 19-inch wheels (their gunmetal coating matching my tester's slate grey exterior) with P235/55R/19 tires.
Inside, there's an all-new monochromatic black leather decor that is simply stunning, with better-quality hides than I've seen on any Lexus this side of an LS. The interior's subdued luxury is further highlighted by a few modest aluminum bits and some tastefully subtle wood trim -- all in all, it looks vaguely Germanic in its more subtle take on hedonism.
What really sets the new RX apart, however, is its centre console. For years now, the Germans have been telling us we need computerized infotainment systems so that they can imbue their vehicles with the latest electronic trickery without overwhelming we mere mortals with spaceship-level buttonry. Then they go ahead and festoon their interiors with more buttons, switches and widgets than a space shuttle.
Lexus may have actually delivered on that promise of reduced complication, at least if the F Sport I drove is any indication. Indeed, other than the air conditioner controls and some minimalistic radio switchgear (leaving the most important knob, the tuning function, analogue), the centre console is mercifully devoid of extra buttons -- the cleanest, by far, of any recent luxury vehicle I can remember.
And, wonder of wonders, the onboard computer controller -- Remote Touch Interface, in Lexus parlance -- is not a pain-in-the-you-know-what to operate. Possibly because the mouse's operation is more traditional, maybe because the submenus are better designed, but almost assuredly because Lexus engineers resisted the temptation to burden its system with every possible function the overly fertile minds of typical computer nerds could imagine, the RTI is easy for simple folk to operate.
There are seven possible selections to be made -- navigation, information, vehicle setup, radio, audio system, climate control and phone control -- and all are, again, blessedly devoid of endless submenus.
I didn't get lost and, shades of Apple computers, I didn't once have to resort to the owner's manual to find what I was looking for. Congrats, Lexus.
In the motivational department, the powertrain remains typical Lexus -- that is to say, the RX is powered by Toyota's ubiquitous 3.5-litre V6, in this guise claiming a 270-horsepower peak output. Though it's smoother than ever in this incarnation, it remains the RX's weak link, a little buzzy when the revs get going and just a step behind the best powerplants in the segment.
Thankfully, it doesn't often need high revs. With a generous amount of torque -- 248 pound-feet -- and a slick-shifting eight-speed transmission that keeps the engine in the meat of its powerband, the F Sport doesn't often have to be spun to its 6,400-rpm redline. It's a marked improvement over the previous-generation V6, but both the RX F Sport and the new GS 350 deserve more willing powerplants.
The Lexus handling upgrades are more successful. There's a trick new flexible suspension mounting system that Lexus claims allows the F Sport to use a firmer suspension without cramping up the ride. For the most part, it works, this sportiest of RXs exhibiting less body roll without noticeable degradation in ride quality. Throw in weightier steering and the F Sport, if not nearly Porsche Cayenne material, is still sportier than much of its competition.
The all-wheel-drive system, as in previous Lexuses, defaults to front-wheel-drive power transfer, though it can send 50 per cent of the engine's torque rearward if wheel slippage is detected by the traction control system.
Lexus IS trying to accomplish what some in marketing say is impossible -- appealing to everyone at least part of the time. Rather than focus on just being sporty ( la BMW), versatile (Audi) or conventional (Lexus for the last decade or so), it's striving to capture all three. The company will continue mainstreaming along with the comparatively somnolent ES 350 and LS luxury barges while offering decidedly sportier items such as the new GS and the upcoming IS.
It will be a tough job to capture these markets and everything in between. But as the versatility of the RX platform -- the basic 350, the frugal RX 450h hybrid and now this decidedly more aggressive F Sport (retailing for $57,900, by the way) -- shows, Lexus IS expanding its product portfolio to seek a wider audience.
-- Postmedia News