Being the first at something doesn’t always mean being the best. Competitors see your flaws and fix them when they launch their products. And then you catch up, but by then, competitors have also tried to get out ahead of you.
That seemed to be the case with the Lexus RX, which billed itself as the segment-starter for the premium, mid-size SUV. But since that first RX came out, it’s struck me that the rivals that followed — Audi Q5, BMW X3, Porsche Cayenne, to name a few — always seemed to have a leg up. The RX had some nicer details than a Toyota, but I was always struck by Robert DeNiro’s line from Analyze That: “That’s like, a Toyota.”
I wasn’t a huge fan of its early interiors: the placement of the shifter, high on the centre console, sticking out at an angle not unlike our minivan’s shifter, and some very Toyota-like switchcraft always left me with a sense of, “It’s nice, but…”
So it’s against that history I arrived at the 2016 RX 350 and was immediately impressed. Sure, it’s still a front-driver with a sideways-mounted engine and power sent backward when needed (Lexus, want to hit a home-run with the next RX? Put the engine in north-south and make it a rear-drive all-wheel driver. The improved balance would be a major plus.), but the interior is all-new, complete with a flat centre console and conventionally placed shifter.
Moving the shifter to a more conventional location is only part of the improvements, however. The rest of the interior gets a significant upgrade in fit, finish and materials from previous generations. As well, the design is striking and beautiful. I especially like the detail on the centre console: metallic charcoal background with metallic pinstripes. Gorgeous, and unique. A big improvement on oh-so-cliché woodgrain.
To Toyota’s credit, they’ve resisted the urge to make drastic changes to powertrains to chase fuel economy. The 3.5-litre V-6 is normally aspirated. The transmission is a conventional six-speed automatic. The result is a powertrain that lacks many of the issues of some — turbo lag and expected turbo maintenance, transmissions that are either herky-jerky dual-clutch gearboxes or uninspiring CVTs or, sometimes, combinations of turbo issues and transmission issues — and behaves much like you’d expect for a luxury SUV.
The fuel economy may not be world-beating, but at an observed average of 14.5 litres per 100 kilometres, not budget-busting, either. It’s a trade-off many luxury buyers will happily accept. Power is immediate, and controllable. Brakes stop hard and are easily modulated for the “chauffeur’s stop” or when needed during an emergency manoeuvre.
On the road, the RX is comfortable enough to be pleasant, tight enough to be relatively sporty. As I alluded earlier, the handling suffers a little by the vehicle’s front-drive layout. With most of the weight up front, it lacks the balance of something such as the Mercedes GLC or GLE, which orient the engine in line with the driveshaft to the rear, putting more weight between the wheels. That said, the RX is quite good on twisty roads. In Canada, at least, the RX is only offered with all-wheel drive.
Cargo space is large for the size of the RX, with enough room to accommodate four midsize suitcases. The seats fold for larger items. Two handy levers near the rear door allow you to fold the rear seats without having to walk to the side doors. Legroom in the rear seat is adequate and, wisely, there is no third-row.
The exterior styling of the RX isn’t gaining universal acclaim, but I like it. The spindle grille is very bold — too bold for some — while details along the side downplay the vehicle’s profile, giving it almost an SUV coupe look without sacrificing cargo volume. It’s hard to provide striking design with universal appeal. Truth is, universal appeal is often code for sufficiently bland. In other words, it’s not that everyone loves it, it’s that everyone doesn’t hate it. Give me striking over bland any day. I may not like it, but I’ll appreciate the effort to be distinctive.
With the 2016 RX 350, Lexus has taken what had always been a pleasant vehicle and made it into something truly worthy of the luxury label. About the only thing I’d change on a future model would be turning the engine 90 degrees and improving the weight balance.