2016 Lexus RX350 Review: Reinvented for a New Breed of Buyer

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

It’s been five years since the last generation RX hit the highway. After shaking things up back in 1998 by introducing Americans to the concept of a luxury midsize crossover, Lexus has sold 2.1 million units, retaining the luxury title as second-best seller behind the BMW 3 series. But even though the last generation continued to sell well, Lexus felt that it was time for an overhaul, and a new-found interest in zeroing in on the Millennial male demographic has created what the Japanese automaker calls a more “driver oriented” rendition. It sits atop a broader stance, offers more lines, and has more power, rigidity, and attitude than any RX to date.

In order to realize how good this car is, you have to drive the outgoing model. The difference is night and day in every portion of the equation. From the double-wishbone rear suspension and thicker sway bars to the lightweight aluminum hood and rear hatch, the F Sport version of the 2016 Lexus RX350 is an adrenaline junkie disguised as a serving of sophisticated SUV sex appeal. On-demand all-wheel drive, eight gears that deny shift points for swifter corner exit speeds, variable dampening suspension for decreased wheel travel, and extended time in a wind tunnel for increased aero efficiency and attitude all spell one thing: performance.

People either love or loathe Lexus’s new spin on styling, but regardless of what they may feel about those lines, it is a brand that has become impossible to ignore. It can’t be referred to in terms like “soft” or “feminine” anymore, something the outgoing model and every RX before it had in spades. This is the meaner, leaner, sportier side of Lexus, and even with its space-age safety equipment, upgraded tech, and top-shelf interior touches, there’s a feeling that the time for playing it safe is over as the next generation of luxury buyer wants some attitude to go with that Monday morning commute.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Exterior

Let’s begin by confronting the elephant in the room. All of those pinched lines are about as controversial as gun control in lower Alabama. I personally dig all of the sharp angles and integrated LED lighting, and the new RX’s floating roofline seems perfectly placed. The rocker panels blend into a rear spoiler that is just as functional as it is futuristic. The use of brushed metallic trim pieces in the lower air dam and rear diffuser break things up nicely, and even though strips of matte black trim adorn fender wells just like the NX 200t F Sport I reviewed earlier in the year, I wasn’t horribly offended by its presence. Streamlined and sharp, the RX is no longer a bubbly sponge for spoiled high school girls, but a precise device for the modern man.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Exterior pros and cons

+ Aggressive, angular front fascia, interchangeable insert-equipped 20-inch alloy wheels, and an integrated dual port exhaust all help give the redesigned RX a far more macho aura.

+ A floating roofline helps make the C-pillar become a focal point, instead of just an obstruction for once.

+ The rear spoiler features functional corner fins, is angled to reduce drag, and has a wiper arm that tucks away beneath it, giving further reason to believe that this car was designed by ninjas.

– The same angled fascia that makes the new RX more masculine looking is also being referred to as “hideous” by other media outlets. Love it or hate it, you can’t ignore it.

– The car’s exhaust tips don’t taper down and attach to the exhaust itself, which surely reduces noise, but is far too noticeable and cheapens the appearance of the vehicle.

– Interchangeable wheel inserts are interesting, but the RX really needs some different wheel options all together with simpler five, six, or eight-spoke designs. Fortunately, you can always opt for some quality aftermarket alloy wheels.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Powertrain

Its 295 horsepower may not sound like anything worth writing home about, but the way in which it is delivered makes the RX perform far better than you’d expect. With 267 pound-feet of torque on tap and a zero-to-60 time of seven seconds flat, the all-wheel drive is a bit of a slouch on paper; put her in Sport+ mode and start churning through all of the available eight gears, though, and you won’t be bored. A high-pressure fuel system that is both port and direct injected, a computer that holds gears for faster cornering, and a dynamic torque control system that can distribute power completely to one side all mean one thing: no more boring commutes.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Powertrain pros and cons

+ The 3.5-liter V6 gives you almost 300 horsepower and uses a combination of port and direct injection that allows drivers to use regular unleaded, helping negate the RX’s 22 mile-per-gallon estimate.

+ That eight-speed automatic transmission shifts smoothly, but in Sport+ mode those paddle shifters give a feeling of control one wouldn’t expect to find in something like the RX.

+ Space-age stuff like an on-demand all-wheel drive system saves gas by powering the car with just the front wheels, and a “G-AI” control gives Sport+ fans the ability to hold gears through a turn in order to keep revs up for swifter exit speeds.

– While it may have adequate power on tap, the RX’s lumbering frame is still heavy, so passing still takes preparation and time.

– Eight gears may be great for fuel efficiency numbers, but that is just one more thing to worry about in 10 years when things start to break and warranties are long gone.

– There is no turbocharged option, so F Sport models are utilizing the same powerplant as their lesser siblings. A full-blown, boosted “RX F” version would make for a far more compelling marketing machine.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Interior

Perhaps the biggest difference between the outgoing model and this fourth generation RX is its cabin. It’s one of the nicest interiors I’ve come across all year. Gone is all the hideous perforated leather, the gear selector is where it belongs, trim pieces are all top notch, swooping lines are everywhere, both legroom and headroom are in abundance, controls are all appropriately placed, the contrasting color options are fantastic, and those heated/vented F Sport seats are the perfect combination of snug and soft. Lexus came up with its own form of injection molding for this car’s cushions, and combined with that signature stitching, there’s no denying the RX’s place at the top of the SUV game. Other favorite interior updates include the use of acoustic glass, those unique F Sport gauges, and the triumphant return of the sunglasses holder.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Interior pros and cons

+ LED ambient lighting, “F-shaped” door inserts, hand-stitched dash trim, Supele wood from Africa highlighted with aluminum, and a tablet storage nook on the passenger’s side of the center stack all showcase an attention to detail and design.

+ The front cupholders are depth-adjustable in order to hold bigger cups, and are retractable as well. Very cool.

+ The panoramic sunroof, aluminum sport pedals, rearranged center stack, customizable full color display graphics, and soft touch materials all make this interior a huge winner in every department.

– The center console storage and glovebox are both a hair on the snug side — even my Nikon camera had issues fitting properly, so finding a way to expand those would be a good idea.

– While it may be roomy and comfy, the backseat is somewhat base feeling. The passenger-facing center console offers nothing more than a couple of vents with no way of controlling temps or airflow from the back.

– The rear seats don’t fold down flat, and aren’t heated. Neither are deal breakers, but they aren’t perks, either.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Tech and safety

The redesigned RX is a technological masterpiece. Not only does it feature all of the cutting-edge safety equipment one expects nowadays, but it also offers some interesting tech that you wouldn’t expect. There’s a $200 upgrade that will give you the ability to open the rear hatch by placing either your hand or elbow in front of the Lexus emblem when the key is in your pocket. Pressing the “close liftgate” button twice will lock all of the doors, and there is also a “sway warning” in the gauge cluster that reads your driving habits and will warn drivers if they begin to get drowsy behind the wheel. The 360-degree camera views, LED cornering lamps, customizable info clusters, and a heads-up display that can be reworked to your liking were all fantastic features, and worked flawlessly.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Tech pros and cons

+ From lane keep assist/correction and variable cruise control to automatic braking and pedestrian detection, the RX is about as safe as grandma at a garage sale.

+ The 12.3-inch display is tablet-sized and can be split in two, the heads-up display is 362% bigger and is completely customizable, and navigating through infotainment screens can still be done manually with a mouse, which now has “ENTER” buttons on either side.

+ If nine standard speakers is good, and upgrading to twelve is better, then opting for fifteen Mark Levinson components is undoubtedly the way to go. Pushing 835-watts, and sporting both Clari-Fi (compressed music restoration technology) and GreenEdge (high-efficiency conversion technology for all you audiophiles out there), lows and mids never sounded better.

– No Apple CarPlay or Android Auto … yet.

– Pedestrian avoidance systems only detect humans that are over three feet tall. So puppies, fawns, and babies still have to be avoided the old fashioned way.

– For as great as that massive display is, it’s not touch sensitive. Having the ability to pinch and zoom is a huge selling point for some people.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

The drive

Without getting too nerdy, allow me to explain why the redesigned Lexus RX is so good to drive. Firstly, the chassis is now a stiffer, more agile, double-wishbone affair. In Sport+ mode the dampers and steering firm-up to a level that is similar to what I found on the IS200t. The torque curve may not be astounding and the horsepower isn’t mind-blowing, but when compared to the outgoing version it’s a sharp improvement that only can be bested by the strength of the RX’s clever, eight-speed transmission, futuristic electronic control systems, and all-around outstanding visibility.

Drivers who put the car in Eco mode can enjoy a jump in fuel efficiency as the rear differential disengages, thus allowing the SUV to run exclusively on its front axles while variable cruise control allows them to follow a vehicle at a safe distance. Fun and refined, the RX 350 F Sport is a joy to drive, and since it runs on regular unleaded, you can cheat the pump all the more.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Wrap up and review

After three hours of thrashing in the foothills of North Carolina, the driving dynamics of the redesigned Lexus RX350 are superb if one were to opt for the F Sport model. It’s a car that is built around an ideal blend of aggression and sophistication, where a gorgeous, tech-rich interior is complemented by a ride that can be made as cushy or carnivorous as one wants with the turn of a dial.

Starting at just $41,900 for the front-wheel drive model and sporting a $43,300 sticker price for an all-wheel drive version, the RX350 is far more affordable than you might think. Maybe with a little luck we will see a full-blown “RX F” down the line that comes equipped with two turbos and even more attitude.

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