Glancing at the state of the luxury utility marketplace right now, one is easily able to tell that SUVs, crossovers, and full-size monoliths are an integral part of the landscape. From the aircraft carrier-sized Escalade ESV to the adorable Mercedes-Benz GLA, the same diversity that one sees in the conventional SUV market is alive and kicking in the luxury sector as well. Throughout the explosive growth of leather-clad and chrome-adorned kid-carriers, the Lexus RX has remained a steadfast stalwart and arguably been one of the most crucial players in the evolution of the luxury SUV market. So it’s a pretty big deal when Lexus begins toying with its winning formula.
Since its inception in the late 1990s, the Lexus RX has provided the versatility of an SUV with the trappings of a luxury car for as long or longer than other major manufacturers. It predates the Audi Q5, the BMW X3, the Cadillac SRX, and beat the Porsche Cayenne to the scene by about three years. It seems to have benefited from its early-mover advantage; in its 17 years on the market, few vehicles in its class have been able to touch the sales numbers that the RX has racked up over the last two decades. Since 2005, Lexus has held on to about 25% of the sales of the midsize luxury crossover segment, despite the swell of competitors to 16, Lexus’s Jeff Bracken said at the company’s press conference in New York.
Based on the popular Toyota Highlander, the new RX eschews the more spartan interior for one that oozes class and Lexus’s trademark simple elegance, though it doesn’t forgo its primary purpose: cargo capacity and versatility. It’s still an SUV in every way, but now the RX has updated sheet metal complete with the new, bolder design language that’s simultaneously polarizing its customer base while developing Lexus a reputation as a risk-taker that’s as design-centric as it is reliable.
As one could probably expect, the Lexus now features the brand’s signature spindle grille, in a more prominent and unapologetic manner than before. The hooked headlights that made their introduction on the IS have now made their way to the RX, and the whole package is cleanly defined by a series of sharp creases and angular lines in the sheet metal. The design won’t appeal to everyone, but it’s certainly evident that Lexus is taking its newfound love of design seriously.
There’s a new floating roofline that is quickly becoming vogue, which gives the rear three-quarters an almost BMW i feel to the car. Optional 20-inch wheels round out the package, which overall has a distinctively muscular feel about it that the previous RX models lacked. This is enunciated especially on the RX F-Sport model, which is pictured above in white. We have to say, polarizing or otherwise, it looks quite good.
The stance of the model has improved as well. Something about the new fourth-generation RX makes it look more planted, more balanced. The previous models suffered from that typical top-heavy appearance that is nearly inherent in SUVs, but the new one — which will see showrooms as a 2016 model — eschews that for a more car-esque profile.
For the RX 350 model, an upgraded and more powerful rendition of Toyota’s 3.5 liter V6 is geared to deliver 300 horsepower, making use of direct injection. This is mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission. The RX 450h uses a similar 3.5 liter unit, and when coupled with its electric components, will also produce about 300 horsepower. However, Lexus notes that “all RX engines have been tuned in anticipation of high fuel economy ratings and low carbon emissions.”
Coupled with the newly tuned engines is a slew of content designed to boost both safety and handling dynamics. “The entire chassis has been fortified to provide enhanced straight-line stability and control through turns. The vehicle’s body structure has been strengthened with added stiffness, helping to enhance its handling response while reducing engine and road noise in the cabin,” Lexus said. The RX also brings the Lexus Safety System+, “which can help avoid or mitigate collisions across a wide range of vehicle speeds under certain conditions.”
Inside, the RX is what you’d expect from a top-notch SUV. The design and styling is somewhat toned down from what one might anticipate given the exterior, but the elegance is all there. There’s an available 12.3-inch display with a full-screen map, available heads-up display, and boatloads of tech options if the buyer is willing. Overall, the cabin is clean, well-appointed, and above all, classy. It’s cliché, but there are few better words to convey it.
It’s also larger. Lexus says that rear-seat occupants are treated to more leg and knee space. The RX now also offers heated outboard rear seats, and a 60/40 power folding second row, the company noted. A large, panoramic sunroof is available as an option, and the rear-seat entertainment system now comes with 11.6-inch dual screens for optimal viewing pleasure.
Though radical at first, the RX is a good example of what happens when design language is allowed to mature. The most recent generation of the IS split the auto world into two camps; Lexus’s insistence on bringing its new focus on design to the rest of the lineup has done little to assuage the concerns of those opposed to the hooked-lights and spindle grilles. But as the RX shows, the language seems to be aging well.
With competitors such as the Audi Q5, Cadillac SRX, and Infiniti QX60 showing their age, the Lexus puts a bold and direct foot forward in pushing the segment onward. Pending pricing and fuel economy information, the Lexus seems like it will be a success — and we don’t expect those factors to be disconcerting enough to jeopardize it. We feel that with the new model, Lexus can count on extending its streak in the luxury crossover segment, spindles or otherwise.
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