2016 Lexus RX 350: In praise of (some) personality

By Christopher A. Sawyer
The Virtual Driver

(May 8, 2016) It was time to see if the positive feelings created on the launch drive of the new RX would carry over to everyday life on familiar roads. Once the most conservative member of the Lexus family (next to the nearly somnambulant ES 350), the RX nevertheless accounts for more than 100,000 sales each year, and has sold two million copies since its introduction in 1998.

Based on those numbers alone, you could understand the reticence to mess with a recipe that had brought so many sales and so much profit to Toyota.

This dance with dullness could have continued indefinitely had not the number of luxury crossover entries nearly quadrupled, cutting the RX’s market share in half from its high of 30%. But as the rest of the Lexus lineup added spindle grilles and sharp character lines across increasingly bold shapes, the RX had to change in order to keep up. In doing so, it borrowed heavily from its NX little brother, upsizing the “Origami Samurai” styling, and adding its own distinctive C-pillar graphic.

Inside, the makeover was nearly as dramatic, though Lexus designers realized the need for restraint when laying out a luxury crossover’s interior. Unfortunately, the padded leather surfaces are still underpinned by a foam that is squishy and soft, and the stitching along the door panels is meant to add a sense of style by crossing one line of stitching over another, but looks like a sewing mistake.

However, this is the depth of the faults with the design of the RX 350’s interior. The cabin is classy, quiet and comfortable, and does a great job of integrating the infotainment screen into the interior design. Rather than flush mount or box or otherwise frame the 8-inch LCD screen, it sits atop the instrument panel where it visible by all. Direct sunlight has little effect on readability, and the design does away with mechanisms to raise or lower it while not looking like a tacked-on afterthought.

In fact, this idea of planning and finesse permeates the RX at every level. The body is lighter, stronger and more rigid, which provides a stronger base for the thoughtfully revised suspension. Ride harshness has been reduced, but not at the expense of ride, handling or steering feel. And if there is one thing that should stand out in that sentence, it is that the RX 350 has steering feel. You can tell that the steering wheel (a $450 heated unit with Espresso Walnut trim) is attached to the front wheels, and inputs cause reactions that are felt as well as seen.

Even more amazing, turning the Driver Mode Select controller to “Sport” doesn’t ruin the fun by making the steering artificially heavy. As with the throttle response, which also is controlled by this unit, the change comes in small increments, not giant steps. If it was locked in this setting, few drivers would feel that it was out of place with the RX 350’s personality.

Personality is something the RX has in its latest iteration. It’s no longer the shy accountant or librarian hiding behind thick-rimmed glasses and afraid of its own shadow. Rather, it blends tasteful luxury with a more extroverted style, and adds a touch of personality without sacrificing subtlety or finesse.

An Audi or BMW, a Cadillac or Mercedes it never will be, but it is the best RX 350 to date, and that’s saying something.

The Virtual Driver