The beloved Lexus RX is still great — in fact, better, but skip the hybrid

By Jim Prueter

(April 10, 2019) It’s been quite some time since I last slipped behind the wheel of Lexus’ industry-first midsize luxury SUV. Recently, I was again reminded how enjoyable it is to not just spend a day in, but for an entire week of driving.

The RX, sold by Lexus since 1997, was the first luxury-type crossover and was an immediate best seller. It caught the attention of other automakers who were inspired to introduce competing models of their own. More than 20 years later,  RX continues to lead the segment as the top-seller in its class and remains the best-selling vehicle in the Lexus lineup.

The current newly designed RX driven here continues with its success thanks to its strong reliability reputation, exceptional resale value, and its delivery of a luxurious, comfortable and tranquil driving experience.

Last year, for the first time, Lexus finally offered a third row of seats — room for two additional passengers. It’s offered in either the V-6-powered RX 350L with either front wheel or all-wheel drive, or the gas-electric hybrid RX 450hL tested here, exclusively with all-wheel drive.

Overall, vehicle length has been increased by four inches over the five-passenger RX, seating up to seven depending on whether you choose a second-row bench seat or captain chairs. But before you stand up and cheer, you need to know that the new third row is small, and I mean really small. Yes, it’s for kids, but they better be really small kids or it’s a no-go. We don’t think this is the third row Lexus owners have been clamoring for.

The third-row seats are power folding, operated from either the rear or the second row. The second-row captain’s chairs slide fore and aft and recline, making access to the third row easier. But unless those occupying the second row are willing to slide their seat all the way forward, there’s virtually no legroom in the third row. There is a small cargo hold behind the third row for packages and smaller items. Perfect for trips to Target; Costco, not so much.

Aside from the new third row, the new RX continues with the same winning formula that launched it to the top of its class with bank-vault quietness, superb materials with craftsman-like fit and finish, and ample amounts of standard convenience features that made it a best-seller to begin with.

But not everyone will be captivated by its new avant garde styling, with its sharply chiseled body creases, the gaping spindle maw up front, and its compromised rearward visibility given the new roof. Thankfully, that can be helped via the blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert system — optional on the standard RX, standard on our hybrid tester.

Our RX 450 hybrid isn’t offered with an F Sport version like other Lexus vehicles and therefore doesn’t reward drivers with the sharp handling or precise steering found on German competitor offerings. Driving enthusiasts will be less than pleased with performance on twisty roads where its soft suspension quickly gives way to ample body lean and less than confident handling when pushed to its limits in corners. By any measure, it isn’t unsafe, it just doesn’t inspire much confidence. The non-hybrid RX 350 is, however, offered in F Sport with a choice of front-wheel or all-wheel drive.

Under the hood, our 450h is powered with 308 combined system horsepower, paring a 3.5-liter V-6 gasoline engine with two high-torque electric drive motor-generators for strong acceleration and passing performance. Instead of transfer gears and a driveshaft to the rear wheels, the standard all-weather drive system employs a second, independent electric motor to drive the rear wheels when needed to help maintain optimal traction.

We didn’t get the opportunity to give the all-wheel drive system much of a workout given the excellent and pothole-free roads of Arizona where I drove the RX. However, as a fuel saver, the drive mode defaults to front-wheel drive except under heavy acceleration or when front wheel slippage is detected due to wet or slippery conditions, which then sends drive torque to the rear wheels.

My hybrid tester came loaded with just about everything offered on the RX for a luxuriously cosseted experience. Standard seats in our hybrid were heated and ventilated super soft semi-aniline leather – comfortable with just the right adjustment for drivers of all size. The steering wheel is real wood and leather and heated.

Available interior ornamentation includes Matte Bamboo, Espresso Walnut, Matte Linear Dark Mocha Wood, Striated Black Trim, and Gray Sapele Wood with Aluminum. For the Striated Black Trim on the base model, a glossy black three-dimensional embossed pattern is applied to create a high-quality film design with a sense of depth.

Entertainment was provided by the optional 12.3-inch navigation system/Mark Levinson 15-speaker premium audio package and was superb. But rear USB ports, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay aren’t offered, an area where the RX is lacking. But Lexus says they are working on it.

Our major complaint and one we’ve mentioned dozens of time on previous Lexus product reviews is with the overly sensitive and fussy mouse-like controller for the display on the console. It’s outdated, frustrating to use, moves much too quickly and takes eyes off the road for too long a period of time. It takes time and patience to learn and master the system. Thankfully, Lexus includes redundant knobs and buttons for most of the operational system controls and there’s also voice command system that generally worked well.

There’s also an available full-color Heads-Up Display (HUD) incorporated into the design of the instrument panel that can project key information on the windshield to help the driver focus on the road ahead.

Standard safety features include 10 airbags, plus dynamic radar cruise control, a backup camera, lane-keep assist, intelligent high-beam control and a pre-collision warning system with pedestrian detection. The Lexus Enform Safety Connect and Service Connect systems are now complimentary for 10 years of vehicle ownership. Our tester also came with the optional blind-spot and rear cross-traffic monitoring, parking assist and a panoramic view monitor.

Our overall take on the RX is that it’s a luxuriously enjoyable vehicle to drive. Soft, quiet, and comfortable. But we felt the hybrid powertrain doesn’t add to the enjoyment of the vehicle or the luxury experience. It feels like old technology. True, the gas mileage is very good but it comes with a cost and the lack of a true harmonious connection between the gas and electric motors and old-tech batteries. And the CVT transmission isn’t enough for me to recommend the hybrid version. Further, there’s very little pure electric driving with the vehicle. Still, the added fuel economy is legit.

Vital Stats
Base Price: $54,655
Price as Tested: $63,765
Engine: 3.5-liter gasoline V6 connected to two electric drive motors for 308 total horsepower with a CVT automatic transmission
Fuel Economy: 29-mpg city – 28-mpg city – 29-mpg overall
Seating: Up to 7

Crash Test Ratings: Highest possible 5-star from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and “Good” rating for all crashworthiness tests from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

Where Built:  Miyawaka, Fukuoka, Japan

Competes With:
Audi Q7
Land Rover Range Rover Velar
Lincoln Nautilus
Mercedes GLE
Volvo XC90

Fab Features:
Comfortable, luxurious interior
Good gas mileage
Excellent reliability ratings and resale values