Lexus RX 350 — Still the luxury leader

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Just a couple of years after Toyota pioneered the car-based small SUV segment with the 1996 RAV4, it broke more new ground introducing the first luxury car-based SUV — the 1999 Lexus RX 300 — creating an industry segment that now includes nearly a dozen vehicles. Fifteen years later Lexus is still the luxury crossover leader. In fact the RX has never relinquished its sales crown by keeping the RX fresh with continual upgrades and meaningful changes.

Last year Lexus sold more than 95,000 copies, more than twice as many as the BMW X5, five times more than the Infiniti JX, and almost twice as many as the Cadillac SRX and Acura MDX.

The RX should continue to maintain its leadership with the freshened 2013 RX 350 that brings it in line with the brand's new design theme, which includes the new signature spindle grille. Lexus has also expanded the list of standard equipment and added a new F Sport package that, in addition to other things, features a sport-tuned suspension and a new eight-speed automatic transmission.

The RX, now in the fourth year of its current iteration, remains a mid-sized modern luxury hatchback station-wagon-like vehicle that appeals to a wide range of individuals including women of all ages who enjoy a quiet interior, drama-free handling, decent performance, and excellent cargo-hauling capability while being pampered with luxury amenities for a relatively affordable price.

Granted, few RX 350s will leave dealerships with a $40,000 price tag, but even at 45-thousand — the price of a popularly equipped model — the Lexus is a bargain in the world of mid-sized luxury crossovers. The RX 350 comes in two basic models, the base version starting at $40,555 (add $1,400 for all-wheel drive) and the F-Sport package (including AWD) beginning at $48,245.

In addition to the upgraded exterior styling, the 2013 RX interior features a redesigned center console, a new steering wheel that Lexus says offers a more comfortable and relaxing grip, metallic glove box accents and a USB iPod/MP3 control.

The RX 350 carries on with a 3.5-liter V-6 producing 270 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque mated to a six-speed automatic. Zero to 60 has been measured at about 7.0 seconds, which is average for the segment. If an emergency stop is required, the Lexus can accomplish the feat in a accident-avoiding 114 feet.

The RX 350 is not a road carver, but it acquits itself adequately in the curves. And it doesn't get the adrenaline pumping on full-throttle takeoffs, but it is sufficiently quick.

What we think sells so many people is performance that's just right for everyday driving from stop-and-go city jaunts, to high-speed freeway merges, to passing slow traffic on a two-lane road. The smooth, even performance seems to be the perfect match for the luxurious and hushed interior environment that can be loaded with all the technological marvels available in today's high-tech "infotainment" marketplace, providing your pocketbook can stand the strain.

Inside, the RX 350 is loaded with upscale appointments and superb fit and finish. Real wood and high-quality leather give the Lexus an exceptional feeling of luxury. We still have qualms about the rather complicated controls when you opt for the audio or navigation packages. Lexus has come up with a mouse-like device to control the screen, and admittedly it works well although it is still aggravating, forcing the driver to become distracted, taking too much attention away from the road even for such simple things as operating the audio system. There are redundant steering wheel controls, and the audio system has user-friendly old-fashioned knobs for volume and tuning.

Rear-seat passengers will find it spacious with excellent leg room. And the seatbacks recline for long-distance comfort. Behind the seats, the RX features considerable storage measured at 40 cubic feet. It expands to 80 cubic feet with the rear seatbacks stowed.

For testing purposes Lexus sent us a RX350 and one with the new F-Sport package. The name connotes increased performance in all aspects of driving, but, alas, we found the differences with the standard RX negligible.

The F-Sport brings some styling tweaks, an eight-speed automatic transmission, firmer "sport-tuned" suspension, and sharp-looking 19-inch wheels. All-wheel drive is standard. But engine horsepower and torque are unchanged from the base RX 350. The downside is that the upgrades come at a rather steep $6,290 premium over the all-wheel drive base model. Our RX350 test vehicle with a Mark Levinson audio system a navigation package and a premium package came to $47,744. The F-Sport with similar packages came to $53,924.

Base price: $40,555; as driven, $53,924
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6
Horsepower: 270 @ 6,200 rpm
Torque: 248 foot-pounds @ 4,700 rpm
Drive: all-wheel
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 107.9 inches
Length: 187.8 inches
Curb weight: 4,510 pounds
Turning circle: 38.8 feet
Towing capacity: 3,500 pounds
Luggage capacity: 40 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 80 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 19.2 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 26 highway, 18 city
0-60: 7.1 seconds (Edmunds)
Also consider: Acura MDX, BMW X5, Lincoln MKX

The Good
• First-class luxury cabin
• Quiet interior
• Refined driving dynamics
• Spacious and comfortable rear seating

The Bad
• Option packages are many and expensive

The Ugly
• F-Sport package pointless