Lexus RX350h — Efficient and comfortable

By Jim Meachen Editor

(June 18, 2023) The luxury division of Toyota introduced a car-based sport utility — the RX300 — in March 1998 as a 1999 model. The RX 300 was promoted as the first vehicle to combine SUV versatility and all-road traction with the performance, agility and comfort of a luxury sedan. Crank up the way back machine to the spring of 1998 and I find myself driving the RX300 at a press event on mountain roads that unexpectedly became icy near the Greenbriar resort in West Virginia. The newly minted sure-footed AWD unibody SUV got me down safely after some white knuckle driving.

The RX300 was an instant success after its West Virginia unveiling and it can be credited with creating a new SUV segment that was dubbed "crossover" as other luxury makers jumped in with their own creations. So successful was the RX it soon became the brand's best-selling vehicle, topping 90,000 yearly sales by 2003. In fact, it has been credited by Lexus as the vehicle that vaulted the brand past Cadillac as the best-selling luxury nameplate in the U.S.

Fast forward to 2023 and we find an all-new fifth-generation vehicle that has grown in size and sophistication. One thing that has stayed the same over the years is the RX's popularity. It has remained the brand's best-selling crossover — selling 96,000 units in 2022 — and the best-selling luxury SUV in the country.

The fifth-generation RX may be redesigned, but its not reimagined — a modern evolution of what Lexus customers expect from a mid-sized crossover. Therefore, it should meet the expectations of returning Lexus customers who value a hushed calming interior, a soft suspension that soaks up all road imperfections, and an easy, predictable driving experience. No, the RX won't win over many German luxury SUV buyers, but that's not its mission.

Stylists have taken the fourth-generation design and smoothed it out to good effect. The RX350 still looks much like the outgoing model, but with some noteworthy changes. For instance the very recognizable wide-mouthed spindle grille has been modified and integrated into the sheetmetal. We've never been a fan of the imposing grille, but we think now it takes on a more integrated appearance, not looking as if it was slapped on the front to satisfy the spindle motif.

Interior accommodations have been restyled with a more upscale feel, and the cabin features a large infotainment 14-inch touchscreen in the higher trims (a 9.8-inch screen is standard) with stylish textured fabrics on the upper door panels, rich-looking ambient lighting, open-pore wood trim, and the latest tech features. The cabin is, indeed, a very nice place to reside for long periods of time.

The sharp-looking large touchscreen display is a highlight thanks to its clean graphics and quick responses. Despite the stunning new interior design, the RX does require a steep learning curve with most of its controls immediately familiar. One benefit of the large center display is the extremely-clear backup camera and, if so equipped, surround-view camera system. It makes maneuvering the RX in tight confines a snap.

There are a few head-scratchers, however. The shift lever adopts the unconventional shift pattern used in the Toyota Prius, which had us occasionally selecting neutral when we thought we had drive. Another frustration — the unmarked buttons on the steering wheel. For instance the adaptive cruise control functions are in the head-up display on some trims. Sounds good on paper, but in practice not so good because they can't be seen on a bright day through polarized sunglasses.

The driving position in the RX is easy to tailor to suit a wide variety of body types, and there's enough space in the second row for most adults to be reasonably comfortable. Headroom is a bit on the limited side, especially for taller rear passengers.

In the safety department, Lexus has introduced a new feature called proactive driving assist that is debuting on the RX. It’s “designed to detect objects ahead at higher speeds in order to help avoid a collision.” The system is designed to detect vehicles, pedestrians, cyclists, and upcoming corners by using the RX’s camera and radar. It can provide gentle braking to help control the distance between your vehicle and the one ahead, as well as gentle braking into curves. If you start to get too close to the vehicle ahead, it will actively work to slow the RX down.

It’s similar to how adaptive cruise control system works to keep you from getting dangerously close to the vehicle in front of you although, unlike adaptive cruise control, you will still need to apply the brakes to keep from hitting the vehicle in front of you. We found it a very useful tool in stop and go driving.

When returning customers test drive the 2023 RX350 they won't be disappointed to learn that all trim levels are motivated by four-cylinder engines. That's because the RX350 still offers decent forward momentum with any gas-engine-electric-motor combination, carrying its passengers in quiet comfort.

The model we drove is the hybrid RX350h, which  pairs three electric motors with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine making 246 horsepower and 233 pound-feet of torque directed through a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). The horsepower and torque numbers would lead you to believe that this 4,455-pound model is not particularly fast, and you would be right — 0-to-60 time is just under eight seconds. Slow perhaps, but we found it adequate, and if we owned it our happiest moments would come passing gas stations. Gas mileage is EPA-measured at 37 mpg city, 34 highway, and 36 combined on premium gas.  And the hybrid works when towing small outdoor toys with a capacity of 3,500 pounds.

The RX350 base model is powered by a 275-hp turbocharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine. That model comes with an eight-speed automatic transmission and front-wheel drive as standard with all-wheel drive an option. To get the most performance you will need to step up to the RX500h F Sport Performance. It combines the turbocharged 2.4-liter with electric motors to make 367 horsepower, and utilizes Lexus's Direct4 system to route that power to all four wheels. For comparison it has 0-to-60 performance of around 6 seconds.

Gas mileage with the RC500h is considerably less than the 350h, however, measured at 27 mpg city, 28 highway and 27 combined.

Later in the model year Lexus says it will release a plug-in hybrid model called the RX450h+. Lexus hasn't released any horsepower information on that model.

The RX350 comes in Base, Premium, Premium+ and Luxury trim levels. There is also an F Sport Handling version offering "more engaging driving dynamics" according to Lexus. Our RX350h Luxury edition carried a base price of $58,150. With options the bottom line was $65,600.

Acouple of the more noteworthy options included the outstanding Mark Levinson audio system for $1,160, heated and ventilated rear seats for $680, and a panoramic view monitor for $800.

And one more thing — our test vehicle came with Nori Green Pearl paint, which was a conversation piece. Nea
ly a dozen people during our test week commented favorably on the paint color. If purchasing a new RX350, try to get a look in person at a Nori Green Pearl vehicle — it will make an impression.

Ted Biederman contributed to this review.

2023 Lexus RX360h


Base price: $50,150; as driven, $65,600
Engine: 2.5-liter inline 4-cylinder, 3 electric motors
Horsepower: 246 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque: 233 @ 4,300 rpm
Transmission: continuously variable
Drive: all-wheel
Wheelbase: 112.2 inches
Length: 192.5 inches
Curb weight: 4,455 pounds
Turning circle: 38.8 feet
Towing capacity: 3,494 pounds
Luggage capacity: 29.6 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 46.2 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 17.2 gallons (premium)
EPA rating: 37 city, 34 highway, 36 combined
Also consider: BMW X5 xDrive45e, Lexus NX 350h, Volvo XC60 Recharge

The Good
• Outstanding fuel economy
• Roomy and comfortable
• Full suite of safety aids

The Bad
• Touch-sensing steering wheel controls irritating

The Ugly
• Performance takes a back seat