Sharp looks for suave RX

The latest generation of the Lexus RX takes the brand’s design language to an eye-catching extreme. But aside from the fresh styling, how different is it really?


RECONSIDER in a modern light the original RX and the Lexus assertion that this 1998 offer was a true pioneer of the luxury sports utility category seems a real credibility stretch – it just seems far too unassuming to achieve that level of global impact.

The same cannot be said of the latest. Since that first model, which never officially sold in New Zealand (though it has since arrived as a used import), Lexus design of this model has become increasingly bold.

The RX in its fourth generation keeps on pushing design boundaries. As an amalgam of bold origami angles, it has emerged as one of the most sculpted offers in a category where styling shyness is increasingly rare. From the front, where that trademark hourglass grille expresses as super-sized feature spanning the entire face, to a rear end in which the tail-lights look futuristic (and operate similarly, with the indicators operating as progressive LED flashes). There’s also brilliance in the way the roof droops into the C-pillars and seems to hang above the main body.

Will it date well? The outgoing car did, and it wasn’t half as avante garde as this one.

Overtness is in keeping with the L-Finesse ethos, yet with RX there’s potential even to trigger an element of outrage, which would be unusual for a Toyota byproduct but no bad thing all the same when you’re setting out to be noticed.

Lifting the image of Japan’s largest brand and its premium arm is certainly a stated intention of boss Akio Toyoda and perhaps the RX expresses a good example of how determined he is to rid his wares of the conservatism that was costing sales.

Talk is that that when Toyoda-san saw the car in its proposed original saleable state he wasn’t pleased; some of the pizzazz evident in the initial drawings had been diluted.

His response, apparently, was to order the design team to sharpen the edges and crease-lines for a more outstanding, if not startling, effect. The heat was on: A redesign of this magnitude might conceivably take half a year. He gave them just a month. They met the deadline and the result is the design riot we see now.

A captivating shape only carries so far, of course. As always, the RX stands apart within the sector by the choice of powertrain; the provision purely of a petrol and petrol-electric choice is not wholly barmy, but while there is an emergent trend back toward the first the fact is that diesel still prevails as the core choice for most soft-roaders and crossovers. But, as before, there are no plans to give the RX a diesel engine.

The other point of difference comes in useability. No-one expects to find anything from this sector undertaking any kind of serious off-seal work, or perhaps even engaged in heavy-duty towing.

However the RX does reinforce more than most that is potentially rather less disposed toward this than the average diesel option that, if nothing else, might at least be able to rely on decent torque to haul through a tricky situation.

It’s no surprise that the car lacks a low-range or any particular terrain response kit. No brand provides this on the valid assumption no owner will ever need it. And at least now the petrol-electric has the same 2000kg towing capacity as the pure V6, though this limit is still relatively light.

More uncertain is whether the hybrid should be used to entertain any kind of off-seal expedition more arduous than crossing a field or taking on a snowy road, due to the delicacy of components such as the 50kW electric motor that direct-drives the rear axle.

Lexus advice has always been to be wary of water-crossings; a whole chapter of the old car’s handbook was dedicated to why anything much deeper than a puddle was considered risky. Whether that still stands for the new couldn’t be ascertained. The Limited and F-Sport RX450h models I drove lacked their owner manuals and no-one from Lexus NZ could help.

In a way, such an emphatically road-prioritised approach raises the question as to why the RX even continues with all-wheel-drive? Within this new family there is a base model, using the new 2.0-litre turbo four that powers the NX and IS sports sedan, that is purely front-drive, but it won’t gain entry to NZ.

 Lexus NZ says taking that version as well would complicate a range that is already quite fulsome with two powertrain choices – V6 pure and V6 hybrid - and three specification levels. What I think they really mean is that it would upset the carefully calculated pricing structure that allows the cheapest RX, the 3.5-litre V6 petrol RX350, to price just a few dollars above the flagship NX.

That the new RX, in placing from $95,900 through to $125,900, maintains much the same pricing as its predecessor will also comfort the buyer base, given that there’s a chance many eventual owners of the new might have had experience of the old.

That won’t inhibit expectation that it won’t capture conquest business – the thought is that the especially energetic $107,900 RX350 F-Sport is best placed to do this – or reach, if not exceed, the target of 210 sales in 2016, a count that allows it to easily maintain as the second-strongest selling Lexus behind the NX. The Limited trim is likely to pull in the most interest, followed by F-Sport – though one-in-three buyers will be happy to take either model without those trim enhancements. Many might also ignore the $3000 Mark Levinson stereo upgrade.

RX fans intending to maintain allegiance will find that, beyond all the shape-shifting there is still a lot of familiarity for them.

Though up to 40mm higher and 120mm longer, the platform is an extended version of the previous car’s and the engines (and the CVT) are on a second tour of duty, albeit in improved form.

The RX350 3.5-litre now makes 221kW/370Nm, and is also 11 percent more economical, with a claimed combined figure of 9.6-litres per 100km. That’s as result of internal change - ranging from new cylinder heads to the adoption of the Atkinson cycle to save fuel at low loading (like a Prius) – plus the adoption of an new eight-speed gearbox in place of the previous six-speeder.

The same engine is used as part of the RX450h package, and though its detuned to 190kW purely mechanical output the combined petrol and electric effect takes this to 230kW, with maximum torque of 335Nm, a five percent gain. This powertrain runs with a constantly variable transmission but a claimed 5.9 l/100km optimal burn means it is 10 percent thriftier than previous.

That’s impressive for a large and, at between 2085kg and 2210kg, somewhat heavy medium SUV, but it's no better with the best diesels: Though, of course, with a hybrid the emissions are much lower; just 131 grams per kilometre (the petrol rates at 223).

Interestingly, the RX450h maintains with nickel hydride batteries, albeit in a new format that enables better packaging and energy recovery, which might seem a bit retrograde when two potential rivals – the Volvo XC90 and Audi Q7 – arriving next year introduce the next step; lithium-ion battery technology and plug-in recharging and much more energetic full-electric operability.

Lexus New Zealand cannot say when, or even if, the RX – or any other of its hybrids - will achieve that level of technology but contends that if a plug-in were to one day become available it would certainly be put into our market.

Anyway, back to the here and now. No dirt, not even a gravel road, for the drive programme; but plenty of winding roads to test the merits of suspension tuning that differs distinctly between model grades.

The biggest effort comes with the F-Sport, which in petrol form adopts active variable suspension with an extra ‘Sport-Plus’ setting to firm up those adaptive dampers just that little bit more. The hybrid takes an active stabiliser system  designed to minimise roll and ensure stability around bends. It teams with a “roll skyhook control” that creates counter forces on uneven surfaces, such as potholes. Or so says the brochure. It was hard to put a finger on how all this played out on the drive; simply, the F-Sport car’s feel better balanced but firmer, sometimes too much so, than the Limited.

As soon as you set out, though, it’s not the ride per se but the car’s refinement that hits home; it really is a hushed car from within. Our coarse chip surfaces have been the undoing of many a supposedly quiet car on arrival here, but Lexus really seems to have the measure of this supreme challenge. The tyre-generated roar isn’t wholly quelled, but it is very well suppressed. Wind and engine noise is also dealt to in equally exemplary fashion.

Getting to that side of things, the 3.5-litre V6’s responsiveness is enhanced by that quick-witted automatic transmission, but you do need to keep it working within the meaty mid-part of the rev range to maintain good urge. Let the needle fall below 2500rpm and the engine feels flat and less responsive. The hybrid drivetrain works differently again, because it uses the electric motor to fill in those areas where the torque layer thins out, so there’s appreciably more urge, though it doesn’t really feel any faster.

But, then, despite the sporty feel to the suspension, you get the sense this is a vehicle that only wants to take driver fun only so far. There’s no obvious intent to take BMW, Audi or Mercedes scalps.

It’s easy to settle in and enjoy the ride because the interior oozes luxury and quality. The design ethos within follows on from the exterior treatment in its use of curves and shapes, while still managing to be reasonably functional. It’s always amusing how many small buttons Lexus manages to festoon around the place despite having also provided an impressively large (12.3 inch) multi-function central screen.

Oh yes, about that. Lexus still has to achieve continuity or full logic with its Remote Touch Interface. The most recent versions have included a touch pad, which hasn’t wholly appealed, though it’s better than the too-touchy joystick mouse-controlled setup this model has reverted to. Lexus, comes to your senses, study some rival systems and start again.

Provision of an inductive charging pad for suitably equipped smartphones in the centre console is a future-proofing touch, but the placement is not brilliant: The pad is tucked away at the base of the centre console, right where you might throw a spare pair of keys – though you shouldn’t. If the pad is turned on (there’s a tiny switch) and there’s metal-on-metal contact? Well, the warning sticker suggests its best not to go there.

The cabin provides good front and rear occupant space and the boot is big, with 519 litres capacity with the seats up and 1592 litres with them folded down, via boot-mounted levers. No seven seat version is planned. Punctures are accounted for by a space-saver spare tyre.

All RX models get the LSS-Plus safety package that includes a pre-crash system, radar cruise control, lane-keeping assistance and headlights with automatic high-beam, as well as blind spot monitor and rear cross-traffic alert.

Standard kit includes eight-way adjustable seats for the driver and front passenger, heated and ventilated front seats, satellite navigation and a reversing camera (and front and rear sensors), smart card entry and starting, auto lights and wipers and a power tailgate but noticeably absent is a traffic condition alert. SUNA would have been useful indeed to steer us clear of a major motorway bingle that stopped traffic. It’s on some Toyotas but doesn’t come to Lexus because the toff brand has its own system, Enform. But that’s presently inactive in NZ.

In addition to the body kit and special cabin trim, the F-Sport adds a panoramic parking camera, heated rear seats, a wireless Qi phone charger and tailgate that opens when you wave your hand (or any other appendage) over the Lexus emblem on the back.

The Limited brings adaptive high-beam lights, panoramic power roof, power rear seat and that high-end audio system, while dropping the loud styling and trick suspension of the F-Sport.

The F-Sport takes a sports steering wheel with paddle shifters and all the usual badge-specific trim enhancements, plus heavier bolstered seats and a heads up display. The Limited tends toward wood trim and softer leather seats. Trim colours are restricted to a black and two hues that are likely to be considered more challenging: A light tan that shows up marks very easily and a red that could be called ‘blood bath’ (but is officially ‘dark rose’).