Pretty good: The front, interior, side and rear of the Lexus RX have seen some changes that are not only sleek but also sensible, which should keep consumers happy.
This is the fifth generation of the Lexus RX. It’s also the one with which Lexus managed to hit the nail pretty much on the head.
Aside from my opinions, the RX has long been a fixture in the luxury SUV segment, with 3.5 million sales around the world since it initially graced our roads back in the late 1990s — a time when competition was sparse.
The thing is, when some Lexus execs brainstormed the RX in 1993 at a lunch in Nagoya, Japan, there were no luxury SUV competitors to draw inspiration from, no market research to compare it with, and no possible way of knowing if buyers would be keen to swop their luxury saloons for a high-riding, clunky, by-then-standards SUV. They forged ahead with what is widely considered to be the world’s first luxury SUV.
Despite the uncertainty, Lexus took a bold leap of faith and introduced the RX to the Japanese market in 1997 and to the rest of the world in 1998. In hindsight, it’s difficult to imagine anyone calling it “pretty” before signing it off, even compared with its competition at the time — the BMW X5 and Merc ML. But it sure provides perspective as to how far the RX has come in a relatively short time span.
Now, 26 years later, it’s undeniably pretty, given that all the stylistic elements finally harmonise. The 3D spindle grille look is now gone and, instead, it’s interwoven with the bonnet, which Lexus is calling a “spindle body”.
F Sport models receive a markedly sportier front bumper with a splitter effect. From the side, the simplified takeaway is that the RX is the same length as the outgoing model, while the wheelbase has seen a stretch of 60mm.
The range ships with 21-inch wheels, while those on the F Sport models — you guessed it — are of a sportier disposition with a multi-spoke black gloss aluminium finish. The highlights at the rear include the horizontal light bar connected to the taillights, while the characteristic Lexus logo has been swopped for L-E-X-U-S lettering.
Inside, too, there’s a lot to look at. Lexus hasn’t merely refined the cabin to reflect its standing in its segment; it has raised the bar in many areas. The toggle-operated e-latch door handles, for one, serve as a button to open the door, and help maintain the sleek, minimalistic cabin look and feel. But it does take some getting used to on the operational front.
There are quality textured surfaces galore, a 21-speaker Mark Levinson sound system, three-zone climate control, and an intuitive heads-up display that provides real-time driving information while showing the functions associated with the steering-wheel-based controls. There is no need to take your eyes off the road in this SUV.
Then there’s the 14-inch infotainment system that also leads me to the big news — but more on the latter. The infotainment system attempts to consolidate all the less-frequently-used functions related to the car and entertainment systems into a relatively easy-to-navigate interface while keeping all those most-often-used buttons such as volume and cabin temperature in the physical realm with rotary dials. Manufacturers, take note.
The big news? That clunky laptop mousepad-inspired ergonomic nightmare that’s usually found in the most uncomfortable place on the centre console and is only really suited to a left-hand drive market has gone. Want to input a command on the nav? Poke the 14-inch screen. Ditto for pretty much the rest of the functions that are now met with accurate inputs.
On the engine front things are a bit more of a mixed bag and also a bit confusing at first glance. The RX350 designation enjoys the lion’s share in the range since it’s realistically also the designation that will receive the most signatures on the dotted lines.
In terms of pricing, the range opens with the standard RX350 with a 2.4-litre petrol-only turbocharged engine that produces 205kW and 430Nm of torque. The 350 is also available in Lexus’s F Sport trim, which adds all the exclusive sporty facets that complement the overall well-rounded driving experience of this model. The 350 F Sport is the one I’d opt for.
Then there’s the RX350h — yup, the hybrid — that has a 2.5-litre petrol engine paired with an electric motor that takes care of fuel-consuming tasks such as accelerating from a stop before the petrol engine kicks in. No turbocharging, though, so total power output is rated at 184kW with the ICE carrying 140kW of that load. This setup works a treat in and around city streets but venture away from city confines and it’s left heaving thanks to the petrol engine’s torque that is rated at only 239Nm. Still, for daily commutes in busy streets, it makes sense, especially with Lexus claiming it will only sip 5.4 litres per 100km.
At the top rung of the locally available range rests the RX500h F Sport model also with the 2.4-litre turbocharger but producing a total power output of 273kW (202kW from the petrol engine) and 460Nm of torque plus some change from the e-motor. While it’s a 500 minus the often-associated V8 and a shifted focus on performance-meets-efficiency above all else, the four-cylinder and hybrid tandem does an excellent job of spiritedly propelling the RX forwards.
Lexus claims a 0-100km/h sprint time of 6.2 seconds — an impressive feat considering this is also the heaviest variant in the RX range at 2 160kg. Equally impressive is the SUV’s stability during hard cornering, when considering its weight. This can in part be attributed to the all-wheel drive system that employs an independent electric motor and inverter that supposedly balances the torque load between the front and rear axles at any given time.
Lexus plans to launch its RX450h+ plug-in hybrid in November. While we got a short preview drive of the model during a short stint through some populous areas in Cape Town, the general idea is that it’s a best-of-both-worlds solution that’s efficient — we registered consumption in the low 3.0l/100km region — while still having the peace of mind of a petrol engine without range anxiety. The 450h+ has a 2.5-litre petrol engine paired to an 18.1kWh battery.
It’s also what hybrid vehicles should have been from the get-go. The battery can be charged using the in-built self-charger or an Eskom socket while the electric motor provides a standalone claimed range of 65km, obviously dependent on the driving circumstances. It’s possible to drive in battery-only mode up to 130km/h — we took up to 120km/h without any hitches — with the 450h+ automatically switching to its hybrid charging mode once its electric vehicle (EV) range is depleted.
Although the whole experience was relatively seamless and refined, the test drive route erred on the side of short so we couldn’t quite crack the code of switching between different modes such as Auto EV and HV (hybrid vehicle) modes that lets the driver take control when and where they want to use the hybrid setup. In terms of get-up-and-go the RX450h+ touts a system power output of 227kW.
The fifth generation of the Lexus RX stands as a testament to the carmaker’s ever-impressive pursuit of excellence with a good amount of innovation to continuously trailblaze new frontiers of technology. It all started with a lunch in Nagoya nearly three decades ago, and now with the fifth generation of a model that helped kickstart the global luxury SUV craze, Lexus seems to have mastered the art of anticipating drivers’ demands and the art of sculpting an SUV that visually reflects the brand’s premium standing.
• Lexus RX350: R1 424 000
• Lexus RX350h: R1 458 300
• Lexus RX350h F Sport: R1 543 200
• Lexus RX500h F Sport: R1 684 300
• Lexus RX450h+: Pricing to be confirmed.