Enduring is an apt description for the Lexus RX series, Japan’s classic soft-roader that seems to have been around for a long time. In fact, the RX300 launched in the United States eight years ago, and the latest RX350 version to go on sale in New Zealand looks essentially the same as the original. For a body style to remain unchanged for that long is an eternity in Japanese motor industry terms. This is a car with aerodynamics tested in a wind tunnel used to develop Japanese bullet trains. So, enduring is the shape and enduring is the faultless build quality and peerless reliability. Yet is this the luxury Sport Utility Vehicle by which others should be judged? Well, not exactly. The sector is fair brimming with makes and models, all jostling for position in a class where the number of buyers is limited.
With Toyota Camry underpinnings, the Lexus four-wheel-drive had somewhat humble beginnings. New Zealand did not see the RX series from day one, although consumers began to get a taste for the car when the odd used import slipped across the wharves. Lexus New Zealand soon found solid demand for the RX330 that notched up 138 new sales last year, making it the biggest selling Lexus model. Volvo managed almost as many XC90s, as did VW with the Touareg, Porsche with the Cayenne and Mercedes with the M-Class. Range Rover sales in 2005 were comfortably in front of the RX330, although the British luxury 4WD challenger is a much more expensive proposition than the Lexus, and one class higher in both cost and versatility. Chrysler’s Jeep Grand Cherokee V8 is not as powerful as the RX330 or RX350 but it is also twenty grand cheaper and likely appeals to a different kind of buyer. A more natural rival is BMW’s X5, a serious luxury SUV contender with less power than the RX in six-cylinder form and a $30,000 higher price tag. These cars are all about image, and the 230 X5 sales last year confirm the BMW has this quality in spadefuls.
Central to the latest Lexus SUV is a brand new 3.5-litre 2GR-FE V6 engine that’s 18 percent more powerful than the 3.3-litre 3MZ-FE V6 used in the outgoing RX330. The first RX300 employed a three-litre V6, was not as quick or as advanced. Now with a healthy 203kW under the bonnet, the RX350 is one of the most powerful cars in the class, and there’s certainly no shortage of urge. Torque has increased by 17 percent from 328Nm at 3,600rpm to 342Nm at a higher 4700 revs – an indication of the new character of the motor. While the original needed nine seconds to reach 100km/h, the RX350 completes the run in 7.8 seconds. No change to the 200km/h top speed, although this is electronically limited and clearly the Lexus would go even faster if it were allowed to. The New Zealand police will be glad it is not.
Lexus claims the RX350 does 11.2 litres/100km (25.2mpg) in the combined fuel cycle and, hand on heart, I averaged 11.3 litres/100km (25mpg) while the test vehicle was in my care. According to the makers, the average fuel consumption is an eight percent improvement on the RX300. The 24-valve aluminium block engine is the first in its segment to adopt dual variable valve timing, an optimised low pressure loss, variable intake and exhaust valve timing system. The impressive power house also boasts hydraulic valve compensators for the roller rocker valve operation and an electrically activated acoustic control induction system. This varies the level of air induction by automatically adjusting the length of the intake pipe according to engine speed. If you have difficulty coping with all these technicalities – and you have a right to be – then simply soak up the smooth and refined performance.
No changes to the five-speed automatic, although a new shift control logic is adopted. Slide the gear lever into the manual mode for a sequential shift, although even then the transmission is still inclined to kick down of its own accord.
Gearing is nicely in tune with long-distance journeys and has the engine loafing along at around 1750 revs in top at 100km/h. A limited slip differential, unavailable on RX330, is now standard. Full-time four-wheel-drive with the new centre diff and viscous coupling provides added capability when the going becomes rough. Yet there’s an on-going feeling this Lexus is definitely a softy, with little desire to get its feet wet or dirty. Refined, comfortable and good riding, the RX350 is not dynamic to drive, nor is it especially agile. While the steering has been reconfigured to provide more direct feel, it is light and somewhat imprecise, even if the turning circle is tight. Eighteen-inch diameter, five-spoke alloy wheels with 235/55 tyres were optional on RX330 but are standard on the latest RX350. Noise and vibration levels were not a problem before, yet are further diminished in the latest version, despite the increase in engine power. The Lexus is quieter at all speeds, following the addition of a new bonnet insulator, a dashboard silencer, enhancements to the exhaust system and a new acoustic windscreen with special inner film that reduces cabin noise levels by up to 3dB.
With lashings of wood and leather as far as the eye can see the RX350 interior is a special place to be. The wood-topped steering wheel attracts the sun’s heat, however. Seating is comfortable, instrumentation is good and the large computer read-out is a sight for sore eyes. I like the foot-operated handbrake that is easy to use and frees up console space, while the large centre storage compartment incorporates a sliding lid operated by two buttons.
Not surprisingly, the RX350 is loaded with equipment as standard, although the excellent Mark Levinson audio adds $3000 to the $89,400 price. A power sunroof is an additional $3000. But the big omission is park distance control front or rear. Many overseas markets also offer a rear view television camera. A non-factory after-market option is available, but the lack of PDC is a significant anomaly in a 4.74-metre long vehicle that has smallish rear windows, large “A” pillars and obvious visibility issues. Still, no knocking the success of this model or the extra card Lexus has up its sleeve. Countering the anti-4WD lobby and making a decisive point among environmentalists
is the RX400h hybrid version with 3.3-litre V6/electric motor power. This is capable of a range of close to 1000km instead of 600km for the regular petrol RX350.
The hybrid RX has been well accepted in the USA and accounted for one out of every three Lexus RX models sold in the UK last year. RX400h is not offered new in New Zealand. Yet. The RX350 is beautifully crafted premium product, comfortable and well priced. But what a pity the car is not more rewarding to drive.