The 2013 Lexus RX 350 isn't the biggest luxury sport-utility vehicle on the market. It's not the fastest, or the sexiest, or the most practical. It's not the newest, certainly, and it doesn't carry the most cachet. But the Lexus RX is the one that effectively created the luxury SUV segment when it debuted in 1998. And three-and-a-half model generations later, it remains not only the best seller in the class but also the standard by which its rivals are measured.
Still, being at the front of the pack means you're always worried about who's in your rear-view mirror. During the past decade, all four German manufacturers have unveiled high-end sport-utes that sought to poach sales from the RX. More recently and closer to home, the impressively overhauled Acura MDX has emerged as a worthy challenger for leadership of the category. So for 2013, even though it wasn't time for a model redesign, Lexus raised its game.
The most visible upgrade was cosmetic: The 2013 Lexus RX now sports the "spindle" grill that graces all current Lexus models. But Lexus also aimed at broadening the appeal of the sport-ute -- especially to men -- by punching up its performance. So the 2013 Lexus RX 350 F Sport features sharper-edged suspension tuning and an eight-speed automatic transmission along with boy-racer touches such as paddle shifters, aluminum pedal covers and bigger wheels.
Although the Lexus brand has been a huge success ever since Toyota created it in 1989, the luxury-car division has always been dogged by criticism -- largely justified -- that its products tended to be bland, if not boring. In recent years, Lexus has responded to its critics with a series of performance-oriented vehicles, most notably the muy macho IS F sports sedan in 2008 and the 552-horsepower limited-edition LFA supercar two years later.
Lexus now has a portfolio of so-called F Sport models that includes the IS 250/350, IS 250/350C, GS 350, LS 460, CT 200h and RX 350. The goal of the F Sport treatments, says Lexus vice president of marketing Brian Smith, is to "dial up a higher degree of driver engagement." It's no coincidence that men buy 68 percent of the F Sports models. And considering that women account for more than half of all RX sales, the SUV was clearly ripe for an F Sport makeover.
In standard and F Sport form, the 2013 Lexus RX is a handsome, upright two-row sport-utility vehicle that's perfect for small families and aspirational real estate agents. It's powered by a 3.5-liter V-6 that produces 270 horsepower and 248 lb-ft of torque. With 4,510 pounds to motivate, F Sport performance is mild rather than wild, but the engine is creamy, quiet and perfectly adequate.
While the standard RX can be ordered with front-wheel drive, the F Sport is offered only with all-wheel drive. Another upgrade is found in the transmission department, where the standard six-speed has been supplanted by an eight-speed automatic -- with paddle shifts, no less, though it's hard to imagine anybody using them. The two extra gears have little appreciable effect on performance, but they improve fuel economy by 1 mile per gallon.
The 2013 Lexus RX F Sport is equipped with what Lexus describes as "front and rear performance dampers," as well as larger 19-inch wheels, lower-profile 235/55 tires and a recalibrated stability control system. Still, it's difficult to discern much of a difference in ride quality or an improvement in cornering. This isn't necessarily a knock against the RX, which isn't likely to be pressed into track-day duty under any foreseeable circumstances. But it makes the F Sport seem more like a top-of-the-line trim level rather than a separate model.
That said, the 2013Lexus RX F Sport LOOKS noticeably sexier than the standard model. The tasteful and comfortable interior -- black with chrome accents -- is spruced up with white perforation holes in the leather-trimmed seats, lots of white contrast stitching, a black headliner, aluminum pedal covers shiny enough to impress any fan of "The Fast and the Furious" franchise and a unique front bumper. Bigger wheels don't hurt either.
The F Sport is priced at a healthy premium of $6,290 over the base price of the RX -- $41,160, plus a $910 destination fee. But even the entry-level model comes nicely equipped with a nine-speaker audio system, six-CD in-dash music unit, Bluetooth capability and USB/iPod ports. A navigation system featuring a seven-inch screen and excellent software is available. Other options include a Mark Levinson audio system with 15 speakers and a DVD player.
Despite F Sport badges prominently displayed inside and out, most people -- including occasional drivers -- won't realize they're in a unique model of RX. Which isn't a bad thing considering the SUV's perennial popularity, fabled reliability and strong resale value. "The RX has such a loyal following," Smith says. "With the F Sport, I think we've hit the sweet spot."
2013 Lexus RX 350 F Sport
|Engine:||3.5-liter DOHC V-6|
|Horsepower:||270 hp at 6200 rpm|
|Torque:||248 lb-ft at 4800 rpm|
|L x W x H:||187.8 x 74.2 x 66.3 in|
|Curb Weight:||4510 lbs|
|EPA Rating:||18/26 mpg|